KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 8 — Shereen Ajani Abigael has always been curious about life and is constantly looking to improve herself.
In fact, growing up the Orang Asli woman wanted to go to a school where she could meet people of other races.
But she was disappointed when she was sent to an Orang Asli primary school where she only got to mingle with her own community.
“I was surrounded with my own type of people, which made me feel isolated from the rest in other villages and urban areas,” said the 26-year-old.
She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in law at Universiti Malaya.
Shereen is part of the Temuan ethnic group from the urban neighbourhood of Desa Temuan in Damansara Perdana, Selangor.
She eventually managed to attend a “normal” secondary school, where met people from other ethnic groups.
“It was a culture shock for me to suddenly find myself in between Malays, Chinese and Indians,” she said.
But her excitement was short-lived when she became the victim of bullying in school.
“I think I was vulnerable to become a victim of bullying because of my appearance as an Orang Asli.
“I also didn’t have a religion, so many students started questioning me about my beliefs, ethnicity and way of life,” she said.
Shereen added that most of her schoolmates were in the dark about the Orang Asli community and had very little knowledge about them.
“All they know was the common misconception that Orang Asli people are like African tribes living in the jungle.
“I was also called various terms such as ‘sakai’ and ‘jakuns’, which are used in a discriminatory manner to describe me as someone who lives in the jungle.”
Because of the discriminations and bullying, Shereen said may Orang Asli students tend to drop out of school and never continue their studies.
“When I started going to school, I was with 20 other Orang Asli students but due to constant bullying, some of them stopped attending classes.
“I remember only five of us ended up going for SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia) examination,” she added.
Determined to excel in her studies, Shereen finished her SPM with nine A’s but was encouraged by her parents to find a job rather than pursuing undergraduate studies.
“My parents didn’t recognise the value of education and persuaded me to find a job after SPM.
“Their mindset is that, we should finish high school and find a job to support the family,” she said.
Following her parents; advice, she joined a construction company to work as a sales coordinator and site supervisor for three years.
One day when she was driving back home from work, Shereen stumbled upon a group of Universiti Malaya students who were running some social engagement activities in Damansara Perdana.
Intrigued to find out more about their initiative, Sherrin approached them and learnt that they were helping the community by teaching them mathematics, English and some other subjects.
“That caught my attention and made me think that I should also do something for my community.
“I notice that my community is somehow left behind in terms of education, living standard and economy, hence I thought that there must be somebody to be their role model and prove to them that they can become successful,” she said.
To do so, Shereen quit her job and enrolled herself at Universiti Teknologi MARA to do her foundation in law.
After obtaining excellent results, she was granted a scholarship by the Orang Asli Development Department to pursue her undergraduate studies at Universiti Malaya.
“Hopefully one day I can be the voice of my community and be able to empower them,” she said.
Shereen recently finished her first semester with a cumulative grade point average (CGPA) of above 3.6 with a goal to be able to pursue her post-graduate studies abroad in the future.