RAEESAH KHAN (b. 1993)
FOUNDER, REYNA MOVEMENT
Trigger warning: Mentions of sexual violence involving a minor.
Raeesah Khan got her start in activism when she was 17 with her University student union. Subsequently, her interest in socially conscious work brought her to Kuala Lumpur working for an Australian-based non-governmental organisation in 2016. While working on a research project for the organisation, she met 14-year-old Rabia (not her real name), a Rohingya child trapped in a forced marriage and a victim of rape. Rabia had an infant child and was pregnant, but even in those circumstances, she was extremely resourceful. To save money, she sold Faan, a betel nut concoction, to her neighbours from her apartment stairwell. Raeesah helped her grow her savings to extricate herself out of the marriage. Eventually, with the involvement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Rabia and her children were able to resettle in Canada.
In 2018, Raeesah decided to set up Reyna Movement to formalise the programmes she was working on which were centred around empowering women. Initially involved in the Rohingya Refugee School in Kuala Lumpur, the organisation moved its operations to Johor to serve the larger refugee population there, as well as women from low-income backgrounds. Its centre in Johor runs programmes related to psychosocial wellbeing, development, food support and counselling. Last year, Reyna Movement also published Recipes of Resilience, a book of stories and recipes from Rohingya women living in Kuala Lumpur. Royalties from the sales go back to the women in the community.
Raeesah runs an accelerator programme called Reyna’s Entrepreneurship and Accelerator Programme (REAP) with entrepreneur Liyana Dhamirah. The year-long programme trains and supports Malay and Indian women from low-income backgrounds who need help with their businesses. These women, Raeesah says, tend to make less effective decisions because of bad advice from people around them or opportunities they do not have access to.
Says Raeesah: “Accelerators are not open to women from marginalised backgrounds. Even in Singapore, they are very exclusive spaces, and they’re not accessible to the women that I want to work with.”
Currently based in Singapore, Raeesah also has the support of Whitney Tan, the executive director of Reyna Movement who runs the operations and finance side of the business. During this circuit breaker period, the centre is closed but Raeesah keeps in touch with the community back in Johor via WhatsApp, and has someone on the ground to do grocery runs.
Raeesah grew up in different parts of Asia and Australia, where she attended both international and local schools. It was in Indonesia that she became aware of her privilege, when she saw how her friends lived in cramped quarters. “That was the first thing that really pushed me into wanting to make this a fair and equal world,” she says. “I’ve had all the opportunities afforded to me. That’s why I’m so passionate about this, because I want to use my privilege for good.”
To know more about Reyna Movement, visit www.reynamovement.org.
Image: (Left) Raeesah Khan and (Right) Whitney Tan