Empowering Refugees for a Brighter Future

A professional development program that equips and inspires refugee youths

Ruth Education Center students taking a group picture after an Educational Games Carnival
Ruth Education Center Students
Client Ruth Education Center
Team OBED Team, The Collaboratory
Role Project Lead, UX Researcher, Content Strategist


Design and develop a program to help Burmese refugee youths improve their future prospects in Malaysia.
Opportunities for Business and Educational Development (OBED), a holistic professional development program for Burmese refugee youths to hone their business acumen and grow as societal leaders.

Funded by the Mulberry Foundation and Messiah College, this program now impacts at least 300 refugee youths in Malaysia every year.

The Context

Imagine having to leave your family, home, and country for a foreign place as a child. This is the reality of the Burmese refugee youths we serve.

The idea for the Opportunities for Business and Educational Development (OBED) project was conceived in 2013, when I became dedicated to listening to the “invisible voices”—the voices of those who were unable to speak for themselves, who were invisible in the eyes of society.

My desire to improve the situation of Burmese refugees in Malaysia stemmed from an earlier encounter with them in 2011, when I co-organized an educational games carnival for 80+ refugee children and youth together with Malaysian Care and Methodist College Kuala Lumpur. During the event, a sixteen-year-old boy expressed his interest in furthering his studies. His education level was that of a twelve-year-old because his refugee status restricted him from enrolling in any formal educational institutions. At that time, little could be done to help him. However, this incident lingered in my mind, and two years later, it was time for me to act.

The Challenge

After much discussion with leaders of refugee agencies and refugees, we concluded that one of the most practical ways to improve the future prospects of refugee youth was to hone their business acumen and leadership skills. Thus, project OBED was born.

The Approach & The Results

Focusing on the User

Since the beginning, OBED focused on developing a program and user experiences that best fit the needs of refugee youth. As a six-member interdisciplinary team, we conducted quantitative and qualitative studies during each product phase to gain insights into these youth’s behaviors, attitudes and emotions.

Concept Phase

To shape OBED’s mission, we interviewed Ruth Education Center leaders and facilitated focus group discussions with 25 refugee youths. We chose to conduct focus group sessions instead of one-on-one interviews with the youths to overcome time constraints and language barriers. Participants who were more fluent in English naturally helped with translating and moderating, thus enabling us to gather data from all participants.

In parallel to the qualitative studies, we designed and conducted quantitative surveys to understand our users’ backgrounds, interests, and skill sets. We then triangulated the data to deepen and strengthen our insights.

The user studies confirmed the potential usefulness of our program: all of our participants stated that they were keen on improving their business acumen as it would help them secure jobs.

More importantly, these studies revealed the real requirements of our program. We identified that in addition to improving the business acumen of these youths, the program needed to be holistic—to help the youths forge identities and shape their purpose in life—and to be financially sustainable by the Ruth Education Center.

To ensure that the program improved the business skills of the refugees and was holistic and financially sustainable, we designed it such that:

(1) Students would sharpen their business acumen through lessons and projects.
(2) Students could give back to society by organizing an educational carnival for their younger generation.
(3) Students would organize a fundraising event to not only hone their business skills, but also to financially facilitate the program.

Development Phase

Throughout the development phase, we tested our products and kept our partnering organization in the loop. First, we used role-play within the team to identify major design and content problems in our program. Next, we obtained feedback on our lesson plans and curriculum from experienced educators. Finally, we delivered quality minimum viable products to the Ruth Education Center for further review and testing.

One of the problems we discovered through user testing was that teachers faced difficulties in assessing whether students had achieved the lesson objectives as our lesson plans did not always include measures of learning outcomes.
To address this issue, we rephrased our lesson objectives to contain measurable action verbs. For example, we rewrote the objective: “to learn about Agile project management” as “to draw a diagram illustrating the basic tenets of Agile project management.”

Deployment Phase

We included surveys and evaluation forms for students to fill out after completing major phases of the program, and we trained the teachers to incorporate students’ feedback in subsequent lessons and activities.


In partnership with the Ruth Education Center, the OBED team designed and developed a professional development program that includes an instructor’s guide, lesson plan outlines, and a student workbook. The Ruth Education Center plans on implementing this curriculum among its core classes each year in order to impact generations of students.

Four years ago, I was inspired to further help Burmese refugee youths in Malaysia when I co-organized an educational carnival for them. Two years ago, OBED was birthed. And it’s absolutely beautiful that these same youths are now paying it forward and organizing similar carnivals for their next generation.

A large group of children and youth paying attention to the emcee
Refugee children and youth attending the educational games carnival
Children playing a pinball machine handmade from wood
Children playing a handmade pinball machine
5 participants navigating magnets through paper-based obstacles
Participants navigating magnets through obstacles
The OBED Team—a team of six individuals
The OBED Team—a team of talented and diligent individuals that I’m honored to work with and serve alongside