Raeesah Khan, 26, Founder of Reyna Movement
Growing up, CLEO Change Maker Raeesah remembers watching her mother volunteer at shelters and orphanages. She had even celebrated her own birthdays there with other children.
Today, the 26-year-old mum of one wonders if that laid the foundation for the work she’s doing now.
“My mother never made helping other people seem like it was a big deal. When I had my birthday celebrations at the orphanage, it wouldn’t be about me—it’d be about having a celebration with other children.”
“So I was always aware of the fact that I’ve lived a very privileged life. I lived in a safe neighbourhood, I had a good education and I was given opportunities. There wasn’t a time when I felt like I didn’t have enough.”
As such, Raeesah lets on that she feels a sense of duty to give back in whatever way she can.
Women empowering women
Three years ago, she started Reyna Movement, a non-profit organisation that runs workshops and vocational programmes to empower women, especially those from underprivileged communities. They also run courses on self-development, conflict resolution and confidence-building.
Reyna is derived from the Spanish word for “queen”, which Raeesah feels is symbolic of the movement.
“Our core principle is to bring women up. We treat our beneficiaries as partners, and they’re constantly involved in our conversations, such as where to invest our resources in.”
The organisation also runs an initiative that provides educational and financial support for Rohingya refugees in Kuala Lumpur.
She had first learnt of the plight of the Rohingya people when she met a family of refugees in Australia in 2014, where she was pursing her degree in economics and marketing. She helped them with resettling and found the work meaningful.
That sparked something in her, and she started looking into ways she could be more involved in empowering marginalised communities. She first went on a service trip to Aceh, then to KL, where she conducted more research and consultations on the ground. She spent a year on that, as well as starting smaller initiatives to distribute food and menstrual products to the refugees.
Today, Reyna Movement has two projects running: Project Ria and Project Kakak dan Adik. The latter is an initiative for Rohingya women and children who are seeking refuge in KL. One of its key products is Recipes of Resilience, a compilation of stories and recipes from these Rohingya women. They receive royalties from the book, and additional proceeds are channelled into a health fund for them. Meanwhile, Project Ria involves initiatives related to helping women in Singapore.
Learning from failure
While Raeesah always knew she wanted to give back, she never realised that working in the non-profit sector was her calling until her first major failure.
Before Reyna Movement, she was the general manager of Seri Restaurant—a business that her father, former presidential aspirant Farid Khan, set up and made her in-charge. The restaurant didn’t do well. She recounts how she faced the fear of failure every day, and how she learned the hard way that not all investments are good investments.
The restaurant eventually closed its doors in July 2017.
“It was a life-changing moment for me. I realised that working with non-profits is what I’m good at. My strength is in working with communities and forming partnerships and relationships with people in a way that’s not profit-driven. That’s what I took away from it,” says Raeesah.
Fighting the good fight
Having been involved in activist work since she was 17, Raeesah is no stranger to fighting for justice.
The first cause she fought for was against the deregulation of tertiary education fees in Australia, where she studied. At that time, there was a push for a legislation to remove that regulation, which would have allowed universities to set their own fees. This raised concerns that some courses would cost vastly more in the future, and so it was met with protests across the country. She attended one of the marches, campaigned for the cause, and rallied people to join her. Eventually that legislation didn’t come to pass.
“It made me realise that policy change is possible if people are vocal about it,” she says.
And even though she recognised that her strength lies in her activism and humanitarian work, Raeesah acknowledges that the fight can get exhausting and frustrating—especially when change isn’t happening fast enough and you’re witnessing first-hand how it’s affecting people.
“But it’s important to remember that what’s worst, is not doing anything,” she concludes.
Photography: Brendan Zhang
Styling: Cheryl Chan
Hair: Ash Loi
Makeup: Keith Bryant Lee
Styling Assistant: Melissa Lee