Sabrina Qistina: Protecting nature and prioritizing education to improve our lives

Sabrina Qistina: Protecting nature and prioritizing education to improve our lives

Sabrina Qistina, 17, Malaysia

Where I come from, ‘apa khabar’ means ‘hello,’ rice comes in banana leaves or newspaper packets and a perfectly understood sentence can be formed in three different languages.

Apa khabar, my name is Sabrina Qistina and I am 17 years old. Growing up in Malaysia, it is no surprise for any local to be deeply connected to nature. We are surrounded with green forests, silky blue waters and miles after miles of wildlife wherever we go.

When I was younger, on the weekends, my father and I would fish by lakes during the day and hike through forest trails during the night. When my father passed away two years ago, from the daily toils of working too hard and losing a hard-fought battle to a heart disease, I was struck with the realization that not all things last.

I started thinking about what I own and what will really live on and I have come to the realization that I can only claim little pieces of memories I have made with my father in my mind and in my heart. From then on, I was more determined than ever to fight for the preservation and protection of the environment.

During my gap year this spring, I was one of the 11 Malaysian alumni to fly to Borneo to work with Raleigh International, an international organization that gathers youth from all around the world to work relentlessly toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by providing access to safe water and sanitation, protecting vulnerable environments and building resilient communities in Borneo, a giant island in Southeast Asia.

For three weeks, I stayed in a rural village where basic needs, especially water sanitation and hygiene, were absent. The earthquake that struck Ranau, Sabah, back in 2015 left a long and strong impact on the village eith impacts still felt today. Working alongside my two friends from Belgium and England, we conducted a risk assessment of the dams and pipes that supply water to the whole village and made use of our knowledge from our hometowns to solve the environmental conflicts and issues that the village was facing.

Within the three weeks, we have established an underground network of pipes from three mountainous sources, directly connected to households and to a tank that stores water during dry seasons. Other than installing a gravity-fed water system and building a ‘tandas’ (toilet) for the village, we brought clean water and sanitation through improving access to water and sanitation facilities and providing activities and advocating sessions within the community to raise awareness about the dangers of unsafe water.

Living in that community and learning about how their customs and climate are affected by the lack of water made us reconsider the importance we place on clean water back home. I also trekked through Borneo’s rainforest for the next 17 days, learning to survive off my rucksack every day and being completely submerged in nature, which exposed me to some of the incredible gems this planet has to offer and taught me about the importance of its protection. I saw and experienced climate change happening in one part of the world for about two months. That was enough for me to keep fighting for our planet.

As a high school student, I worked to bridge differences between diverse communities. I co-founded a student body initiative called Humans of Nobel that tells the story of students and teachers simply through a picture and a caption. Seeing my high school as a big, complex puzzle where everything is connected, I started connecting the pieces through Humans of Nobel that slowly gained accolades in and out of the school.

I solidified my leadership skills by creating spaces and platforms for honest dialogue and the exchange of ideas through my humble position as head girl in my school. I had the opportunity to organize a youth-led charity project at a soup kitchen in 2015 that provides people from orphanages, retirement homes and lower-income neighborhoods to celebrate the Chinese New Year, a significant Chinese festival celebrated at the turn of the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar to rectify the people’s misfortunes.

Education, however, has always been my passion. I believe that education is the driving force resolving issues of poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and environmental degradation. I started my journey in education in 2013 by co-founding an independent school-wide newspaper, The Nobel Nasi Lemak, when my friends and I realized that there was a complete lack of journalistic publications written exclusively for teens by teens in school. In 2016, The Nobel Nasi Lemak gained national recognition and was later documented on a youth channel on national television, inspiring young Malaysians to push forward the same idea in their schools.

My zeal for writing carried on until 2016 when I was selected to be a national teen journalist of the Starstruck! Young Writers Programme. Mixing popular culture with social justice and politics, the program amplifies the voices of teenagers by producing articles, writing short stories, and sharing interviews – regardless of gender, race, and sexual orientation. Being read in all 13 states in the country, Starstruck! is also the first social justice platform that directly caters to teenagers all over the nation, and I was fortunate enough to be able to address many significant issues that are often overlooked in Malaysia.

Coming from a country where having the desire to attend college after high school is not a norm, I can speak on behalf of every child in Malaysia that quality education is not a gift, but a story of a parent's sacrifice and dedication. The first time I knew I wanted to be an advocate for quality education was during the 7-week sustainable development expedition in Borneo when I taught English to a group of eager indigenous children and saw their faces lit up in awe of learning a new word. Not only do I want to focus on "marginalized" groups like the urban and rural poor, but also children with learning disabilities who do not receive enough physical, mental and emotional support from public schools.

I would set myself three objectives during my time as a delegate at the Youth Assembly. I would represent young people from Malaysia and ensure that youth voices were present during proceedings of the week after gathering voices, opinions, and ideas of young people all around Malaysia; become an advocate and discuss with other delegates on how to meet our global challenges and opportunities; as well as to share my experiences and views on the sustainable development agenda and how we Malaysians and young people around the world want to be involved in this change.

The U.N. goal of uniting delegates from all around the world to join hands and change the world for the better thrills me – and I want to contribute to this movement in every way I can – by giving a plurality of ideas and opinions from the other side of the world that make the collective better. I believe the Youth Assembly at the United Nations are the best link I have to achieve these dreams for myself, Malaysians and every other person in the world who believes we all deserve better.

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