Since graduating with a degree in medicine last year, Nadirah Babji has found herself at the frontlines of the Syrian refugee crisis several times.She has travelled to Turkey, Greece, Serbia and other parts of Europe to provide medical aid and disaster relief as a volunteer. Prior to that, she coached school sports teams in Kenya, helped fundraise for an NGO in Tanzania and taught English in orphanages in China, Indonesia and India.
However, the 26-year-old from Bandar Sunway admits she grew up largely ignorant of the world around her.
Growing up in a small PKNS (Selangor State Development Corporation) flat and the eldest of seven siblings, Nadirah was more focused on avoiding bullies while studying hard to obtain scholarships to fund her education.
After scoring all ‘A’s in her SPM results, she qualified for a government scholarship to study medicine in Bangalore, India in 2011. Travelling across India by herself is what sparked her penchant for relief and community work.
Realising such needs in the places she had visited, she would stay a few extra days to offer whatever help she could.
“When I helped them, people would offer me to stay at their homes. The longer I stayed, the more I felt part of the family and part of the community.
“I got to talk to people, listen to their stories and learn about how they think. I really enjoyed that,” the chirpy Nadirah (photo) told Malaysiakini in an interview.
After graduating as a doctor, she embarked on an “epic” volunteering trip to Africa, and then to the Middle East and Europe in the Syrian refugee crisis while awaiting her housemanship placement in Malaysia.“I used up all my scholarship money and travelled as cheaply as I could.
“I stayed in hostels and I couch-surfed. When I was in Europe, I ate once a day,” she said.
Her work has caught the attention of various NGOs, who have engaged her to help set up medical facilities in disaster zones.
On Dec 12, Nadirah will be funding her way to Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh to help upgrade a medical clinic for Rohingya refugees there.
Here, Nadirah relays her experiences in her own words.
WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED at the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, the living conditions of the refugees were really, really bad; many of them were sick.
One man I met had just had a kidney transplant one month back and he was suffering from severe pain. But we could not get any medication for him because the Turkish government did not want to give any to the refugees.
I was the only medic available in my first week. I did a lot of acute healthcare like attending to fevers and colds. I also did a lot of dressings of wounds. Many people had been walking for a whole month from Syria and many did not have proper shoes, so they had frostbite. Before that, I had never seen frostbites because I lived all my life in Malaysia and India, where it is hot. I had to call someone to ask how to do dressings for frostbites.
One man told me how there was a sniper at the Turkish-Syrian border. Whenever someone crossed the border, the snipers would shoot at you, he said. So what they did was gather 1,000 people and just pack everyone to cross the border together. They would still shoot you, but the chances of you dying are lower. Another way is to go through the mountains; families would choose to go through the mountains.
At the camps, everyone was wearing life jackets as they had to walk to the crossing area to take a boat to Greece. But I never saw across the border with my own eyes, because they only did it at night. Their objective was to set foot in Europe.
A mother was crossing the sea to Greece two day after delivering a baby. A Turkish hospital had released her one day after she delivered, without any pain medication. I could not do anything except call someone on the other side to tell them about the situation, that there was this mother crossing with a one-day-old baby.
TOWARDS THE END of my one-month stay in Turkey, there was an urgent cry for doctors to help out at the Greek-Macedonian border. At the time there were 20,000 to 30,000 Syrian refugees stranded at the border. It was a real catastrophe.
In March 2016, I decided to go to Greece along with two nurses from the US. We joined a Greek NGO called Kitrinos and they had this ambulance, which they modified into a mobile clinic. The bed was used as an examination bed and the back doors of the ambulance had all the sheaths for medicines and stethoscopes. We moved around in that ambulance to open up clinics, and people would queue up for them.
I WENT BACK TO GREECE in June last year. This time, the Greek government had closed the camp I was working in and they had evacuated everyone into military camps. So I had to move there too.
In the mornings, I would do follow-ups and I would go around the camps and check my patients’ blood pressure and if they had any chronic conditions. I even spent one week living in the military camp. I slept in my friend’s tent.
IT IS HELPFUL TO BE MUSLIM when you are helping refugees who are also Muslim. But when you help, you are human first and you help regardless of race or religion.
In Greece, I worked as a mediator between the refugees and the other volunteers, who were mostly European. I could answer when they asked why the refugees were wearing their winter clothes even though it was summer time and many people had already fainted from heat stroke.
I explained that we needed to give them clothes with long sleeves for modesty’s sake.
IN SERBIA I helped an NGO set up their medical operations for the influx of Syrian refugees there.
I think it’s a great thing to be given so much trust by these NGOs and to be involved in decision-making. They take my words seriously. I think a lot of people do not take 26-year-olds seriously.
After that, I went Germany, Belgium and Bulgaria to visit some of my Syrian friends who have been relocated there. I traced them and went to see them. They are doing well and some of them have learned so much German that they have forgotten how to speak English!
VERY FEW OF MY PEERS are interested in doing humanitarian work like this. There is a lot of need, and there are always calls for doctors to help.
For me, I always think how it would be if my mom and dad were the ones who were the refugees. I am not from a rich family, so I know what it feels like to not have the things you need. It is hard enough to be poor in your own country, but it is different to be poor in someone else’s.
MY EXPERTISE IS DISASTER RELIEF AND HUMANITARIAN AID. Plus, I am a qualified doctor, so it is best that I do medical aid. What I learned when working in Greece is that you can serve communities best when you do what you know best.
I follow the refugee situation that is in Malaysia quite closely and I think the issue here is more about advocacy and getting refugees their rights rather than disaster relief. This is because we have not signed the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) 1951 refugee convention.
NEXT, I will be spending one month beginning Dec 12 at Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh to help an NGO set up a clinic for Rohingya refugees.
Presently, the clinic only has four walls and is very small. It needs private rooms and a proper examination bed, even if it is just for primary health care. This will be my first time working with the Rohingya.
I am quite excited to learn what is going on, there because I think the refugee crises in different places have very different scenarios. I think it might be very challenging, especially when human rights are not so well established in that part of the world as compared to Europe. I am really looking forward to it.
Financing my trip has been a challenge. My target is USD1,000 (approximately RM4,080), but so far I have only collected RM500. My hope is once I get there, people would donate more because they can see me do things.
MY DREAM is to set up my own search and rescue team and be able to go to disaster zones. This is my passion.
Once I started working with refugees, I realised that this is what I want to do in life.
Beads of sweat break out on Linda Iskandar’s forehead. Amid the serenity of the Christmas displays at the mall, she’s carted along her two kids, six and 12, dressed in matching blue T-shirts.
Linda had walked over from her house, about 10 minutes away on foot. She considers herself lucky to have found a new home within walking distance of her place of work and her sons’ school. But as with everything else in the city, convenience doesn’t come cheap.
In August last year, Linda and her sons left home. Her friend, who had once sought refuge at the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) shelter, had called her a taxi. Linda only had time to pack two bags, RM15 and some buns to get them through the night. She left her computer, tablet, broken mobile phone, and her favourite sci-fi novels behind.
Linda hasn’t gone back since. Her friend told her that nothing much of value is left in the house, after debt collectors paid a visit. They took everything and put it up for sale. Only her old passport was left.
“I couldn’t stand it anymore,” she says. “I didn’t have any food at home. I was working at the time, but I had to quit my job.
“I don’t know what happened, people were coming to my house. They wanted money from me, and said he (the husband) borrowed something from them. They threatened to take my sons.”
Linda, 45, took shelter in WAO for about two and a half months. When she was there, she participated in the creative writing workshop conducted by Bernice Chauly. Now, she’s here representing domestic violence survivors at the book launch of “Tina’s Journey,” reading a poem of her own at the event.
“I am not afraid to speak out. Most of the women are shy. Not shy, they are still ashamed of what happened to them.
“But this thing needs to be voiced out. It happens everywhere, but nobody is talking. I know there are still people suffering, they are just keeping it quiet,” she says.
It is hard to believe that this confident woman with a brilliant smile and a sharp sense of humour barely looked people in the eye in her 12-year marriage.
‘I feel ashamed’
“It is the way we are brought up,” Linda says. “Women, no matter how high they study, have to get back to the kitchen.
“Same thing. Obey your husband, even if he is wrong. Oh my god, I never married again. Two boys are enough, two little men in my life.”
Her Pakistani ex-husband used to ask her to request salary advances from her company, two or three hundred ringgit each time. She made up excuses, like not having enough money for food. He would spend the money wantonly.
“It always like that. I was fed up, but I still kept quiet, I don’t know why,” she confesses.
“I felt embarrassed and ashamed.”
But her friends advised her to listen to her husband – because he was her husband. That’s the feedback she got and she learned how to be domesticated, as an ideal woman like many others did.
Linda worked at a construction company in Brunei for 10 years, starting as a data analyst and working her way up to company representative for overseas meetings and training. She met her Pakistani husband after she came back to Malaysia, and they fell in love and got married.
At the beginning, both of them started a small food business somewhere near Masjid Jamek. They had to wake up at 5am in the morning, and brought along four big chickens in plastic bags every morning because they couldn’t afford an ice box that time.
Business was good and they made some money. Her husband planned to expand the business by recruiting more people, and wanted his wife to rest at home. He had aspirations of giving his wife a better life, but that was when things started to come undone.
He neglected the business, and it eventually had to be wound up.
They then tried their hand at a clothes business in Chow Kit, but disaster soon struck. Their shop caught fire. She and an employee tried saving what she could from the flames, although she was pregnant at the time.
The fire made the news. She had lost everything.
They started not being able to pay rent and moved from one place to another. Her husband couldn’t find decent work, eventually settling on a job which required at least 12 hours a day. His temper changed, and their relationship along with it.
‘Never reveal the skeletons’
The memory of how he first beat her is still vivid. It was in 2005, just two weeks after Linda had given birth. She was happy. They went out shopping one day, but after advising him to stop playing with his phone, he looked up, turned around and slapped her across the face in public.
The shock numbed the pain. Her newborn baby was in her arms. When they got home, he locked her up in a room for two days, so she wouldn’t run away.
“Never reveal the skeletons,” Linda told herself, despite the escalating abuse. She was covering for him. When she was first locked up, she didn’t dare scream for help. And the silence grew.
Things never got better. He called her ugly and old, reminding her that she was lucky to be with him. Every time she threatened to leave, he threatened her in turn with violence. He would interrupt the rare moments of levity she had with her kids, never allowing them to laugh.
Even his Facebook posts were of him and the children, but not her. Linda was becoming invisible.
She learned not to look people in the eye, especially other men. She started wearing long sleeves to work to hide the bruises and breaks. Hospital visits were done on her own.
Linda never lodged a police report, not even when he hit her with his car. She was afraid of her real condition seeing the light of day. “Never reveal the skeletons.” She clenched her hands together at job interviews, hoping the bosses would never get around to asking about her home life.
The only thought in Linda’s head when she attempted to kill herself was how he would benefit from inheriting her EPF.
Like many survivors do, Linda stayed put, despite being at the end of her tether. But when he started to abuse the children, she knew it was time to leave.
“Do you know the first thing women will do in the shelter?” Linda asks. “Sleep.”
She says you can hear the women snoring from the rooms, after leaving their children to play in the shelter. They cannot sleep well at home, and remain half-awake in case something bad happens.
“But at night, you will always hear muffled cries,” she adds, or screaming into pillows.
When Linda first got to the WAO shelter, she cried too. But she didn’t want her sons to see her in that state, so she did her crying in the backyard.
Linda refused to talk much to anyone at the beginning, and was also reluctant to join in any of the classes on offer, like yoga or handicraft classes. But she found refuge in the kitchen.
“I only put myself in the kitchen. When they need volunteers to cook, I said I’ll cook. The kitchen basically became my centre.” It reminded of the house she left with no food, and the hunger pangs she had when she was locked up in the room 12 years ago.
“The kitchen is fully functional. There is a lot of food. The fridge is big. There is a lot of chicken. All the spices you need are here. This was heaven for me. So I focused there, I channelled my energy there.”
After a time, Linda began to notice that women in the shelter were talking about their husbands, comparing whose was worse. Her friend told her that the women dared speak out because of a creative writing class. Out of curiosity, she signed up.
Linda was taken aback because of this friend, who was always shy and quiet, spoke up confidently in the workshop. But Linda was still reluctant to share her experience, even during the icebreaker session.
Until she wrote a poem one day. Reading it aloud, the class broke down in tears. “I was scared,” she says. “Was my experience worse than theirs?” But even the friends she had made at that point, who already knew her backstory, were crying. It was then she understood the power of writing.
Slowly, the creative writing workshop managed to unearth happy memories from Linda’s past, especially her childhood in Sabah.
“After Chauly’s class, I learned to accept things. It opens your eyes and your mind. She also taught us to love ourselves.”
She recalled that she worked in a “depressing bakery” as a teenager. But she was still able to have fun. “I pretended I was working in Hollywood. Everyone walked in was a superstar.”
The silence she had been forced into due to domestic violence had suppressed Linda’s sense of fun and humour – until the workshop.
Leaving the comfort zone
After two and a half months, Linda decided to walk away from the shelter, knowing that there is a danger of staying safe. The shelter had become too comfortable, and it was time for her to get back out in the world and face it head-on.
Secretary jobs were hard to come by, because of her age. Her experience washing dishes at home or in doing accounts were insufficient for the restaurant and retail jobs she applied for.
To make things worse, her sons missed their father too much and begged to go home. Linda refused their request in the beginning but eventually relented for the sake of her children.
Somewhat inevitably, Linda emerged from the encounter with a broken finger bone and bruises on the back of her neck. But she wouldn’t be silenced this time. She called the police, and her husband was arrested.
He died in custody, awaiting deportation back to Pakistan, just a week before our interview. She was his only family member in Malaysia, so she was forced to delay reporting for her new job to sort out all the procedures for his return to his home country.
“I am upset. Strong man like him, who beat me up, just died like that because of a heart attack. It is really annoying.
“He was supposed to go back to his home and find a work and rebuild his… It is unbelievable,” she says, with one fist clenched.
“It was only after the class that I learned what happens. But it will not happen again.
“It is up to you. I choose to not let it happen again, and I will move forward. This feels like freedom.” Linda is due to report to work two days after our interview. In the absence of a national childcare policy, she’s thankful that her boss at least allows her to bring her two boys to work.
Linda says courage is something we need more of, especially when it seems like every step forward is followed by two steps back.
Walking back to the large Christmas tree, she says she wants to buy herself a diamond one day, to symbolise her marriage to herself.
In one of the assignments in the creative writing workshop, Linda wrote a letter to her future self, five years from now. In it, she said, “I have big dreams. I wish to have a small business on my own. I wish I could have a car, afford to go on holiday together with my children.
“It is very difficult but I will work hard on it.”
Often called the largest invisible workforce, there are almost 10 million domestic workers in South-East Asia and the Pacific. More than two million are migrant domestic workers. In fact, domestic workers make up nearly 20 per cent of all migrant workers in the ASEAN region. The vast majority are women.
As the 10th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour (AFML) is taking place on 25-26 October in Manila, the theme Towards Achieving Decent Work for Domestic Workers in ASEAN was strategically chosen to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of Rights of Migrant Workers.
It also coincides with the 6th anniversary of ILO’s convention on Domestic Workers (No. 189). This international labour standard adopted by all ILO member States in 2011 officially recognises domestic work as work. It sets out that domestic workers who care for families and households worldwide must have the same basic labour rights as those available to other workers: reasonable hours of work and pay, weekly rest, clear information on terms and conditions of employment, access to social security schemes and respect for their fundamental principles and rights at work including freedom of association.
In reality, in most ASEAN Member States, provisions under labour laws do not apply to domestic workers thereby excludes them from the protection provided to other workers such as social security benefits, minimum wage and limitation in working hours. In fact, a recent study showed that 61 per cent of all domestic workers in Asia were entirely excluded from labour protections, and only three per cent enjoyed equal protection with other general workers.
Another ILO report found out that globally, domestic work is the top sector where forced labour is found. Migrant domestic workers are even more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, as they are highly dependent on recruiters and employers, work in isolation and lack social networks. A recent ILO survey showed that migrant domestic workers in two ASEAN countries work on average 14 hours a day, only 40 per cent are given one day off per week and the vast majority are paid below the minimum wage.
Having a domestic worker that look after our children and elderly is a necessity for many men and women to pursue a career outside their homes. According to projections, the demand for domestic workers in ASEAN will be rising due to population’s ageing, lower fertility rates, women’s increasing labour force participation and a decline of multi-generational households.
Six year after the adoption of the domestic workers’ convention, only one ASEAN country, the Philippines, has ratified the ILO’s convention on Domestic Workers (No. 189), leaving nine ASEAN member states to do so.
To be fair, since the founding of ASEAN in 1967, since the first AFML in 2007 and since the adoption of the convention on domestic workers in 2011, progress has been made to increase the protection of migrant workers in ASEAN. The discussions at AFML have contributed to some of these achievements.
Gathered at the 10th AFML, senior officials from ministries of labour and other line ministries, workers and employers representatives and civil society actors from all ten ASEAN Member States will discuss and adopt a set of recommendations to achieve decent work for domestic workers.
It is time for all ASEAN governments to recognize domestic work as work, and ensure that their laws and policies provide the same protection as all other workers.
It is time for all employers of domestic workers to recognize that domestic workers are neither servants nor ‘members of the family’, but workers that should have the same rights as other workers.
It is time to renew the commitment taken 50 years ago to collaborate for a better future for all women and men. A future that realize decent work for all, including domestic workers.
This week on Malaysianskini - 'Happiness is making the hungry smile'Here's a story about Justin Cheah, a 41-year old project director of Kechara Soup Kitchen who started his journey 11 years ago since 2006 and never looked back since."When you look at people whom you have helped wave at you in thanks, or simply smile when they bump into you, does it not warm your heart?" - Justin CheahRead more on https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/392526
With great care, Justin Cheah assembles each nasi lemak packet, putting an extra fried egg in one, adding more rice in another, while bustling in and out of the kitchen.
“Some of our volunteers are not coming today, so I’m helping the team out,” explains Cheah, before excusing himself to meet with one of his clients, an aged woman looking for a job.
Cheah works with Kechara Soup Kitchen (KSK), a non-religious community action group that distributes food and provides basic necessities for the homeless and the urban poor.
The 41-year-old KSK project director left his banking job of 11 years to fully commit to the cause after joining one KSK initiative in 2006.
Based in Pudu, Kuala Lumpur, the group distributes some 250 packets of vegetarian food daily, save for Sundays, throughout the Klang Valley.
“You’ve caught me at the right time. We’re just about to serve lunch, and later we’re going out to distribute the rest of our food,” he remarked, pointing to a line of about 20 men and women eagerly waiting for their hot meal.
After making sure that everyone has received their lunch, Cheah tells Malaysiakini how he got involved with KSK, and why he has not looked back since:
I GOT INVOLVED IN 2006 AFTER BEING INSPIRED by the story of Kechara’s founder, Tsem Rinpoche. His story of being homeless for two weeks in America and having no food made me start to think about the homeless, something I had not bothered to do for the previous 30 years of my life.
Prior to volunteering at Kechara, the only contribution I would make towards the homeless would be pushing coins inside the odd donation box that came my way. But one Saturday in 2006 changed my views forever.
WITNESSING HOMELESSNESS FIRSTHAND OPENED MY EYES. I found out Kechara had a soup kitchen, and on Saturday evenings I would go with my friends for their weekly distribution events to help the team out.
The first Saturday, when I got off the van, I saw people with crutches sleeping on the cold, hard floor, some clearly starving. I also saw an old lady pushing a trolley with what seemed to be her belongings.
Of course, I had seen homeless people before, but at that point, I started to wonder why.
The team entrusted me with serving out the food. I had no idea what I was doing. While setting up, I noticed a group of people had already gathered around the van, waiting anxiously for food.
At the end, seeing those who I had served hungrily wolfing down their meals, I realised I wanted to do it again the following Saturday. And I came back every Saturday.
I LEFT MY 11 YEAR JOB TO FULLY COMMIT TO THE CAUSE. I left my banking job to pursue my own business. But even after leaving the corporate life, I started to wonder, what was life all about? Was I just meant to climb up the corporate ladder? And then what?
While giving out to the poor, I used to remember being really happy. And I didn’t have to go to the office too. Even happier!
But jokes aside, I felt the work I was doing at KSK was meaningful. The time spent in the office could very well be spent helping people instead. And why not?
My job as the KSK project director is to primarily make sure our premises are clean, and also to ensure everyone’s needs are taken care of.
This includes checking the quality of the food we get from sponsors to meeting with those who show up on our doorstep, asking for our help to find jobs.
Having been involved with KSK for the last ten years or so, I want to now work even harder for the benefit of those who depend on us. How are we able to provide solutions? How can we help get homeless off the streets?
“THEY CHOOSE TO BECOME HOMELESS, AND ARE ALL LAZY” are just some of the things I hear from people. Generally, those who do not understand the issue at hand tend to say things like this.
The stigma Malaysians attach towards the homeless is really bad. If we are going to reject an entire community of people simply because they are on the streets, how will this solve the problem?
Each individual and each one of their stories is multi-layered, explaining why they did what they did, and how they ended up where they are.
Homelessness is not a choice, and we cannot just sweep the issue under the carpet.
Through KSK’s work for the last ten years, we have developed a database of sorts, amounting to 6,800 profiles of homeless people in Kuala Lumpur.
These include those on the brink of homelessness, or who are already homeless. 80 percent of them are uneducated; some are dropouts; some had never received a secondary education. 18 percent have serious issues such as pneumonia and mental health concerns. Some 70 percent suffer from poor upbringing – no stable family, no home, et cetera.
The problem here is the homeless do not have a support system. They do not just need a free meal – they need a place to stay, and a job to get them off the streets. For that they need clothes, they need medicine, and that is what KSK is doing.
THEIR SMILING FACES KEEP ME GOING. Sometimes people ask me, “Why do you help these people? Most of them are ex-convicts, alcoholics, drug users”. While I agree with these general assumptions, this does not get to the root of the problem.
When you look at people whom you have helped wave at you in thanks, or simply smile when they bump into you, does it not warm your heart?
This is the sort of fulfillment I get on a daily basis. Not just praise from Facebook about the work I did, mind you, but to actually live my life meaningfully. There is nothing that beats this feeling.
It is not easy to find stability and exposure as an artist, especially in Asia. However, as popular Instagram account ‘Dudu De Doodle’ discovered, there are more ways than one for an artist to earn his or her keep.
Dudu De Doodle’s Instagram has close to 30,000 followers, who are treated daily to a new artwork from Dudu, the anonymous artist behind the account.
But Dudu did not start off as an ‘Instagram-famous’ artist. And until today, he is not even a full-time artist.
“As an artist, it is quite challenging in Asia. You cannot really sell your products through the Internet.
“I tried to sell (my artwork) once, three years ago. I drew on shirts, shoes, clocks, but it was so difficult I almost gave up.
“I still have some of the merchandise at home,” Dudu said in an interview with Malaysiakini last week.
After his failed venture to sell his artworks online, he said he decided to change his perception.
“I thought, why not put all the sales and money aside, and just do it for my own interest?” he said.
So, in October 2013, Dudu started his Instagram account under the pseudonym ‘Dudu de Doodle’, in which where he posted his artwork, daily.
Instagram in 2013 was a different landscape than it is now. In 2013, ‘Instagram influencers’ was still a fairly new phenomenon in Malaysia.
Though the account started out slow, it picked up speed eventually, reaching its zenith in 2015, when he was getting hundreds of new followers every day.
“I didn’t know that, as an artist, one can achieve the level of an ‘influencer’.
“After I slowly moved to an influencer level, I realised that when the owner or the agency really respects (your work), you can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t breach the rules.
“That’s the priceless thing that money can’t buy,” Dudu said.
He lamented that it is usually a challenge to get Malaysians to recognise local talent.
“We don’t even have a chance,” he said, citing the example of the famous murals in Penang, which were painted by Lithuania-born artist Ernest Zacharevic.
However, his popularity on Instagram brought him opportunities to showcase his art on a larger scale.
Dudu is currently working on a promotion campaign with technology giant Samsung, as well as on smaller mural projects in cafes throughout Kuala Lumpur and the Klang valley.
Despite all that, Dudu values his anonymity for various reasons, the most important of which is that he wants his art to speak for itself.
Experimenting use of coffee as paint
The pictures of his artwork on his Instagram has always featured a strong link to food. Then, about two years ago, he took it one step further and began experimenting with using coffee as paint and the nearest flat surface as the canvas.
Thai green curry to me is what Penang curry mee or beef rendang are to some people. I need not say anything else – I simply love it! And as it is not too spicy, even children get to enjoy it. I almost regret not listening to a piece of advice I received long ago: when...
Ten months after she ran away from home, Yufrinda Selan eventually returned a day before her 19th birthday. But it wasn’t tears of joy that greeted her.
Yufrinda’s family howled as her body, wrapped in a shroud, arrived in a white coffin at their hometown in Batu Putih, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia.
Her father, Mentusalak Selan, did not dare to open the wooden box as it bore another name – Melinda Sapay.
False document / PIX Gamaliel
“I was scared of making a mistake,” Mentusalak said when met earlier this month.
It was only after a provincial officer from Indonesia’s Migrant Workers Placement and Protection Body showed Yufrinda’s photo that Metusalak was willing to open the coffin. His daughter was inside.
Yufrinda was born on July 15, 1997. On her birthday last year, local police lifted the lid on her coffin, which was kept at a hospital mortuary.
Her family members identified her from a mole on her leg. But they were also shocked as there were stitches all over her body and bruises on her face.
“They said she hung herself and died at the home of her employer in Malaysia,” Mentusalak (photo) said.
Based on investigations by the police in Kupang, the provincial capital of East Nusa Tenggara, Yufrinda was recruited by a local human trafficking network that also involved experts in forging travel documents.
They identified former police officer Eduard Leneng and Diana Aman, who owned two private manpower agencies – PT Pancamanah Utama and PT Jaya Abadi – as individuals responsible for recruiting and sending Yufrinda to Malaysia.
Both of them were charged with various related offences earlier this month.
According to the charge sheet, Eduard was involved in forging Yufrinda’s documents, before she was handed over to Diana.
Met early last December, Eduard denied any involvement in human trafficking activities. “I have never dealt with the people who recruited Yufrinda,” he said.
Diana and her lawyer Edwin Manurung, on the other hand, reserved their comments. “For the meantime, no comments,” said Edwin.
Not the only maid to return as corpse
Yufrinda’s end is not an isolated case. Official Indonesian statistics from last year revealed that 33 migrant workers from the province returned home as corpses, including from Malaysia.
“Until today, trafficking of migrants from NTT to Malaysia is still rampant,” said Melki Musu, a coordinator for a local human trafficking watchdog.
East Nusa Tenggara is Indonesia’s southernmost province and most commonly referred to by the initials for its Indonesian name, Nusa Tenggara Timur or NTT.
Kupang district police chief Adjie Indra revealed that there have been more than 2,200 migrant workers from across NTT – spanning more than 500 islands across 48,718.1 square kilometres of land and sea – who have fallen victim to human trafficking syndicates over the last two years.
The figure was obtained from witness statements and suspects interrogated by the police. “There are at least seven human trafficking networks based in NTT,” Adjie said.
He noted that police have yet to crack down on all of the networks. “It will be done in stages,” he added.
According to Adjie, some of the human trafficking networks are funded by maid services and manpower agencies in Malaysia. “Their modus operandi is the same and it involves a big man in Malaysia.”
Money trail from Malaysia to Indonesia recruiters
Joint investigations into the human trafficking trail involving players in East Nusa Tenggara in Medan and Malaysia by Malaysiakini and Tempo started in September last year.
Their crossing paths could clearly be traced from records of their transactions between January 2015 and August last year. Almost as thick as a ream of paper, it details the flow of nearly RM1 million from Malaysia to NTT, meant for recruiting workers.
The largest transactions were from a woman named Oey Wenny Gotama.
For one year, from August 2015, records showed that Oey Wenny had transferred at least RM646,000, or nearly two million rupiah, to Seri Safkini, owner of PT Cut Sari Asih – an Indonesian recruitment agency based in Medan, Sumatera.
On June 28 last year, Oey Wenny transferred RM28,000, recorded as “deposit for five TKW”. TKW is the acronym for tenaga kerja wanita or female workers, while TKI refers to tenaga kerja Indonesia, meaning both male and female workers.
Seri Safkini then distributed the money to her contacts in NTT. One recipient was identified as Yohanes Leonardus Ringgi, a security officer at Kupang’s El Tari Airport. There were 155 transactions over a 12-month period beginning August 2015, amounting to RM600,000 according to present exchange rates.
Yohanes Ringgi was met on three separate occasions, while behind bars after his arrest last November, for alleged human trafficking offences. Reluctant to speak at first, he finally opened up on the human trafficking networks in NTT on the third meeting.
He admitted to receiving orders to recruit potential domestic helpers to be sent to Malaysia, from Eduard Leneng and Diana Aman, among others. Yohanes Ringgi also named Seri Safkini.
“They will send me money,” he said.
According to records of the transactions, the amount he received from Diana and Eduard was more than RM83,000.
Having worked as an airport security officer for 16 years, Yohanes Ringgi’s other duty was to ensure that potential workers would pass through all immigration checks. He admitted to have sent more than 400 workers to Malaysia from Medan and Surabaya. “For every one worker I will get 500,000 rupiah”.
Runaway teens enticed by making big bucks
Even children were not spared. Tempo met with Damaris Nifu and Jeni Maria Tekun, two underaged workers who Yohanes tried smuggle out. The duo were questioned by Kupang’s district police.
Both of them have received primary school education. They were not even 16 years old when first approached by Yanto and Mama Nona, two of Yohanes‘ underlings who were arrested sometime in mid-2015.
They ran away from home after being lured with a three million rupiah monthly salary – at a time when the local minimum wage was only 1.25 million rupiah. They were then kept at PT Cut Sari Asih’s office.
“We were harshly treated. Some were beaten and kicked,” recalled Jeni. Damaris and Jeni were later sent to Banda Acheh, but they eventually fled after being mistreated by their employers.
For children like Damaris and Jeni, their journey must start by creating a “new identity” – primarily to meet the legal employment age.
In Malaysia, a domestic helper candidate must be at least 21, while those employed in other sectors can be as young as 18.
Before departing for Medan, the two girls were furnished with forged identification cards.
All that was needed to do this was rudimentary graphic design skills and a computer equipped with Adobe Photoshop. The maker was a local university student named Sipri Talan who has connections with a number of labour recruiters.
“For every single fake KTP (identification card) I will get 100,000 rupiah (about RM30),” Sipri said when met in his detention cell at the Kupang district police station.
The new ID was then used to make their passports. The next step, according to Yohanes, would involve collusion with immigration officers in charge of issuing new passports.
The passport belonging to Yufrinda Selan, who died in Malaysia – issued under the name Melinda Sapay – was made by Godstar Mozes Banik, an immigration officer at Kupang’s El Tari airport.
This was according to the charge sheet against Eduard. Godstar, however, denied his role in abetting traffickers to produce the migrant workers’ passports. “Everything was done according to procedure,” he said.
Yufrinda’s case has been an important lesson for the Indonesian Immigration Department, the country’s Immigration director-general Ronny Franky Sompie said. “We will be more vigilant when dealing with passport applications,” he said.
M’sian employers paying double the set recruitment fee
Meanwhile, in Bandar Puchong Jaya, Selangor, a large yellow sign marks the entrance to the company NG Bersatu. The company’s name is written in capital letters and promotes its services as a “maid supplier”. There is an accompanying image of a woman in uniform while holding a toddler, both of them smiling.
The main office is located on the first floor. At the back of its spacious working area, there is a small room. A double-decker bed takes up most of the available space there. There is no window and only a fan.
The room is where Sarlin Agustina Djingib was taken to in August 2015, after she arrived in Malaysia. The migrant worker from East Nusa Tenggara was recruited by a human trafficking network involving Yohanes Ringgi.
At the time, she was still a teenager and below the legal employment age of 21. “All of my fake documents were made by Yohanes’ underlings,” Sarlin told police officers from Kupang, who recorded her statement at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur last December.
From her hometown in NTT, Sarlin was flown to Batam, an Indonesian province a short boat ride away from Johor. The journey of more than 3,800km would have taken her about seven hours, based on available flight details, including transit time in Surabaya or Jakarta. There is no direct flight between the two provinces.
In Batam, Sarlin was met by Angellin Wijaya, the daughter of Seri Safkini, owner of PT Cut Sari Asih. “Angellin sent me to the Batam Centre port to cross over into Johor Bahru,” she said.
An unidentified man then drove her the entire five-hour journey to NG Bersatu’s office in Puchong.
After staying one night in the room, Sarlin said she was picked up by her employer, Madam Jasmin. “I paid RM19,000 to NG Bersatu,” said Jasmin who accompanied Sarlin to the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
The cost is more than double the RM8,400 recruitment fee agreed upon by both governments. And until today, Sarlin still does not have a valid work permit.
Click on the arrow below to follow Sarlin’s journey Malaysia in the interactive map below, or click here to view the map.
Malaysian recruiter unaware maids underaged
Kupang police also recorded Oey Wenny Goetama’s statement at the embassy, in connection with investigations into the human trafficking network that snared Sarlin.
Oey Wenny claimed to represent NG Bersatu. “I don’t know anything about human trafficking,” she said when met at the embassy last December, before rushing off. Oey Wenny also denied channelling funds for the recruitment of potential workers.
NG Bersatu’s manager, Ng Jing Hao, however contradicted Wenny.
“She handles our suppliers (Indonesian agencies). We pay her and she passes on the money to agencies in Indonesia,” Ng said when met at his office on March 15. However, he declined to reveal the exact amount that has been channelled to Indonesia.
Ng also insisted that he has never broken any Malaysian laws related to recruitment and placement of migrant workers. “We don’t take underaged workers. We go according to their passports.”
Ng said he wouldn’t know if any of them were underaged. “So far when they come into Malaysia through the immigration process, they all have no problems. Their fingerprints are all okay,” he said.
“If the maid is underaged, we don’t want them,” he stressed.
He admitted that NG Bersatu had a brief partnership with PT Cut Sari Asih “quite long” ago. But Sarlin was not one of the recruits.
“She came to Malaysia via another agent. We just helped her to find an employer,” said Ng who also admitted to taking a cut from Jasmin’s payment.
Repeated attempts to obtain a response from Seri Safkini and her daughter Angellin Wijaya were unsuccessful.
Their house (photo) at a high-end neighbourhood in West Jakarta appeared to be deserted. The local security guard later confirmed that both women were no longer staying in the house, which was also used as a shelter for recruited workers.
In Medan, another shelter that belonged to the Cut Sari Asih firm was similarly empty, after a raid by local police in August last year. The main gate to the two-storey house has been chained.
Seri Safkini is also a fugitive. According to Kupang district police chief Adjie Indra, the firm has sent at least 251 workers, who ended up as undocumented immigrants in Malaysia.
A young ‘Datuk’ businessman
Back in NTT, another former recruiter admitted to receiving funds from Malaysia. The recruiter, Kobar, admitted he once sent six workers to a Malaysian named Albert Tei. “For each worker, I received 21 million rupiah,” said Kobar who was once detained for human trafficking. Besides Kobar, two manpower agency managers from Indonesia, and several others from Malaysia, also identified Tei as a major recruiter of Indonesian migrant workers. Tei is the general manager of ManPower88, a consortium of eight maid agencies. The 29-year-old, who holds the Datuk title, is also the owner of Maxim Birdnest, a factory based in Klang. A labour attache at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Mustafa Kamal, revealed that he once questioned Tei on the number of workers he would bring in every month. According to Mustafa, Tei had admitted that he could “import” up to 100 Indonesian workers a month. “That is a very large number,” Mustafa added. By comparison, Malaysian National Association of Employment Agencies (Pikap) president Raja Zulkepley Dahalan said his members typically only recruit 20 workers a month. One of those brought to Malaysia from NTT is Seravina Dahu. Showed a picture of Tei, when met at her son’s home in Oesapa, Kupang, Seravina identified him as “my former boss”. Seravina, who is now a farmer, said that she never had a permit while working in Malaysia. “There were many others from NTT at Tei’s shelter, and the majority of them did not have proper documents,” she said. She also recounted how she often worked for more than 12 hours a day but was only given one meal: bread and plain water.
Met at his factory in Klang (photo), Tei vehemently denied claims of mistreatment and employing Indonesian workers illegally. “I only deal with legal (documented) workers,” he stressed. “If any of them came in using fake documents, I wouldn’t know because that is the responsibility of the agencies in Indonesia.”
Tei, who claimed to enjoy a close relationship with the police and immigration officers, also denied having recruited 100 workers a month.
“The most is 70 or 80 workers and that, too, during the time when Malaysia’s economy was still good. Now the most would only be 30 workers,” he said.
However, Tei admitted that he is known figure among labour recruiters in Indonesia.
“If in one month I recruit 50 workers, in two years that would be 1,200 workers. So it’s not a surprise if they mention my name back in their villages,” he pointed out.
In another conversation, he stressed he is unaware of irregularities in the recruitment process in Indonesia.
“We follow Malaysian law. So long as they have a valid passport and passed their medical check-up, we (Malaysian agencies) will process them (for placement). We don’t have the right to check whether their passports are fake or whatever,” Tei said.
All relevant documents, he explained, would also require endorsements from six parties – the Indonesian agency, Malaysian agency, the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian Labour Department, the maid and her employer.
There were some 1.2 million documented Indonesian workers in Malaysia as at the end of last year. But the Indonesian embassy’s labour attache estimates that the number of undocumented workers would be much higher. “The figure could be double,” Mustafa Kamal said.
Undocumented Indonesian workers work in plantations, restaurants and as sex workers. One of them, who introduced herself as Anggun from Jakarta, based her “operations” along Petaling Street. Anggun said a majority of the women working as sex workers in the area are Indonesians. “I have only been here a month,” she said.
Mustafa said both the Indonesian and Malaysian governments are facing difficulties to curb the flow of undocumented workers – and that one major factor is beyond their control. “There are some 150 hot spots along the countries’ borders that can be used as departure and entrance points for these workers,” he explained.
In Borneo, the land boundary has a length of 2,019.5km and separates the Indonesian provinces of North Kalimantan, East Kalimantan and West Kalimantan from Sabah and Sarawak. There is, however, only one official immigration point on either side – at Entikong in Indonesia and Tebedu in Malaysia.
The maritime boundaries between Indonesia and Malaysia, meanwhile, are located along four bodies of water – the Straits of Malacca, Straits of Singapore, South China Sea and Celebes Sea.
Collusion between authorities at official immigration counters has further compounded the problem.
At a popular nasi padang restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, two undocumented Indonesian workers – 28-year-old Ika Fatmawati and her cousin, 19-year-old Ines Nugraini – from Tangerang in Banten, West Java, shared how they arrived in Pasir Gudang, Johor, through Batam Centre port (photo) last Christmas.
“We were instructed to walk through counter Number 3. We were told that we would be ‘safe’,” said Ika.
Both of them only lasted two months working as cleaning service staff in Malacca. They never received their salary and were forbidden from leaving their hostel, unless they were heading to work. On Feb 22, they fled to Kuala Lumpur. “Now I feel free,” she said.
Johor Immigration director Rohaizi Bahari did not respond to requests for comment.
Ika’s fate is better than NTT native Yufrinda.
To this day, her father Mentusalak remains in the dark over his daughter’s real cause of death as there have been no investigations on allegations of assault. “I am convinced she was murdered,” he said.
Yufrinda’s employer, Conrad Wee, declined comment. “It was a very sad incident. I do not want to talk about it anymore,” Wee said, before driving out of his apartment building in Cheras (picture) where Yufrinda was said to have hung herself in the kitchen.
Inquiries with the police did not yield further information. When contacted, Bukit Aman’s D7 Division principal assistant director SAC Rohaimi Md Isa merely said the case was discussed by authorities from both countries on a bilateral platform.
“We have bilateral discussions with all neighbouring countries facing issues of human trafficking. It is for the purpose of facilitating investigations and enforcements,” Rohaimi said.
However, Indonesian Migrant Workers Protection Task Force chief in Malaysia, Yusron B Ambary, said a request has been made to local authorities to probe Yufrinda’s case. “Only the Malaysian police have the power to investigate,” he said.
In the meantime, Mentuselak Selan, Yufrinda’s father, continues to light a candle by his daughter’s grave – hoping for the spark that would reveal the truth.
Reporting by Stefanus Teguh Edi Pramono and Yohanes Seo from Tempo and Alyaa Alhadjri from Malaysiakini.
In the 13th general election in May 2013, there were 11.2 million out of 13.2 million registered voters who cast their vote, which represented an 85% turnout. The turnout was unprecedented in all Malaysia’s past general elections and the opposition’s result in the...