20 minutes to Teluk Intan. I made a call to Kak Rohana letting her know that I was on my way. Slightly embarassed to have gotten her name wrong; I called her Kak Ani instead. The rule of thumb is, you should always get a person's name right, to make a good first impression. It was a brief conversation, I got my direction and was pretty sure I could find the place with relative ease. From Teluk Intan - take a right on the first light after Teluk Intan Hospital and the white bungalow will be on my left, right behind some fruit stalls. I was right, finding the place was a breeze. As I stepped out of the car, peering inside from the main gate, it quickly dawned on me that although I have been looking forward to visiting the place, I absolutely had forgotten to prepare my emotional strength for this experience. For few seconds, as this lady came and opened the gate, I just stood and stare at the bungalow, specifically the front door. I saw a glimpse of the living room. I saw some people. I actually felt nervous.
Thursday afternoon - saw some posts regarding Rumah Amal Hashimiah Teluk Intan in the Ummiku Sayang newsgroup. Read through them. What a coincidence. I was going to be there during the weekend. Volunteered to stop by. I even got excited about it. This is an opportunity to get my hands dirty. I want to do this kinda thing, up close and personal. It would be amazing to be able to help. * It went on and on and on in my head, the entire weekend * Got my camera ready, got the donation money ready. Even got a notebook to gather data.. Printed a list of questions to ask. The whole 9 yards. So three days later, there I was.
This is the living room of Rumah Titian Ashraful Rohaniah, previously known (to me) as Rumah Amal Hashimiah Teluk Intan. The vast but empty living room greets the visitors, it is the first thing that a person sees as she walks into the house.
My presence was greeted by several gentlemen, all of them were sitting on the floor, some staring at me, some were simply too busy with their own thoughts, consumed in their world. Some were smiling, some had some blank stares on. Then I saw a smile from this one man; I learned that his name is Tamjis, better known as Abg Ajis.
Abang Ajis promptly greeted and invited me to sit down in the dining room area as that's the only place with chairs, and as he was pulling the chairs out, I quickly scanned the dining/kitchen and saw more people, including a really thin guy, perhaps in his 20s sitting on the floor, chanting inaudibly. One thing that strikes me was the smell, it quite reminded me like the hospital. Specifically, government hospitals. And specifically, the 3rd class ward where it seemed that there are always 20 patients for every single nurse. As I sat myself on the chair, I noticed a door that's locked, but not quite bolted as I could see about an inch opening .. and I saw shadows of people in the room. I wondered how many people where in there, but from the noises I could make out there must be at least a few people in the room. Perhaps for safety reason.
Settled down, I sat across from Abg Ajis and introduced myself and the purpose of my visit. Personally, I wasn't quite sure how to approach the facts gathering, but quickly decided that I should ask as many pertinent questions with the goal of passing those information to people who can then help.
I remembered asking many questions, but the one thing that sticking out on my mind was .. Why? I guess I could come up with some reasons why Abg Ajis and his wife would dedicate their lives to caring for strangers, but it felt really important for me to understand and hear his reasons in his own words. I know a lot of people, myself included, who would be more than ready to help, but I could not come near to what he is currently doing. I was quickly engulfed with admiration and respect for the couple.
Here are the facts that I learned, during my conversation with him:
1) They used to care for 200 people at the previous location (in Selangor), where they had helpers. They were operating at a property that resides on a 'wakaf' land. Then came a man who claimed to have rights on the land (he was apparently the grandchild of the owner) and the man gave them a month notice, which to me, under a normal circumstances would have been a standard thing to do, but in this case, it came across as extremely heartless. Worse, now that they have moved out, the place is still vacant and unused.
They didn't have much choice except to relocate; hence the new location in Teluk Intan. The sad part was having to return over 80% percents of the residents back to their families simply because they don't have the capacity to care for the same number of people. The 30 that I saw that day were the ones without families, or anyone to take them.
2) The organization is now called Rumah Titian Ashraful Rohaniah; the name change was necessary because I was told they could not carry over the previous name due to the restrictions (from moving an operation from one state to another). In other words, they had to start from scratch, and until the new organization is registered properly, they couldn't have a dedicated bank account, and weren't able to be aggrasive in collecting donations.
3) There are 5 categories of people that they care for: In his words: a) Warga Tua (Senior Citizen) b) Warga Terbiar (Neglected) c) Yatim (Orphans) d) Warga Istimewa (Special/Mentally Challenged) e) Warga Kurang Upaya (People with Disabilities)
4) They do not have any funding from official agencies such as the government (Shouldn't we be able to do something about this?) but he did say that there were many instances where they received residents from Jabatan Kebajikan or Hospitals. "Hospital tolak orang kat kami, bila hospital dah penuh". I was really troubled by the fact that they don't have financial support but had patients transferred to them from those places. (But I want to be optimistic. With the right strategies, I hope this could change)
So, there I was, putting a 'reporter' hat on, trying to suppress a lot of emotions inside so I didn't break down .. trying to understand and listen and gather as much as I could, but the 'Why' question kept popping up, and I wasn't sure how to put it so that it didn't came across in any negative way because I sincerely want to understand what motivated both of them to do this. Abg Ajis started with statistics, how he learned that in Selangor there is a really high number of people who are mentally challenged, and sadly majorities of them are Malays. Most of the families don't know how to handle the illness and instead of helping, the families will isolate them either by putting them in an isolated pondok, or putting them on chains, and in many cases simply house-arresting them so they become very alone, and immobile.
Then came a really tragic story, where the couple had started by adopting 5 siblings without parents. Originally they were 6 siblings but one died of hunger. They lived in a tiny house with no bathroom, bedroom or kitchen, and were relying on a neighbor's place for water supply.
Tears started to well up because I couldn't imagine anybody facing death because of hunger. Not now. Now in this country, when there's wealth of food to be eaten everywhere. When every morning I'm throwing bunch of leftover food from last night in the trash can; when I would simply feel full and left portions of my food on the plate untouched when I go to eat out. I couldn't help but be stricken with guilt. But that's how they started. 5 siblings. It went to 200, then now 30.
And then his answer, on the Why. Perikemanusiaan. It's humanity. Humanity is divine. Abg Ajis left his job as a contractor (and I am sure.. it's not only the job). I am sure the couple left their previous lifestyle, their routines, their comfort, and embraced this instead.
As I was listening to his stories, I noticed how he never failed to smile. It was really sincere, and he really seemed to be at peace with it, and I grew to understand the person he is, because it takes special people to be able to live and run a place like that. Yes, I was sad, touched, verge of tears but at the same time, honestly, it did feel a little depressing as well. I am even embarassed to admit it, but it's true. Imagine living in a house without much furniture, or things that we're used to, to make our abode comfortable.. carpets, sofa .. decor. . It's a completely different lifestyle.. it's a practical place for the residents. I mean, carpet would be comfortable, but who's going to clean it, right? Sofa would be nice, but how many would be enough for 30 people? I'm sorry I don't have his willpower and selfless dedication, but I thank God to have granted us, in this world, in our community, a person like him.