All posts by Angela Jelita

Angie is a journalist and environmental activist in Southeast Asia. She is the producer of Feed Earth Spirit, which bridges food, the environment and consciousness. She is also the founder of Indonesia Indah Foundation, an NGO in Indonesia that empowers people to become agents of change for the environment.

Factory farming seen to trigger next global pandemic: choose plant-based meat alternatives to reduce the threat

First published in South China Morning Post.

  • Experts say the next pandemic will be a bird flu, H7N9, which so far has killed 40 per cent of people infected, making it 100 times deadlier than Covid-19 virus.
  • It will start in battery chicken farms, so consuming less cheap, factory-farmed meat and eggs and eating more plant-based alternatives can help head it off.

At the online PlantFit Summit this month, 38 of the world’s health experts weighed in on how to improve our health and well-being by adopting a more plant-based diet.

Opening the summit was US doctor Dr Michael Greger, The New York Times bestselling author of How Not to Die and internationally recognised speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health. He spoke about the next killer flu, which he believes is brewing in battery chicken farms. “The leading candidate for the next pandemic after Covid-19 is a bird flu virus by the name of H7N9, which is a hundred times deadlier than Covid-19,” Greger says. “Instead of a 0.4 per cent case mortality rate [which is what we’re seeing with Covid-19], H7N9 has killed 40 per cent of the people it has infected.”

“The leading candidate for the next pandemic after Covid-19 is a bird flu virus by the name of H7N9, which is a hundred times deadlier than Covid-19.”

– Dr. Michael Greger

The first reported incidence of H7N9 was in China in March 2013. Since then, sporadic annual human infections have been reported, with China currently experiencing its sixth epidemic. During the virus’ previous and fifth epidemic, from 2016 – 2017, the World Health Organization reported 766 human infections, making it the largest H7N9 epidemic to date.

The H7N9 virus is of special concern because most patients who contract the virus experience severe respiratory illness, such as pneumonia.

Influenza AH7N9 as viewed through an electron microscope. Both filaments and spheres are observed. ©Center for Disease Control and Prevention

According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Asian lineage H7N9 virus is rated by the Influenza Risk Assessment Tool as having the “greatest potential to cause a pandemic”, as well as posing the highest risk of severely impacting public health if it were to achieve sustained human-to-human transmission.

Over the past few decades, hundreds of human pathogens have emerged – a rate unheard of in human history. They all have one thing in common – they came from animals. HIV, the virus that causes Aids, originated from the butchering of primates for the bushmeat trade in Africa. Sars and Covid-19 have been linked to the exotic-animal trade, and swine flu in 2009 arose from a wet market in Asia but was, according to Greger, “largely made in the USA in industrial pig operations”.

According to the CDC, the eight genes of the H7N9 virus are closely related to bird flu viruses found in domestic ducks, wild birds and domestic poultry in Asia.

The virus likely emerged from “reassortment”, or mutation, a process where two or more influenza viruses co-infect a single host and exchange genes, producing a new strain of the virus.

Experts believe the H7N9 virus underwent multiple mutations in live-bird and poultry markets, where different species of birds are bought and sold for food. Infected birds shed bird flu virus in their saliva, mucus and faeces. Human infections with bird flu viruses can happen when enough virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth, or is inhaled.

H7N9 reassortment diagram ©Center for Disease Control and Prevention

“That’s what viruses do best – they mutate and may find the lungs and become an airborne pathogen,” explains Greger.The last time a bird flu virus jumped the species barrier and triggered a pandemic, it caused one of the worst plagues in human history – the 1918 Spanish flu,. This disease was triggered by a flu virus that bred in the crowded, stressful trench warfare conditions of World War I, and had a two per cent mortality rate, killing 50 million people.

Greger says: “We have the same trench warfare conditions today in every industrial egg operation and industrial chicken shed where the animals are confined, crowded, stressed – but by the billions, not just millions.”

Michael Greger MD believes the next pandemic is waiting in the wings of chickens. ©Dr Michael Greger

It matters how we raise animals around the world, regardless of what we choose to eat, because we are all put at risk by animal farming. “When we overcrowd thousands of animals into cramped football-field-sized sheds, beak to beak or snout to snout, atop their own waste, it’s a breeding ground for disease,” Greger says.

The overcrowding of animals in such conditions leads to stress, which cripples their immune systems. This is made worse by ammonia from their decomposing waste burning their lungs, as well as a lack of fresh air and sunlight. “Put all these factors together and you have a perfect storm environment for the emergence and spread of super strains of influenza,” he adds.

Just as eliminating the exotic-animal trade and live-animal markets may go a long way towards preventing the next coronavirus pandemic, reforming the way we raise animals for food may help forestall the next killer flu.

Companies are developing plant-based foods in response to demand for alternatives to meat as a source of protein. They are primed to expand production as more consumers turn away from cheap, factory meat products.

Such a change is happening in the dairy industry, where cow’s milk sales have fallen as consumers become aware of, and are given a choice of, non-dairy milk alternatives. Dairy produce sales fell by 22 per cent between 2006 and 2016, according to Cargill, the world’s biggest producer of animal feed. In the same period, sales of plant-based milk alternatives tripled.

“All the major meat producers – Tyson, Smithfield, Hormel, Purdue, JBS – have started innovating us out of this precarious situation by making plant-based meat alternatives,” says Greger.

Cargill, the largest private corporation in the United States, is now producing plant-based lines of sausages and chicken nuggets. The world’s largest fried chicken chain, Kentucky Fried Chicken, has started rolling out “Beyond Fried Chicken” plant-based alternatives at dozens of stores in the US in the hopes of going national. Starbucks, the largest coffee-house chain in the world, which has been offering plant-based dairy alternatives for several years now, last month introduced a line of Impossible meat-free options in Asia, including a wrap and pasta salad bowl, which can be found in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.

Global fast food chains such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, who use battery cage farming to raise their chickens, have started selling a plant-based alternative.

If more people choose these products, corporations will make more of them and the world would be at less threat.

Although doctors recommend eating whole plant foods rather than processed plant foods, Greger says that if you’re at a fast-food chain and you’re going to order something, opting for these plant-based alternatives is not only healthier than the meat option, but from a pandemic disease standpoint “poses zero risk”.

Ocean Robbins is co-author of Voices of the Food Revolution – You Can Heal Your Body and Your World – With Food.

Ocean Robbins , author of Voices of the Food Revolution and professor at Chapman University. ©Ocean Robbins.

He serves as an adjunct professor for Chapman University in Orange, California, and is the CEO of the online Food Revolution Network, which advocates for affordable and accessible healthy food for all.

Livestock gain weight faster, which increases profits, when they’re fed antibiotics with every feed, and because of this, factory farms have become breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Robbins says. He adds: “We are creating inevitable future pandemics every day when we take 80 per cent of our antibiotics and feed them to livestock.”

Echoing Greger, Robbins explains that a big way to make a difference as an individual is to eat lower on the food chain, opting instead for whole plant food options.

“You’re not going to be supporting antibiotic use in factory farms if you don’t eat the products of factory farms,” he says.

How to meditate your coronavirus fears away during lockdown, from breathing techniques to looking at nature

First published in South China Morning Post
  • Meditation enables a shift from reactive to responsive living, in which we choose what we dwell on, including our thoughts, experiences, and healing
  • Keeping calm isn’t just about traditional meditating – we can also experiment with plant-based diets, breathing techniques, gardening and painting

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced me into home confinement in central Singapore, I had a morning meditation ritual – spending up to 40 minutes in silence on my balcony and looking onto a dazzling yellow flame tree.

Now, I sit again in the evening, too. This nourishes my feelings of gratitude and compassion during these challenging times as I await the birth of my second child.

Mindfulness and meditation have interested me since my early teens, but I only began practising it daily a year ago, after a healing session with meditation and spiritual teacher Danielle Van de Velde.

Meditation enables a shift from reactive to responsive living, in which we can choose what we dwell on, including our thoughts, experiences, and healing.

“This is critical in this current situation when so much of our life experience is curbed with containment measures and we are under constant bombardment of Covid-related content,” Van de Velde, an Australian living in Singapore with 30 years of experience, says.

Danielle Van de Velde
Danielle Van de Velde is a spiritual healer and meditation teacher ©Danielle Van de Velde

The practice of drawing ourselves into present awareness, meditation creates a new state of presence and the ability to draw back to present awareness at will.

Like me, Van de Velde credits meditation for her good health, illness prevention and the ability to live intuitively. “Meditation is a lifestyle for me and a state of being, rather than an activity I engage with. It has enabled a complete shift in how I live,” she says.

Van de Velde grew up in a spiritual home and has been meditating since her childhood. “I had a hunger for understanding life and self from a very young age,” she says. This, along with her slightly rebellious nature, has led her on a journey of exploration and discoveries.

When she was in her 20s and 30s, she worked in the financial and property sectors in Australia, Europe and the United States. In her personal life, she explored healing practices and meditation techniques, and held informal meditation sessions for many groups before she became a qualified meditation teacher. Fifteen years ago, she left the corporate world to teach and support others on their inner explorations.

Most of Van de Velde’s students are experiencing high levels of stress because of their feelings of “disempowerment and uncertainty” during the pandemic. “These feelings make it easy to generate alternate reality tunnels of doom and gloom, and disconnect us from our current reality,” she says.

Sutha Atiin, a social worker in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, is one of her students. She has been feeling anxious, even experiencing bouts of dizziness, as the number of Covid-19 cases, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continues to rise.

“I have children and grandchildren in Britain and Singapore, and extended family in Australia, not to mention all my family in Java,” Atiin, 62, says. “As a mother and grandmother, I worry that they will catch the virus.”

To destress, Atiin has been practising meditation in the form of pranayama, a yogic term that translates to energy or life force (prana) and breath (yama). She favours nadi sodhana, or alternate nostril breathing.

Nodhi sadhana breathing ©Angela Jelita
Sutha Atiin practices alternate nostril breathing or nadi sodhana to help alleviate her Coronavirus anxieties. ©Angela Jelita

“The other night, I was feeling very worried,” Atiin recalls. “I practised nadi sodhana, closing the left nostril and taking a slow, deep breath from the right nostril, then closing the right nostril and breathing out slowly, releasing all the air through the left nostril.” After 20 minutes, she had returned to a relaxed state of mind.

“I also send love and compassion to others during this time, a practice that always leaves me feeling at peace,” she adds.

Meditation is good not only for the mind, but for the body, as it triggers the release of immune-boosting chemicals into the system. Gratitude, awe, wonder, loving kindness and an altruistic outlook – thinking of others before self – have all been shown to have this effect.

A review of 20 studies on meditation and the immune system published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 2016 suggests the practice may help dampen inflammation, boost immunity and slow biological ageing.

Meditation is key as I prepare mentally and spiritually for my home birth without medication. When I can, I meditate outside or with a view of nature. Gazing upon an old tree is comforting and elicits peaceful feelings. Sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion, I close my eyes and focus on my in and out breaths, through my nostrils. I take in long, healing breaths and release them in a slow, steady stream.

After meditating, I feel calm and completely in the present. This helps me to let emotions come and go throughout the day without holding onto them.

After a few minutes of focused breathing, I arrive at an altered state of awareness and return to my natural breath, now slower and more at ease. I observe any thoughts or sounds that enter my mind. When a thought comes in, I visualise it going into a balloon and floating off into the sky.

After meditating, I feel calm and completely in the present. This helps me to let emotions come and go throughout the day without holding onto them.

On Mondays during the lockdown, my husband and his work colleagues have a morning conference call in which I lead them through a simple, guided meditation to help them to relax and manage stress.

With practice, it becomes easier to be able to enter a meditative state throughout the day, not only in a formal sitting. “Thankfully, the process is a quick one, as the system starts to recognise the movement inward and neural pathways form to create ‘the habit’ of meditation,” Van de Velde says. “A dedicated minimum of 10 minutes a day will yield these shifts in a relatively short amount of time.”

To maintain our sense of calm in these uncertain times, Van de Velde suggests experimenting with lighter, more plant-based diets. She also advises maintaining a meaningful connection with both nature and loved ones.

Atiin has taken up other meditative forms, including spending time gardening. “I find connecting with and looking after my garden extremely soothing,” she says. She has also picked up a paintbrush for the first time in a long time. “This form of creative expression is very healing and helps me process my emotions.”

Van de Velde believes having to stay inside during lockdowns is a golden opportunity for people to deepen their understanding of the mind-body-energy system and its capacity to heal and self-regulate. “This is perhaps the grandest invitation the world has been given to raise its game, and it only can happen one person at a time.”

Singapore domestic helpers’ day off in the park rankles with some residents, who complain of noise and littering

First published on 15 July 2018 on South China Morning Post.

With no facilities designed for their use, domestic helpers head to public places to relax on their day off – and they’re not always welcome.

It’s an overcast Sunday afternoon in Singapore’s Botanic Gardens and foreign domestic helpers relax on picnic rugs and in the pagodas. Loud Filipino dance music is punctured by raucous laughter. In another group, a guitar is strummed and hymns are sung in Bahasa Indonesia.

On the surface, a happy day off – but behind the scenes it’s a different story for many of them, and for some residents unhappy with their presence.

Wurgiyanti Siswanto, also known as Gati, has been working in Singapore for the same family for the past 15 years. Originally from Banjarnegara, in Central Java province, Gati says she used to work every day, but Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower made it mandatory in 2013 for employers to give helpers one rest day a week.

Statistics from the ministry show there were 246,800 foreign domestic workers employed in the country at the end of 2017, with the majority from Indonesia and the Philippines. They can spend their rest day away from home, but, as in Hong Kong, without facilities such as social centres they have to congregate in public places – a sore point for them, and others.

The Botanic Gardens is one of the popular hangouts, as is East Coast Park and, if it’s raining, the Lucky Plaza shopping centre.

“We don’t hang out all day,” says Gati, who leaves her employer’s home at dawn and doesn’t return until about 9pm. “I go to church in the morning, where I have activities until the service starts at 11am.

“After that we spend the afternoon relaxing, singing and sharing in the park together.”

Not everyone is as lucky as Gati. “Not all helpers get days off,” she says.

Gati’s friend Rose, for example, is having difficulties adjusting to her new employer. She is only allowed two rest days a month, and is not compensated for the two Sundays her employer makes her work. Under the law, helpers should get at least one day’s salary or a replacement rest day to be taken within the same month.

Employers in breach of the law can be fined up to S$10,000 (US$7,340), jailed for up to one year, or both. Invariably, most domestic helpers don’t rock the boat for fear of losing their job.

Agustina, from Manado in North Sulawesi, has also been a helper in Singapore for 15 years. She says her Sundays off begin with cleaning her employer’s house, before she leaves around lunchtime for afternoon church service. She heads home at about 8pm.

One of her friends interjects: “Depends on the boss. If the boss is bule [Western], your off day is your day. If the boss is Chinese, then you usually have to work.”

Her friends laugh out loud at her remark.

“I like to leave the house tidy,” Agustina responds with a smile.

Gati says before joining her church fellowship she would join other helpers in the parks and malls. “But it gets boring,” she says. “This way we have a purpose and we use our time well.”

“Through our fellowship, we help and guide Rose with prayer and discussions so that she can get used to her employer while seeing the bigger picture and not just the short term,” Gati says.

By the turtle pond at the Botanic Gardens, a larger group of domestic helpers dressed in uniform green T-shirts are practising dance moves to loud music. Also from Indonesia, this group of about 30 workers is quite raucous and talk excitedly.

While helpers have nowhere else to go, their large gatherings are not always welcomed.

William Smith is an Australian expat in Singapore who employs an Indonesian domestic worker to help his wife look after their one-year-old child. He often goes to a public park with his family at the weekend, and says he would like to see helpers be more considerate of other park-goers.

“I don’t have a problem with the helpers spending time together, relaxing in the park. It’s good for them to have down time like everyone else,” he tells the Post. “What I have a problem with is when people litter and aren’t considerate of other park-goers.”

Smith says his local park, Mount Emily Park on Sophia Hill, becomes crowded with foreign domestic helpers and foreign construction workers on Sundays.

“It gets so overrun and noisy that we often feel deterred from spending time there,” he says.

Smith adds once most of the groups have left, there is a lot of litter on the ground, despite the threat of harsh fines.

The Environmental Public Health Act imposes a maximum S$2,000 fine for first-time litterers and up to S$10,000 for third and subsequent convictions.

“The loud music from ghetto blasters is also a nuisance,” Smith adds. “We’re all outside trying to enjoy our time off. If they’d like to listen to music, perhaps they can use headphones instead, or at least play it at a respectable volume.”

Local media have reported on several complaints filed by members of the public about noise pollution and littering caused by domestic helpers.

In March, a complaint was also filed concerning public displays of affection between female domestic workers and male migrant workers at the Ang Mo Kio Mass Rapid Transit underpass in northern Singapore.

According to disgruntled residents, the underpass has become a “hotspot” for gatherings of foreign workers, who spend all day there picnicking. Some residents complained they could hear the noise from their homes.

Several NGOs in Singapore have begun offering self-improvement courses for migrant workers as one way to make their days off more productive. Courses range from cooking and dressmaking to saving money and starting a small business. There is also a fitness club run by the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training.

Hani is a 32-year-old Indonesian helper who has been living in Singapore for seven years – and has worked for Chinese, Malay and expatriate families. Her current employer is from Australia.

On her weekly rest day, Hani takes a course run by Aidha, an NGO that provides training programmes in financial literacy and self-development skills.

Classes at Aidha are held on alternate Sundays and cost S$200 for a six-month course. Self-supporting helpers receive a discounted rate of S$150 for the course. Hani’s employer supports her study by paying the fees for her.

She enjoys feeling more productive on her off days. “I got bored just hanging out with friends and not doing anything on Sundays,” she says. “This way, I have a chance to better myself and maybe start my own small business when I go back to Indonesia.”

Into the Heart of the Jungle

Get close to wild orangutans from the comfort of a river liveaboard that helps keep local cultures and wildlife alive.

First published in Garuda Colours inflight magazine in August 2018

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir, naturalist and environmental philosopher.

If Indonesia was a person, Borneo would be her soul. Sitting right on the Equator, this giant island has drawn explorers from all over the world for centuries, who come searching for a piece of the lost world, a land that time forgot.

Borneo belongs to three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, with Indonesia holding the largest portion, which we know as Kalimantan. The name itself is derived from the Sanskrit word Kalamanthana, meaning “burning weather island”, describing her hot and humid tropical weather.

Borneo is home to ancient rainforests, approximately 130 million years in age, making it one of the oldest in the world. These forests are home to thousands of species of flora and fauna, many endemic to this island, and some critically endangered like the Bornean orangutan.

There is money to be made from tourism and keeping the forest and local cultures alive. This is being educated to locals by social enterprise Wow Borneo, created by two British expats, Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins. These ladies converted a traditional riverboat known as a rangkan into a magnificent cruise boat that goes by the name Rahai’i Pangun. They claim to have been the first jungle cruise on the Rungan River in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, when they started operating in 2007.

Our three-day, two-night journey onboard the Rahai’i Pangun began at Palangkaraya’s river harbour. She was the largest boat docked at the harbour, and our guide Indra Setiawan helped us alight. Rahai’i Pangun is a floating wooden marvel with five air-conditioned bedrooms and an open-air dining area and living room with a large observation deck.

Departing from the harbour at 9am, we began cruising upstream in what felt like a floating dream. With a cup of local coffee in my hands, I enjoyed observing villages of wooden stilted houses on the river’s edge, and canoe-like fishing boats go by. Children waved enthusiastically at us from both sides of the river, some running alongside trying to keep up.

As man’s world started fading away, the forest world engulfed us, and all we could hear, see and smell was the river and peat forest. A couple of hornbills flew gracefully overhead, their large wings wooshing.

Within a couple of hours of relaxed cruising through forest, we reached the island of Kaja, a 25-hectare sanctuary for rehabilitated orangutans, managed by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF). Kaja has dense greenery as far as the eye can see, and spotting the furry orange friends in the trees was a sight to behold.

There are 57,350 individuals of the Pongo pygmaeus orangutan species left in the wild in Kalimantan, and 14,470 of Pongo abelii, a related species in Sumatra, according to a joint report published by the Indonesian Ministry of  Environment and Forestry, the Indonesian Orangutan Forum, the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, and other environmental groups earlier this year.

Conservation efforts have paid off, and numbers are up since the first edition of the report was published in 2004. The number of Sumatran orangutans was down to 6,600 at that time. There’s no count for the number of individuals Borneo orangutans in the first study, but the current population is slightly higher than what researchers expected for this year.

That’s in part due to sanctuaries like Kaja, where rescued animals are reintroduced into the forest to form new populations, for example after they have strayed into palm oil plantations due to the loss of their habitat.

Wow Borneo aims to show locals that through tourism, there is value in preserving the forest and the culture of the local Dayak people. It donates US$25 to BOSF per visitor onboard one of its river cruises.

Nico Hermanu, BOSF’s communications officer, later told me that Wow Borneo tours also help visitors gain a better understanding of the orangutans, beyond superficial interest. “They also get to see that this great ape live on the high canopy of trees, help disperse seeds, and maintain the quality of a forest area.”

Our boat continued upstream. Every now and then we passed illegal gold miners working on mobile gold-sifting units along the river, expelling smoke and loud noises from their engines.

“The river water is brown due to these miners churning up silt from the riverbed,” Setiawan said. “Tomorrow I will take you where the river is black – that is the true colour of the river.” He explains that as vegetation decays, the leaching of highly soluble tannins creates water that is darkly stained, resembling tea.

We traversed further upstream until we landed at Kanarakan, a traditional Dayak village. Greeted by friendly yet curious children, we were given a traditional Dayak welcome ritual. White paint made of rice porridge with pandanus leaf was smeared on our faces to cleanse our spirits and protect us. I donned my leaf headdress with pride.

A highlight was sampling betel nut, the region’s equivalent to South America’s coca leaves. An ibu (mother) sliced the orange fruits into smaller pieces and wrapped them in betel pepper leaves before handing them over to us to chew. She laughed hard as she watched our grimacing faces bite down into a foul and bitter taste. The kick you get rivals that of coffee, which explained why so many of the village elders had dark red-stained teeth and gums.

Early next morning, we departed on smaller boats to an island surrounded by the mysterious black water Setiawan had told us about. Cruising through dense jungle on either side, we felt removed from our realities. On engine-powered canoes, we were able to get much closer to the orangutans, this time spotting seven in total. They groomed and played with one another, oblivious to our curious stares.

After lunch, we continued upriver through small and windy tributaries on another motorised canoe to Bapallas Island, a 14-hectare reserve, where ten orangutans were hanging out. One in particular caught my attention. Her name is Kesi and one of her hands is a stump. She had been rescued from a palm oil plantation, where she had been attacked and mutilated by plantation workers who are often frightened of the creatures they consider pests.

Seeing these stunning animals in the wild, albeit rehabilitated and protected by rangers, is both a hopeful sight and one with a poignant reminder that our continued development threatens their survival.

Wow Borneo’s cruises create livelihoods that replace some of the common jobs found here like fishing, logging, or gold mining. Employing 20 local people, the venture provides fair wages, family health cover, insurance, as well as termination payments to its staff.

“We work with community tourism groups in each village we visit, who provide guide services, cultural events, and canoe hire for a price agreed annually,” says co-founder Thavisin. “Since we started our company, a total of US$200,000 has gone directly to the community.”

Thavisin explains that her eco-tour has helped to revive sangar, the local dance groups, which were disappearing in the region as tradition started to fade. We watched the lively and colourful traditional Dayak dances being performed to us by enthusiastic young people in Kanarakan village, an experience I will never forget. Like true tourists, we wore the yellow selendang (shawl) and joined in the festivities, although nowhere near as graceful as the locals.

Returning back to civilization after two nights sleeping in the depths of the forest was ­– like betelnut ­– a hard nut to swallow. It is heartwarming to know that the windy river of Rungan, with its sprawling jungle on either side, still exists in Central Kalimantan, and that this social enterprise is helping to preserve it. I feel as though I left a part of my soul on that sleepy river, and I would go back in a heartbeat to find it.

Suicide, depression and poverty: Indonesia’s refugees’ bleak future now there’s almost no chance of being resettled

First published in South China Morning Post print and online, 21 March 2018.

Asylum seekers who fled war to reach Indonesia have been told there is almost no chance of them being permanently settled in a third country. Many deal with depression and suicidal thoughts as they struggle to feed their children.

Hassan, 29, a native of Afghanistan, has thought about taking his own life. He has been a refugee in Indonesia for four years, and is depressed and anxious. He suffers from migraines and sometimes shakes uncontrollably. Hassan’s story is similar to many refugees in Indonesia, where at least six have committed suicide since 2016.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, provides temporary shelter to 13,800 registered refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Somalia and Myanmar. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the phenomenon is relatively new in Indonesia, and the number of refugees the country hosts is dwarfed by the 150,000 sheltering in neighbouring Malaysia.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, so those seeking protection are forbidden to work and are only allowed to stay temporarily until they are resettled in a third country.

In January 2017, Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued a “Refugee Decree” reiterating that they would be permitted to stay temporarily, and provided with protection until a long-term solution was found. New arrivals would no longer be held in detention centres, as is currently the case for 4,000 who are unable to fend for themselves.

Widodo’s decree was welcome news to the country’s refugee population, but in September, that ray of hope was dimmed. The UNHCR announced in a bleak information campaign that places for permanent resettlement in a third country had become so limited that most refugees in Indonesia would never be given the opportunity.

In the wake of the announcement, there have been several reported cases of refugee suicides in the country, most recently on March 2. The victim, 22-year-old Hayat, an ethnic minority Hazara from Afghanistan, had spent four years in an immigration detention centre in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province. Having fled Afghanistan at the age of 18, it was reported, he was not mentally strong enough to cope with his circumstances, and hanged himself.

22-year-old Hayat, an ethnic minority Hazara from Afghanistan, spent four years in an immigration detention centre in Medan. Having fled Afghanistan at the age of 18, he was not mentally strong enough to cope with his circumstances, and took his own life.

On January 5, another refugee from Afghanistan, tormented by depression and financial problems, took his own life, leaving behind his wife, Shafiqa Rohullah, and their three-year-old son.

“My husband was suffering from depression,” Rohullah told the Post, “and many times he kicked me out of the house and beat me and my son.”

After her husband’s suicide, Rohullah, who was seven weeks’ pregnant, approached the UNHCR for help. She waited outside the building in Jakarta, sleeping rough for four days before representatives agreed to see her. She and her son were taken in by UNHCR partner Church World Service (CWS). They now sleep on a single bed in a room with 12 other refugee women in a shelter in Manggarai, South Jakarta.

Afghan refugee Shafiqa Rohullah’s three year old son, asleep in a Church World Service shelter in Manggarai, South Jakarta. Rohullah’s husband, tormented by depression and financial problems, recently took his own life.

“My son is crying a lot,” she says. “He wants to go back home. There is no place for him to play, and there are no other kids here.” Rohullah says they are not provided with healthy food and cannot sleep comfortably. Since moving into the shelter, Rohullah’s son has contracted tuberculosis and is being treated in hospital.

The UNHCR has told refugees to either return to their home countries or get used to living in Indonesia, volunteering or studying. Factors that have led to the announcement include the Rohingya crisis and Australia’s ban on accepting refugees who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia after July 2014.

Last year, the United States reduced its resettlement quota from 120,000 to 45,000, which has had a significant impact on resettlement of refugees from countries around the world.

Rohullah confesses that she had eloped with her husband, an act that is considered immoral in Afghanistan and often ends in lynching by angry mobs. She says they can’t return because they would not be safe, and has received threats from her own father, she says. “He said he would kill me and my son.”

Rohullah says she only wants a better future for her son. “I want to provide him with a good education. I hope he will become a good person and have freedom.”

Unable to work, refugees in Indonesia rely on friends or family members in their home countries for money to cover living expenses. Most refugees choose to live in Bogor, West Java, due to its relatively low cost of living.

Hassan has lived there for four years, currently in a shoebox flat behind his landlord’s house, open to the elements in what is reputed to be Indonesia’s wettest city.

A former journalist, he spent about US$7,000 – a small fortune – to make it to Indonesia when his work put his life in danger. His mother and four siblings are still in Afghanistan.

He volunteers four days a week, teaching English to fellow refugees at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), another UNHCR partner organisation. The rest of his time he spends reading, writing and playing the oud – an Arabic lute.

Hassan is given 22,000 rupiah (less than US$2) a day for transport costs when he volunteers at JRS. Putting as much of this aside as he is able, he can take home about 422,000 rupiah a month, which is not enough to cover his 600,000 rupiah rent. Like most refugees in Indonesia, Hassan eats only once a day, mostly beans and rice.

Hassan suffers from depression and anxiety, and says it has worsened since the UNHCR’s September announcement.

“My family members are at risk back in Afghanistan. I’m very scared, very concerned about them,” he says. “I sometimes just want to give up,” he admits. “My family members back home are the only reason stopping me [from killing himself].”

Hassan says the UNHCR’s assessment of the refugees’ situation has been devastating for him. “It is so hard when have been waiting so long for news from the UNHCR, and they finally say you can go back to your home country. Our country is at war, and even according to the UNHCR there is nowhere safe in Afghanistan.”

Although he is well aware of how overcrowded and unsanitary the detention centres in Indonesia are, Hassan says he would still prefer to live in one because he would at least know when was going to eat and not have to rely on handouts to cover his living expenses.

However, the centres – run by the government – are not taking in any new refugees, including the families with newborns who sleep on the street outside Jakarta’s immigration centre.

Hassan says that since registering as a refugee in Indonesia, the UNHCR has offered him no help. ”I’ve written so many letters to the UNHCR for help and support, and I’ve received no single reply.”

Mitra Suryono, a public information officer with the UNHCR in Jakarta, says that due to budget and staffing constraints, they can only provide assistance to the most vulnerable.

“Due to the scale of the global issue of refugees, we have limitations and can’t provide assistance to all refugees. We can help 300 to 400 of them, covering young children, under-18s, the elderly and those with disabilities,” she says.

On February 5, about 30 refugees rallied in front of Jakarta’s UNHCR building demanding the right to basic human rights, including the right to work. Signs read “We are human”, and “UNHCR please help me”.

Suryono says the agency is trying to provide working opportunities for refugees in Indonesia. “We are continuing to advocate to the government to allow activities that can derive a small income so they don’t have to depend on handouts and can take better care of themselves,” she says.

“These activities should involve local communities, and benefit both the local communities and the refugees.”

In the meantime, Hassan and his fellow refugees are doing what they can to stay positive. They often play sports together, which helps to manage anxiety and depression. For the fortunate few, refugee-led education centres like JRS provide an informal education and respite from the constant worry.

Hassan says he often shares his feelings with others in the same situation as him. “We sit together, we talk to ease our burdens … We also cry alone to release all the feelings,” he admits. “Praying helps us, too. Even after all this time, I still have my faith.”

In the Shadow of Borobudur

First published in Garuda Indonesia Colours Magazine, August 2017.

Uncover the hidden treasures that lay in the mystical foothills of the Borobudur Valley

“Have you travelled around Borobudur temple much?” my guide, Agus, asks as I hop into the car on a beautiful, misty morning in Central Java’s Magelang.

“I’ve been to the temple more times than I can count,” I admit, “but this is the first time to be touring the foothills around it.”

But why is that, I ask myself. And I’d suspect the same goes for most tourists who have visited the temple. Borobudur, the largest Buddhist shrine in the world, dating back to the 10th century, is such a marvel and a Mecca to Buddhists from all over the world that it has the ability to overshadow the lesser grandiose attractions in the valley that it calls home.

The location for where this architectural marvel was built couldn’t be more spiritual. Borobudur sits in the middle of a valley with foothills and mountains protecting her from all sides; Mounts Merapi and Merbabu watch over from the Northeast, Mounts Sumbing and Sundoro from the Northwest, and the Menoreh hills from the South. The Borobudur valley is rich in Javanese culture and tradition, where the Majapahit era’s Hindu-Buddhism religion still lives and breathes. These foothills are steeped in mysticism, and when you know where to look, you’ll find treasures abound.

Agus drives us through village roads strewn with paper cuttings from the Idul Fitri celebrations just gone. I watch the smiley Javanese people going about their daily lives, most of whom live off the land, while others have jumped on the tourism bandwagon and built enchanting homestays to accommodate the budget savvy traveller. The small road twists and winds, and we’re met by enthusiastic calls made by local children. “Hello, mister!” they yell and wave, which we respond to with smiles and a honk from the car horn. We take a right turn at a small intersection, which takes us past padi (rice) fields, ripe and ready for harvest, and Agus breaks to let a row of adorable brown ducks cross the road.

“Look to the left,” Agus says.

I do, and in the distance, surrounded by rice fields and greenery as far as the eye can see, is Borobudur in all its glory, her stone stupas basking in the morning sunlight. I’d seen the temple so many times from up close, but the vision of her resting from a distance was awe-inspiring. I could imagine this landscape hadn’t changed much since the Majapahit kingdom she was born in. A horse-drawn cart (andong) jingles past us as I stand on the edge of the road taking photos of the temple, and it truly feels as though we have travelled back in time.

Down by the river

As we jump back in the car, Agus tells me I’m in for a real treat at the next spot. He takes us down some even smaller village roads, and I start to hear the sound of rushing water. Next on my Borobudur valley treasure hunt is a quirky yet charming art house on the edge of where two rivers, Elo and Progo, meet. Legend has it that Elo river is female and Progo river is male, and their union symbolizes the everlasting bond between a man and a woman in matrimony.

The Elprogo arthouse is owned by an eccentric, dreadlocked painter, who goes by the name of Sony. Although his sanctuary is rustic, there’s a kind of magic that lives here. Stepping out of the car, I’m greeted by a cool breeze in the shade of one of Pak Sony’s Bodhi trees – the same type of tree that Siddhartha Gautama meditated under and attained enlightenment, becoming the Buddha. Even if you’re not keen on learning how to paint, this place is great for a visit and a cup of local coffee perched atop one of the benches on the ravine’s edge, overlooking the white water in the river below.

After a coffee and a chat with the Pak Sony, he leads me down past his fairytale-like cottages towards his art gallery. This rustic space is like no other I’ve been to, and I spend some time admiring his life-like Borobudur relief paintings that adorn the exposed brick walls. The paintings appear to be three-dimensional and coming off of the canvases. It’s no wonder people travel from far and wide to learn how to paint from this talented artist.

Light streams in at the other end of the gallery, and as I exit, the view of a beautiful green-grassed garden appears before me. A peaceful retreat on the edge of the river, it’s here that I rest my weary legs and enjoy a picnic underneath the trees, looking on to where the two lovers, Elo and Progo, meet and are bound together forever.

Meditate

I wake to the sound of a gentle breeze and leaves rustling in the wind. Agus walks over and reminds me that we have one more spot to visit. “Mendut temple?” I say. I’d already been there several times before.

“Ah, but have you been into the Buddhist Monastery behind it?” he asks me with a knowing smile.

I’m not sure how I overlooked it in the past, but sitting right behind the 9th century Mendut Temple is a beautiful monastery open to the public, home to monks from all over the world, who come to study in what is considered one of the most prestigious monasteries of this faith. As we step through its gates, a feeling of calm sets in. This monastery is pristinely maintained, and houses two meditation rooms, a large hall where – during our visit – monks were gathering for a seminar, and statues and relics of the Buddha in his many depicted forms.

One particular statue, sitting underneath the shade of a Bodhi tree, catches my eye. It’s the Buddha, but not like other Buddhas I’d seen in the past. He is sitting in meditation, his stomach sunken in, his ribs and cheekbones protruding. We ask a passing monk what it means, and he tells us this is a depiction of Siddhartha Gautama at the end of his 49-day meditation without food or water, as he reaches enlightenment.

Feeling motivated by this beautiful vihara, I spend an hour honouring it in silent meditation. The late afternoon sun shines on my face as I exit the prayer room, and I decide to end my day with a visit to Mendut temple next door. I pay the small fee of Rp.3,500 ($0.40) to enter, and settle myself under the giant banyan tree that towers over this understated temple. As I sit here I remember the slight smile on the statue of the skinny Buddha resting in the monastery, and this image is the perfect way to end our day in this spiritual valley. I’m left knowing that no matter how many times I will visit this place again in the future, it will never cease to surprise me.

5 Senses: Sight

One of the most fun, and not to mention healthiest ways to tour the Borobudur valley is by bicycle. Most hotels and homestays offer bike rentals at very fair prices. Take a peaceful ride through the local villages and rice fields and soak in the sights that the shady, winding roads have to offer.

5 Senses: Sound

Observe Buddhist monks in daily evening (7pm) meditation at the beautifully kept Mendut Buddhist Monastery just behind the 9th century Mendut Temple. Sit in silence or join in prayer as the monks, who travel from far and wide to study in the shadow of their most sacred site, recite mantras in the hopes of freedom for all living beings.

5 Senses: Taste

One of this region’s local delicacies is ketupat tahu, also called kupat tahu. There are several tofu (tahu) factories in the valley, which are open to tourists. Try this zesty vegetarian dish made of sticky rice, tofu, peanut sauce, bean sprouts and soy sauce. I enjoyed a plate at a local warung, where a dish cost only Rp.8,000.

5 Senses: Smell

In the petite Mendut temple, incense always burns. Inside this pyramid cavern is where three large Buddha statues have rested since the 9th century. Light an incense stick, say a prayer whatever your faith, and watch the smoke unfurl and fill this ancient, dark stone room with the delightful scent of sandalwood, just as it’s been done for centuries.

The downsides to Singapore’s education system: streaming, stress and suicides

First published in South China Morning Post on 21 September, 2017

The country’s school system is geared towards high achievement in exams, but the emphasis on rote learning and memorisation, combined with pressure to succeed, affects children’s social skills, health and overall happiness.

Singapore’s education system is reputed for producing children who top the world rankings in standardised tests. The city state took first place in the last Pisa (global education rankings.

Hong Kong ranked ninth in the last Pisa tests, below Taiwan (fourth) and Macau (sixth).

Howard Tan, a former Singapore primary-school teacher turned private tutor, says he has encountered parents who put undue pressure on their youngsters.

“It’s too simplistic to say that the pressure comes from the system. A lot of pressure comes from parents,” he says, adding that he’s seen parents express disappointment with their children for scoring less than 90 per cent in tests. “As a teacher, I hardly push my students that way. The system necessitates that from the parents,” he says.

Tan teaches eight- and nine-year-olds, and his private tuition classes wrap up at 9pm. “I have one eight-year-old student taking multiple tuition classes from multiple tutors per subject, amounting to 11 tuition sessions a week. Does she have time for anything else?”

Tan says that when he taught physical education classes in primary school, he noticed that a number of children lacked motor skills. “In preschool … they need to socialise and learn conflict resolution with other kids. Many of the children I taught didn’t know how to deal with disagreements; they would shout because they didn’t know any better,” he says.

High student-to-teacher ratios are a big problem in Singaporean schools, Tan says, but pressure also stems from the practice of streaming – with pupils of the same year being segregated into different classes based on results and assessments in several key gateways.

Streaming is where the Singapore system differs from Hong Kong’s. However, segregation of “bright and slow” students still happens in Hong Kong, in the form of school banding.

Singapore’s compulsory education system consists of six years of primary school, four years of secondary, and between one and three years of post-secondary school. Students undergo two major exams before even leaving primary school.

At the end of primary year four, pupils are tested to determine the courses they will take in English, mathematics, mother tongue, and science. At the end of primary school, they take the Primary School Leaving Examination, which determines the stream a pupil will follow in secondary education.

There are four streams: Special, Express, Normal Academic, and Normal Technical. Special comprises about 10 per cent of pupils, and is an accelerated pathway to university. Fifty per cent make the Express track, which may lead directly to university or initially to junior college. Twenty per cent pursue the Normal track, leading to polytechnic institute, while the remainder fall into Normal Technical, which leads to a qualification at the Institute of Technical Education.

Some Singapore parents regard streaming as beneficial for children with different learning capacities. Maida Genato, who has three children at school, says: “For the slow learners, if you teach at a faster pace, they might have a hard time adjusting, whereas for fast learners, if you slow the pace they might get bored.”

Tan, however, says that with class sizes of 30 to 40 pupils, streaming will fail a lot of children.

Jamie Sisson, an education lecturer at University of South Australia, says streaming and high-stakes testing increase stress on children and parents.

“There is hard evidence proving that below high school, homework does not have a positive impact on learning.”
– JAMIE SISSON

“[It serves] to limit opportunities for learners that later affects their opportunities in life. Humans are complex beings. It is difficult to determine at a young age what someone is capable of achieving later in life,” she says.

The Singaporean concept of kiasu – a Hokkien word meaning “afraid to lose” – may explain why parents enrol their children in extracurricular tuition in the hope they will excel in test scores.

Genato, a Filipino, says she’s noticed that her daughter’s ethnic Chinese classmates tend to be pushed harder. “It must be a cultural thing,” she adds.

Sisson says she has observed that young adults of Chinese descent, including Singaporeans, sometimes find it hard to adapt to the university’s style of teaching.

“I’m seeing students, especially from China, struggle because they’re used to memorising answers. When they come to study in Australia, they have to shift their way of thinking.”

Sisson advocates a democratic, student-centred pedagogy, a teaching ethos by which students play a significant role in defining course policies, materials covered, and other aspects of schooling.

“Research shows that placing high value on test scores has led to narrow views of teaching and learning,” she says. “Such practices focus on memorising facts that have been determined by others to be of worth.

“If we don’t understand how things work in the context of real life, then we don’t understand, we’re just memorising. This can limit children’s opportunities to develop skills important to being innovative problem solvers we need in the future.”

Sisson refers to a widely cited report by British-based business lecturer Sally Chan, titled The Chinese Learner – a question of style. Chan writes: “The popular view is that the stresses of learning and need to excel academically leave the Chinese student with little choice but to resort to rote learning of the essentials to pass the examinations … Such learning modes are believed to dominate classroom behaviour for Chinese students in Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asia.”

Although primary-school children in Singapore spend an uncommon amount of time dealing with homework and extracurricular tuition, the benefits are questionable.

“There is hard evidence proving that below high school, homework does not have a positive impact on learning,” Sisson says, citing the example of Finland, which takes a holistic approach to education. Finnish students have little or no homework, and there is no private tuition culture in the country.

Finland came sixth in the latest Pisa rankings, and its schools produce young adults who are critical thinkers and problem-solvers.

“In preschool … they need to socialise and learn conflict resolution with other kids. Many of the children I taught didn’t know how to deal with disagreements.”
– HOWARD TAN

Finnish children don’t start school until they are seven years old, and there is only one standardised test, administered in the final year of high school. School holidays are longer. Finland ranked fifth in the UN’s 2016 World Happiness Report; Singapore ranked 26th.

Last year, Singapore’s Ministry of Education announced that a new scoring system would come into effect in 2021, claiming it will reduce stress by encouraging pupils to focus on their own learning rather that competition with their classmates.

Currently, a student’s Primary School Leaving Examination aggregate is the sum of T-scores from all four subjects taken. T-scores indicate how well a pupil has performed relative to peers in the subjects. From 2021, pupils’ scores will no longer be benchmarked against their classmates’, the ministry says, admitting: “The way that the T-score is calculated may have also created unhealthy competition among our young children.”

Roy Ngerng is a Singaporean activist, who in 2014 was found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on his sociopolitical blog, in comments about the city state’s pension fund. In an article titled ““New” PSLE Education Scoring System: Does it Change Anything?” Ngerng concludes that the change “still puts excessive focus on academic results”, and that students will actually find it harder to obtain higher scores.

Ngerng suggests that “healing” the system would require a combination of reducing class sizes and the administrative workload of teachers so they can focus on the development of each child, which would in turn reduce stress levels.

He also suggests a reduction in school hours. This would give teachers room for more creative activities to develop children’s critical thinking skills, he says.

Under the Knife: Female Genitalia Mutilation Causes Long Term Psychological Effects on Indonesian Women

First published in Indonesia Expat, 1 August 2017

Female genitalia mutilation is common practice in Indonesia. Although it is largely associated with Islamic teachings, many claim there is no connection to the religion. I speak to women who have experience first-hand and discover that there are more than negative physical effects caused by this incredible act of violation of human rights.

Nini works as a house helper in Jakarta. Recently a grandmother to baby twin girls, she had planned to accompany her son and daughter-in-law to the twins’ first official doctor’s appointment a few days after their births in South Jakarta. The routine visit was to include a check-up, vaccinations and the female circumcision.

Female genitalia mutilation, known in Bahasa Indonesia as ‘sunat perempuan’ is a common practice in Indonesia – and not just in rural areas. Parents and guardians like Nini have been told that the practice of either partially cutting or removing the clitoris entirely at a young age, without the child’s consent, is part of religious tradition that must be honoured. According to a 2016 report by UNICEF, 49 percent of Indonesian girls aged below 14 had undergone female genital mutilation by 2015.

In the country with the highest population of Muslims in the world, many people in Indonesia believe the practice is part of their religious passage. Historical records show that the practice began in the country with the arrival of Islam in the 13th century. It is carried out in different regions of the archipelago where Islam is predominant.

“I only know about sunat perempuan from the Betawi people I know, who say that it’s a religious passage in Islam,” says Nini, a Muslim who is originally from Cirebon and has not been circumcised. “Maybe it’s according to different regions’ traditions and beliefs.”

In 2013 the Indonesian Ulema Council ruled in favour of this violation against human rights, claiming it is part of Islamic teachings. Many Muslims, however, would disagree that it is taught in their religion.

Wulan Danoekoesoemo is the Co-Founder of Lentera Indonesia, an NGO aimed at providing support and counsel for victims of sexual abuse. Wulan is also a practicing Muslim and believes there is no passage in the Koran that teaches female circumcision.

“Female genitalia mutilation is not part of Islamic teachings,” she tells Indonesia Expat. “It has no medical/health benefit and was passed on through the generations as part of culture and tradition.”

Wulan herself is a victim of this violation against human rights. When she was only a few days old, her mother – believing she was acting in her daughter’s best interests at the time – took her to a clinic to have the procedure done on her. Although Wulan does not have any significant physical effects, she experiences psychological side effects until this day on a daily basis.

“Every time I get water on that region, I feel an incredibly overwhelming feeling of sadness and depression that I can’t explain,” she confesses.

“I feel worthless. It’s as though that part of me still recalls the extraordinary violation that took place all those years ago, and conveys it through my emotions.”

Wulan also teaches psychology at Binus University, and believes the psychological ramifications of female genitalia mutilation are significant to a woman’s development.

“When you’ve been violated from such a young age, it stays with you and defines the person who you are,” she says honestly. “Contrary to male circumcision in Indonesia, where the child or young man ultimately gets to make the decision as to whether or not he wants to ‘have the snip,’ girls are not asked – it just happens to them.”

The World Health Organisation states that the procedure has no health benefits whatsoever, contrary to popular local belief, unlike male circumcision, where health benefits include a reduced risk of some sexually transmitted diseases, protection against penile cancer and a reduced risk of cervical cancer in female sex partners.

The same practice on females can lead to harm. According to the World Health Organisation the procedure “can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.”

As Wulan experienced, psychological problems, including low self-esteem, depression and anxiety are long-term consequences associated with the practice.

Female genital mutilation is classified into four major types. Type one is the partial or total removal of the clitoris, type two is the partial or full removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, and type three is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. Type four includes all other harmful procedures carried out on the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes; pricking, piercing, scraping and cauterizing.

In Indonesia, types one and four is prevalent. In 2006 the government tried to ban the practice, a move that proved unsuccessful and was lifted. In 2010, the Health Ministry issued a decree outlining the ‘proper’ procedure for the circumcision, and has since tried to accommodate cultural and religious considerations, focusing efforts on eradicating type one genital mutilation and promoting a ‘safer’ type four, which involves pricking the clitoris, not removing it. Activists claim this contradicts the 2006 ruling prohibiting clinics from performing any mutilation and causes confusion among the public.

Wulan’s circumcision falls into type four. She believes the public needs to be educated about the practice to help them understand.

“People need to know and understand consent and how the female genitalia mutilation does not give the opportunity to women to agree or disagree to the practice. People may mean no harm to their daughters when they exercised this, but they also need to be aware of the physical and psychological impact that may result from this experience.”

Wulan believes the government needs to start being more firm when it comes to protecting personal choices.

“Despite tradition, it is still a matter of taking away an individual’s right to allow or not allow actions to be done to their bodies.”

She urges the government to start socializing accurate information about female genitalia mutilation: “working with local influencers and primary health care providers to reconstruct people’s understanding on female genitalia mutilation issues taking various approaches as well. It will take a lot of time but it needs to start somewhere.”

After receiving the facts about the dangers of female genitalia mutilation, Nini decided not to take her twin granddaughters to have the procedure done. These two little girls were the lucky ones.

Hope from the Darkness

A Hazara fleeing persecution has dedicated her life in Indonesia to helping her fellow refugees in Bogor.

‘Here we are in transit. We can’t go back to our home country, we can’t go forward, we are totally stuck and we don’t know for how long. We are in limbo.’

These are the words of Kalsoom Jaffari, a Hazara from Pakistan, currently living as a refugee in West Java’s rainy city of Bogor. She landed on Indonesian soil in August 2013 and has been waiting to be resettled in a third country ever since.

‘I’m originally from Behsood, where there are a lot of problems with the Taliban,’ Kalsoom tells me when I visit her in her very simple rented apartment in Bogor where she lives with her brother, Sikander. ‘In Afghanistan we are severely persecuted.’

Before her estranged life in Indonesia, Kalsoom was working for the UNHCR in Pakistan as a Health and Education Coordinator and with Mercy Corps Pakistan’s Integrated Health Program as a Community Health Educator. Being a Hazara woman working for an NGO, and also a Shia Muslim, she found herself on an extremist target list, which meant her life was in grave danger.

Kalsoom opens up to me as we sip on tea in her living room. ‘In March 2013, while working in the field providing an education at schools in refugee camps, a group of terrorists tried to kidnap me with my driver. We escaped but we received a phone call saying that this time we got lucky. I was supervising 16 of these camps at the time. I never thought that one day I would become a refugee.’

She continues, ‘The terrorists have no mercy for the young, the old, for women, for nobody. They will stop a bus and open fire on the Hazara because of this face.’ She points to her fair skin, which is what differentiates her from others in her home country.

Kalsoom’s father passed away when she was very young, and her mother and three younger sisters are still in Pakistan. Both of her sisters have stopped their studies because of threatening letters from terrorist groups. Kalsoom and her brother were forced to flee and seek asylum in another country.

Before arriving in Indonesia, Kalsoom and Sikander paid US$7,000 each to an agent who organized their safe passage to Indonesia as asylum seekers. They travelled from Pakistan to Malaysia, continuing by boat with 13 other asylum seekers, eventually landing in Medan.

‘When we arrived on the shores of Sumatra, we had to walk through the jungle at night. It was so dark and the guide had to cut trees to make a path,’ Kalsoom remembers. ‘The next day we were in a car driving around Medan for the entire day to avoid the immigration police. The air-conditioning was on and we were shivering because our clothes were soaking wet.’

Before alighting at Medan Kualanamu International airport, the driver told them to stay in the car as he went to get their tickets. Three men came and knocked on the car window. They claimed to be from immigration and said they were going to arrest everyone unless they paid US$1000 each.

‘We were so scared. They showed us their IDs but since we didn’t know anything about Indonesia, we didn’t know if they were real or not. In the end they took US$500 per head.’

US$500 is exactly the amount Kalsoom’s agent told them each to carry on the journey.

‘We are separated from our family,’ she shares with concern in her voice. Her youngest brother is currently in Melbourne, Australia on a bridging visa. He is also not allowed to work but he does what he can to help Kalsoom and her brother. ‘Hopefully one day we will be resettled in a third country, but we don’t know whether that would be Australia, Canada, New Zealand or America. If Australia, then at least we would be reunited with our brother.’

Kalsoom received her refugee status from the UNHCR in March 2014 but has heard no news since. She sends the UNHCR emails, letters, and has visited many times, but to no avail. ‘To visit, I have to leave at 4am and sit in front of the UNHCR gate in the morning until they open at 7am. Most of the time we don’t get an appointment. When I call them, the lines are always busy and I end up spending all my phone credit.’

According to Kalsoom, the UNHCR has just 49 staff for the entire asylum seeker and refugee population in Indonesia, of which there are over 14,000. Kalsoom says 6,000 live around Jakarta and Bogor, with the remainder in refugee centres around the country that she refers to as ‘prisons’. The UNHCR prioritizes resettling families. As Kalsoom and her brother are both single, they have been waiting four years. ‘I’m even thinking to get married here!’ Kalsoom manages to joke.

According to Kalsoom, all of the refugees are struggling to survive. As they are not permitted to work during their stay in Indonesia, they rely on money sent from their families back home. Most of the asylum seekers and refugees eat once or twice a day to save money. They have developed unusual sleeping patterns in an attempt to conserve energy and funds, going to bed very late at night (around 2-3am), and waking up at around noon. When they awake, they eat breakfast, which will usually consist of a cup of tea and some bread.

‘Our rent here is expensive,’ Kalsoom shares. ‘We can’t boil the tap water to drink because it’s totally brown. This leads to a lot of health problems when the water is used for showering and even drinking, including stomach problems, scabies and also vaginitis.’ Kalsoom helps by conducting health workshops for refugees, providing them with a kit that includes basic health items and toiletries.

Kalsoom herself has recently been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Lupus, due to environmental and lifestyle factors, namely stress and a poor diet. She suffers from painful and swelling joints and has not been able to start a course of medication due to lack of funding.

Although she is unwell, Kalsoom has been extremely proactive and has used her time in Indonesia to help other refugees and asylum seekers better their lives.

When she first arrived in Bogor, she noticed some children playing outside. When asking the parents why they didn’t send their children to the only refugee school open at the time, they replied that they couldn’t afford the transportation costs.

This inspired Kalsoom to do something. ‘I went to a stationary shop and bought some notebooks and pencils.. I felt that if I didn’t do this, nobody would support them. It cost Rp.110,000, which is a lot of money for me, but the peace I felt inside me was unique. I can’t explain it.’

Children learning English at the volunteer-led Cipayung Refugee Educational Center, founded by Kalsoom

With the books in hand, Kalsoom informed the parents in her neighbourhood that she would be teaching the children in the evenings. Starting by teaching English to three students in her home, the size of the class continued to grow to 40 students today, with classes taking place at a small rental-home-turned-school called the Cipayung Refugee Educational Center. Classes were even extended to the children’s mums, who today come twice a week to learn sewing and crocheting in Kalsoom’s living room.

The women, who now go by the name Refugee Women Support Group, are equipped with the skills to make pouches, pants, purses, and even dresses. Handicrafts made are sold in different bazaars in Jakarta and via non-profit online organization Beyond the Fabric, run by a group of friends.

‘We do this to empower the women. In our culture back home, these women are not allowed to go outside alone or make an income; men have authority.’ The women, who are from Iraq, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, love coming to class and would never miss a session.

Most of the women who take Kalsoom’s classes had never touched a sewing machine prior to joining, and are now able to make beautiful creations. They are able to express themselves keeping busy at the same time, while earning a little bit of pocket money.

Kalsoom has empowered women refugees by teaching them how to sew at the Refugee Women Support Group

Through personal donations from expat friends she’s made in Jakarta, Kalsoom has somehow managed to keep her school alive, as well as continued to pay rent and electricity in her humble home where the women meet.

Together with her friend Mohammad Baqir Bayani, Kalsoom has started the Health, Education and Learning Program (HELP) for Refugees project, with ambitious plans to open a refugee school in South Jakarta. The school plans to provide an education for children, teach computer literacy to young adults, as well as provide health workshops to adults. Activities like sewing and handicraft classes will also be offered to mothers to advocate for the creation of further income-generating activities.

Kalsoom’s refugee friends who teach at the Cipayung Refugee Educational Centre in Bogor

Kalsoom has become a very respected figure in her community in Bogor. Although she comes across as extremely strong, it is clear her past and present hardships and future uncertainties are taking a toll on her. ‘I miss my home and my family, but I am not safe there. Here I’m safe but my loved ones are not with me,’ she tells me with sadness in her eyes. When asked what her fears are, she answers, ‘Even if I’m tired I cannot sleep. I fear too much about what’s going to happen and I worry about the safety of my family back home.’

First published in Inside Indonesia.