Category Archives: Human rights

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.”

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.”

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. 

 

 

HELP to Open a School for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Jakarta!

Health, Education and Learning Program (HELP) for Refugees needs your help to raise funds to pay for rent and electricity for a new refugee school in Jakarta.

Indonesia is currently home to over 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers waiting to be resettled in a third country. Under Indonesian law, asylum seekers and refugees are not allowed to work; they do not have access to social support from the Indonesian Government and most schools and universities will not accept them.Many refugees are deprived of a sense of purpose and dignity, which can be provided by work and study. They continually face the feelings of being trapped, unable to return to their country, whilst having no prospect of settling lawfully in Indonesia, which for many may have been the country of choice after building a life here. Lack of education in refugee communities and detention centres is one of the biggest problems individuals and families face.

The Health, Education and Learning Program (HELP) for Refugees in Jakarta, run by the community, for the community, is a collective of passionate refugees, working to better the lives of fellow refugees and asylum seekers living in limbo.

The program will help by providing education for children, teaching computer literacy courses to young adults, while presenting a range of Information and technology skills alongside health workshops, focusing on common health issues and family planning education. In conjunction with these classes and activities, HELP will provide an extra curricular component to the program in the form of sewing, embroidery, knitting and handicraft workshops, which will be offered whilst advocating for the creation of further income-generating activities.

Providing refugees and asylum seekers with a space to use their time productively and positively will help prevent asylum seekers and refugee children, adults and families from being trapped in their homes, left to deal with traumas of the past, reflections of the present and fears of the future. With a focus on empowering individuals, HELP will work to provide individuals with the skills, positive energy and support that they need to engage with the knowledge, tools and focus they can access within themselves, creating the confidence and momentum to move forward into their unknown futures.

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Objectives

1. Providing classes for the children to ensure they continue to be engaged with reading and learning.

2. Providing adults with english lessons to encourage preparedness for resettlement, and the encouragement of intergenerational learning of English.

3. Providing opportunities for learning new practical skills or practicing their old skills, with a strong focus on these skills leading to potential income generating activities in the future. Women will be given the top priority.

4. Conducting health workshops most common health that are particular to the area of residents, including family planning workshops.

5. Encouraging and teaching computer literacy as a way to get individuals involved with career development activities.

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Budget

For conducting our voluntary activities, HELP For Refugees will need to rent a space. As asylum seekers and refugees are dispersed throughout Jakarta, with the majority of them residing in Tebet, it has been decided that this will be where the program will be based.

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The proposed budget is an estimated minimum cost of what will be required to establish and run the school and program for up to a year. We need your support to raise the funds to make this education centre a reality!

Program evaluation

Assessment tests will be conducted every three months to determine the progress in children’s studies. Interviews, questionnaire, case study, surveys or focus group discussion will be used to evaluate our outcomes in health and learning areas.

Who is behind The HELP For Refugees?

Mohammad Baqir Bayani and Kalsoom Jaffari are Co-founders of HELP For Refugees, both refugees who have been living in Indonesia for the last few years and have devoted their time to helping fellow asylum seekers and refugees. Baqir is co-founder of The Refugee Reflect Circle (RRC), a group of photographers who use their experience and skills of visual storytelling to tell the stories of asylum seekers and refugees, he is a creative writer, and the co-founder and co-director of Refugees Of Indonesia project.

Kalsoom Jaffari works tirelessly to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers in Cisarua have access to education, essential health information and any translation services. Her previous work experience includes working on health programs with UNHCR in Pakistan and as a Community Health Education (CHE) with Mercy Corps Pakistan’s Integrated Health Program. She conducts monthly health workshops ensuring that women have knowledge on Gender Based Violence, providing them with health and education packs.

Kalsoom is also the founder of the Refugee Women’s Support Group, giving women access to sewing and handicraft activities to encourage the initiation of income-generating activities, supported by Beyond the Fabric. She is also the founder of the Cipayung Education Centre, a small school providing education to refugee children in Cipayung, Bogor.

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The Reporter-Turned-Refugee

A journalist’s job is to tell a story. It’s not a profession that pays the highest salary, nor is it one that earns the most respect. Those who choose this path, however, are usually incredibly passionate, willing to take risks to share the truth.

But what happens when you take a journalist who is a minority, place him in a war-torn country, reporting on extremist groups? You become a target. This is exactly what happened to 30-year-old Hasib (not his real name), a Hazara from Afghanistan, who is currently living as a refugee in one of the wettest cities in the world, Bogor.

Hasib meets me on his street outside of a small warung (small shop). He welcomes me and leads me down a small gang (alleyway) that ends at a dark-looking house. He takes me down the side of the house, through a narrow path that opens up to a small back area, with a dark bedroom, a corner with a sink and a stove, and an outside area where the bathroom sits. The back quarter is surrounded by chicken wire and overlooks a rice field.

“Where would you feel comfortable?” Hasib asks me sincerely.

I look around and see a rusty metal chair. In front of it sits a small coffee table. “This looks good,” I say as I point to the chair. “But where will you sit?” I ask him. He says that it’s absolutely no problem and rushes off to fetch another chair from his landlord’s front porch.

Once I settle down, I take a moment to look around. Hasib’s concrete-clad confines are small and dimly lit, and there’s no escape from the damp Bogor air. But his situation has done nothing to dampen his spirits. Hasib asks me if I have eaten and insists he prepare some food. I accept, understanding the Aghani custom – very similar to Indonesia’s – of always offering something to eat and drink to guests that grace your home.

Hasib brings out a pre-cooked meal of kidney beans in a tomato and spice sauce, and puts it in a pan on the stove to heat up. He sits down in front of me as I begin asking him questions about his life.

'Hasib' the former reporter, now a refugee awaiting an uncertain future in Bogor, Indonesia
‘Hasib’ the former reporter, now a refugee awaiting an uncertain future in Bogor, Indonesia

“How much rent do you pay here?”

“Rp.600,000 (USD 44) per month,” he answers. “It’s the cheapest I could find and my landlord is very kind to me.”

As the aromatic smell of the beans begins to fill the room, Hasib tells me about his former life as a journalist back in Afghanistan. During his time at the Daily Outlook Afghanistan, his office and colleagues were attacked by extremist groups over allegations of blasphemy. The bureau was shut down. He later worked at the The Daily Afghanistan Express.

“My colleagues in The Daily Afghanistan Express fled; some are still missing while others have been sent to prison. I am not sure whether they are alive or have been persecuted,” he tells me. Hasib, having written countless articles about extremist groups responsible for the attacks, became a target.

Hasib excuses himself to switch off the stove as the beans are cooked. He prepares a plate each, served with some Afghani bread. “Please, I hope you like it,” he says. The beans are delicious, with a kick from the chilli they’re cooked in. Hasib gives me some homemade yoghurt to control the spice. We continue our discussion.

“Why did you come to Indonesia?”

“I had no choice,” he answers honestly. “I fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where I stayed for 16 months, but the situation there was also terrible. Innocent women, some of whom were family members, and a small girl I knew by the name of Tabasom Shukria, were beheaded. I believe they were after me for the articles I had written against Lashkari Jhangvi, an extremist group in Pakistan.

“The only thing I knew about Indonesia before coming here was the stories of refugees drowning in boats out at sea. I covered these stories while I was a journalist. I never dreamt I would end up a refugee out at sea as well.”

In the chaos of war, Hasib hastily reached out to an agent to help him seek asylum in another country. He handed over a large sum of money and followed instructions, boarding a plane to Dubai. It was here that he learned he would be seeking refuge in Indonesia. He flew from Dubai to Malaysia, where he got on a boat and crossed the Straits of Malacca to Sumatra, eventually boarding the last plane he would fly in 2.5 years, from Medan to Jakarta.

Like all asylum seekers who first arrive in Indonesia, Hasib reported himself to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jakarta. “I felt safe for the first time in a long time,” he tells me. It took the UNHCR two years to grant Hasib refugee status, which is now valid for 1.5 years. Refugees are not allowed to work or attend school in Indonesia while waiting to be resettled in a third country. If their case is rejected by the UNHCR, they must return from where they came.

“How do you survive without earning a salary?” I ask.

“Through donations from my friends and colleagues back home. I save money by eating once a day; sometimes I go hungry.”

I look down at my plate and am deeply moved that Hasib has shared some of his treasured food rations with me.

“I live a hermit’s life,” Hasib says while smiling. “I sit where you’re sitting and listen to music while reading or writing poetry. I also teach the women of the Indonesian Women Support Group Center voluntarily. Sometimes I get called to help with interpretations.”

When asked what his life feels like to him, he answers, “like a bad nightmare”. Hasib believes people don’t view refugees as human beings. “I’m broken. I often get splitting headaches, chest pain and fevers, but I can’t afford healthcare,” he shares.

Hasib only hears from his family back home sporadically. “I don’t even know if my family are alive.” He has two sisters and three bothers living as refugees in Pakistan, a country nearly as dangerous as Afghanistan.

Hasib, like approximately 14,000 other refugees in Indonesia, lives day to day, waiting patiently in limbo to be resettled in the United States, New Zealand, Australia or Canada. “If Indonesia would resettle me, I would be extremely happy,” he smiles. Sadly for Hasib and his fellow refugee friends, Indonesia has not signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and will not resettle refuge-seekers.

President Trump’s 120-day refugee ban directly affects Hasib and has thrown a spanner in the works for all refugees in Indonesia who are waiting for resettlement. As Indonesia is still accepting asylum seekers and refugees, we can expect the UNHCR to experience an even greater backlog of refugees waiting for resettlement in a third country.

I ask Hasib, “How does President Trump’s ban make you feel about the potential of ending up in the United States?”

“I am worried I would be looked upon as a bad human in the United States,” he says. “Minds are being injected with pointless thoughts that Muslims are not good people and that we are not welcome. The ban is a very negative initiative. It doesn’t only paralyse Muslims, but the entire world.”

“What will you do if and when you are resettled?”

“I will continue to be a journalist,” he says. “I’ll dedicate my work to humanity. I will never forget the people of Indonesia; people are kind here.”

Hasib’s story is one of suffering, having been on the run for most of his life. But even through the sadness in his eyes, warmth exudes. Although his stories are heartbreaking, he is still smiles, laughs and shares kindness with others.

Hasib would like to convey the following messages to authorities around the world:

“I plead for humanitarian assistance. I plead for you to open your arms to refugees and asylum seekers. Please don’t ignore us; we are innocent people. I plead that you spend a moment to feel what it is like to live in our shoes. I beg for empathy.”

Original article published on Indonesia Expat on February 13, 2017.