PETALING JAYA: Dr Hartini Zainudin is always full of hope for her charges at Yayasan Chow Kit, a day care centre for children, which she founded.
She would tell parents to be hopeful about the future of their children.
“Usually I tell parents to stay strong and fight on," said the child rights activist who has seen some of the most disturbing cases involving children.
But she is now faced with a dilemma and hope is turning into frustration.
It started six years ago when she adopted Zara Hana Abdullah. And getting Zara her citizenship is giving her sleepless nights.
Her eyes began to tear when The Star Online met her in Bangsar recently to talk about Zara.
“You are going to make me cry. I have always been strong but now I am not speaking as a child activist. I am speaking as a mother,” she said.
Dr Hartini is terrified for Zara's future because she is not a citizen of any country and is deemed to be stateless.
Abandoned as a baby in Klang, Zara was looked after by a kind-hearted lady before Dr Hartini adopted her.
“Somebody called me and told me about a baby that needed adoption,” recalled Dr Hartini. Zara was two-and-a-half months old at the time, or that was the age doctors told her.
After putting an application for adoption and getting a sworn statement from Zara’s temporary guardian, Zara was legally adopted in 2010.
Zara received her birth certificate a year later. But the process of getting citizenship has not been easy.
“I’m scared but Zara doesn’t know that. She thinks you are going to help her get a passport so that she can go to Disneyland,” Dr Hartini said.
She calls out to Zara who was playing at a playground in Bangsar Shopping Centre. Zara runs to her table, looks away and puts her head lovingly on Dr Hartini’s hand.
When asked where she would like to go, Zara replied New York "to see Aunty Yati."
“That’s my sister,” explained Dr Hartini.
When asked her favourite Disney character, Zara said Minnie Mouse, shyly.
Zara runs back enthusiastically to the jungle gym, like any other child would.
“She is very shy and takes a while to warm up. She is very bossy when she knows you. She bosses everyone around,” quipped Dr Hartini, who added that Zara likes to dance to the Hindi hit Chamak Challo.
Dr Hartini has put in an application for Zara’s citizenship with the Home Ministry. That was in January last year but she hasn’t heard anything yet.
The application was made together with five other Malaysian parents who also adopted stateless children.
Dr Hartini said that there should be incentives for parents to adopt stateless children because life is made difficult when these children are not given citizenship.
“I haven’t heard anything from KDN (Home Ministry) so far. I’m scared because I don’t know how long it will take. Children are not going to go anywhere if they have no legal papers,” she said.
Dr Hartini’s other adopted child has citizenship because she managed to track down her mother who happened to be a Malaysian.
“She signed a consent form for me to adopt her son. It was very hard. It took me nine months to track her down. It’s different with Zara because there is no way of tracking her mother down. It’s just impossible,” she said.
According to the National Registration Department (NRD), a child’s citizenship status is determined by the parents’ marital status and their citizenship status at the time of birth.
It also said that having a birth certificate is not an indication that someone is a Malaysian citizen.
Activists have decried this rule and said that abandoned children are being abandoned through no fault of their own.
Due to this policy, children such as Zara can’t go to public schools because they don’t possess an identity card (or MyKid).
Zara has no choice but to enrol in a private school.
“I'm not poor but I'm not rich either. I have to count every sen, every single month, to figure out how I will afford her school fees or medical services now and in future,” said Dr Hartini.
“She wants to be a doctor but there is no way that can happen if she doesn’t have a citizenship because she can’t study at a university or go overseas. It wouldn’t matter how smart she is,” she Dr Hartini.
Zara, who is asthmatic, also can’t get free medical access at government hospitals.
What worries Dr Hartini is the prospect of Zara being "rounded up by the authorities."
“To think my daughter can go for ice-cream with her friends and if the authorities decide on a raid and ask her for her identity card, they can legally take her because she has no papers. Where can they deport her to?” she said.
As for now, Dr Hartini brings copies of Zara’s adoption papers, birth certificate and pictures of them everywhere in case the authorities stop them.
“It’s not fair to the child because she doesn't know what’s going on. Her brother teases her that she doesn’t have a passport and she can’t go to Sabah, Singapore or Disneyland.
“She will understand the situation when she is older and she is going to ask me what happened. Am I going to tell her that her that the country she loves doesn’t love her back?” said Dr Hartini.