When he was in school, Awaludin Jalalus Shuti used to hide the fact that he came from Chow Kit.
“Once, when I was in Form One, I introduced myself in class and when I said that I was from Chow Kit, I received funny looks and snide comments. Some students asked me if I knew where I could go to for GROs, ecstasy pills, marijuana and such.
“Even though I did know, the stigma didn’t feel nice, so I became an introvert and kept to myself. In class, even if I knew the answers to questions, I’d stay quiet. And, I definitely never said I was from Chow Kit anymore. It was the same with my friends too,” he shares.
But these days, Awaludin, 30, can’t stop talking about Chow Kit, and in particular, Chow Kit Youth (CKY), the social enterprise that he founded to empower youth from the area.
CKY focuses on developing the talents of youth from the area as well as community engagement activities and volunteerism. Awaludin is extremely proud of the youth from Chow Kit who, he says, are not just “extremely capable and talented” but also care for their community.
Starting CKY was Awaludin’s way of giving back.
“When I was about nine or so, I started going to the Pusat Aktiviti Kanak Kanak (PAKK) Chow Kit which, at the time, was run by Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat (Social Welfare Department). It was right in the middle of Jalan Chow Kit and was a safe space for us kids to go to after school for various activities and programmes.
“Prior to that, my friends and I used to play football and badminton on the streets and back alleys of Chow Kit after school. It was dangerous because there were gang fights and all that, and traffic was bad. But, there aren’t any playgrounds in Chow Kit ... the closest one is about two kilometres away. “At the centre, we were given a lot of exposure through outreach and skills-building programmes which I think even children who grow up in better neighbourhoods don’t have access to. Thanks to the centre, I made so many new friends from Chow Kit.
“Before joining, I basically only had two good friends, both of whom were my neighbours. But at the centre, I got to know the other children from Chow Kit and I understood that we all had different backgrounds, some had more difficult childhoods, but that we were all good kids. Even the boys whom I used to be scared of, because they seemed ‘rough’, became my friends.
“I realised that coming from Chow Kit was nothing to be ashamed of,” shares Awaludin, who studied at Politeknik Premier Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah, Shah Alam and currently works as a marketing executive for a well-known bookstore.
It was also at PAKK that he became more confident.
“I even got to travel to different parts of Malaysia. Before that, the furthest I’d gone was Sentul, which is just neighbouring Chow Kit,” he shares.
A centre like no other
Situated along Jalan Chow Kit, PAKK (also known as Nur Salam) has been a refuge for children in Chow Kit, one of the city’s least affluent neighbourhoods, for about two decades. There are two drop-in centres in the area: PAKK which caters to children aged seven to 12, and the Kuala Lumpur Krash Pad (KLKP) for those aged 12 to 18.
The two centres help children and teens from Chow Kit, like Awaludin and his peers, learn skills so that they can break away from the poverty cycle.
The centres operate from 7am to 7pm and children go there after or before they attend school.
“These children are not on the streets because they are homeless, but rather, because both parents are working and they have to be at home alone. Childcare is too expensive and beyond the reach of the parents. And since most of them live in shop lots, their home environments are not very conducive.
“If they didn’t come here, the children would lepak in cybercafes or gambling dens. Back when the centre first started, there was a lot of drug pushing and sex work in the Chow Kit area and so the children were really vulnerable,” explains Ananti Rajasingam, chief executive officer of Yayasan Chow Kit (YCK), the NGO that has been running PAKK for the past 15 years. YCK also runs a shelter or safe home located in Petaling Jaya for children who need temporary guardianship.
Currently, there are about 121 children and teens enrolled at PAKK. Through the enrichment and development programmes at the centre, the children take part in many activities such as taekwando, photography, art, football and so on. There is also a schooling programme for migrant and refugee children who cannot enrol in government schools.
“At the centre, the children are safe. And we create a healthy environment for them to grow up in. We provide meals and run developmental programmes in the hope that they can break out of the poverty cycle. We also have social workers who try to provide them with services that will enable them to access their basic rights and needs.
“For example, some children do not go to school because they are the eldest in the family and have to look after their younger siblings.
“Another common reason is that the children do not have a birth certificate even though they are Malaysian,” she explains.
“Most of the time, the children in these circumstances end up following in the footsteps of the parents because of a lack of opportunities. We want to change this,” says Ananti, who has been with YCK for 12 years.
In need of help
However, the cracks are, literally, beginning to show at PAKK.
Although the space is bright and cheery – a nice welcoming atmosphere for the children they serve – it is hard to ignore the huge sheets of cardboard taped onto the floor at certain areas that cover the broken tiles and cracks in the flooring.
“The space isn’t conducive anymore,” says Datuk Dr Hartini Zainudin, founder of YCK. “There are cracks here and there and it’s just not a suitable place for our children anymore.”
Adds Ananti, “The tiles are broken and when it rains, water comes in and it gets flooded and the staff and children need to clean the centre up. We have roofing issues, flooring issues, ceiling issues, wall issues and even rat issues ... everything is an issue and over time our maintenance costs are increasing.
“And though we are charged a reasonable rent, the costs are just a lot and we try to manage it the best we can.
“But we are working with children and so we really need a safer, better space.”
And that is why YCK has leased a four-storey building along Jalan Belia in Chow Kit – formerly a private college – which they want to transform into a one-stop crisis centre for children in the area.
Hartini and her team have grand plans for the new place, which include comfortable spaces for their programmes, a well-stocked library for all children, an edible garden, a play area and dormitories for children who need a temporary place to stay.
“We want a nice, comfortable, happy place for the children and not a run-down place,” says Ananti.
But before that can happen, the building needs extensive renovation work, which YCK is actively raising funds for. Their target is to raise RM1mil. So far, they have raised about RM200,000.
Right now, demolition work on the premises has been done and renovation is starting floor by floor.
“It will cost about RM400,000 per floor,” says Ananti.
The public can support YCK’s fundraising effort through their “Brick by Brick” campaign where people can pay RM100 to purchase a brick that will go towards the refurbishment of the new premises.
YCK hopes to “sell” 6,000 bricks to raise RM600,000. Corporates and individuals can also adopt a space – for example, RM30,000 for the library – if they want to do so.
“Fundraising for this has been quite difficult. I am torn ... because we have so many needs here (for the children and the present centre) that need funding too.
“But then, we can’t go on like this. We need a one-stop crisis centre and a proper space for the children and their families to come to,” says Hartini.
“We don’t just work with children who are at risk, but children at risk who are marginalised and excluded from so many basic rights and necessities.
“We want to be a beacon of hope for children not just in this very poor area in the city but also from elsewhere. We want to be a sanctuary for children ... when they see this building, they will know they have found safety,” adds Hartini.
A shared responsibility
Part of the challenge in raising funds – not just for the new premises but for sustaining YCK – is trying to convince people that child protection is everyone’s responsibility.
“It gets very scary knowing that we are responsible for so many children. Ananti and I take turns to reassure each other because sometimes, we worry that we won’t have the resources to make things work. There are the operating costs and wages (which come up to RM86,000 a month). We work long hours because for us, it’s a passion but this passion needs to be paid. We also have to make sure that we don’t cut corners because we operate on trust ... if we lose the trust of the families we work with, we’re finished,” explains Hartini.
As a child activist, Hartini says that she’s been trying to get Malaysians to see that child rights and protection matters, and that it’s something everyone should care about.
“It’s not about charity. We don’t do charity or give handouts. We identify the needs and work on empowering the children and communities and teach them their rights. It’s a holistic approach: the idea is that when they are very young they need protection and safety, when they’re older they need support and when they are teens, they need empowerment and to know their rights.
“And, with the tools that they learn here, they can have upward social mobility. It’s not enough to get a job but to have that resilience to adapt and aim for more. It’s teaching them and supporting them to dream big, to have ambition and work towards it – it’s not ‘Saya nak jadi askar’, but ‘Saya nak jadi Jeneral’, or ‘Saya nak jadi Inspektor’. It’s about teaching them that their circumstances don’t define them,” she says.
So far, despite the challenges, Hartini and Ananti are happy to report that YCK has been successful in achieving their goals.
About 90% of the children that have come through their programmes have gone on to become successful young adults who are contributing back to society and the economy, says Ananti, adding that the 10% who are still struggling have greater challenges that need more work.
“I am really proud of them. One of our success stories is Awaludin who started Chow Kit Youth. But there are so many more ... we have about 70 youth in our alumni who have grown up with us and come back as mentors to the younger children. This is so important because they can relate to these youth who also came through the centre,” says Ananti.
Hartini, who started as a volunteer at PAKK in 2005 before founding YCK and taking over the management of the centre, is immensely proud of the centre’s alumni.
“This is what it’s about. Our job is to ensure that the children are empowered and inspired to make better choices so they can be their own advocates.
“At some point, we are going to retire and they have to take over, which is why I am so proud of Chow Kit Youth because they understand this and have stepped up,” says Hartini.
For Awaludin and his peers, the centre didn’t just give them opportunities, it exposed them to possibilities of a world beyond what they saw around them.
“The opportunities we had opened our eyes and our minds. It made us aware of a lot of things and showed us the role we had to play for the greater good of our community.
“And that is why we stay and come back to Chow Kit even though some of us, like myself, no longer live in the area. We want people to see that there is so much more to Chow Kit than the bad rep it has gotten, that no matter where we come from, everyone deserves a fair chance.
“I want my younger brothers and sisters from Chow Kit to be proud of where they come from and to go on and help others who need a leg up; to say that ‘We are from Chow Kit and we want to help you because we know what it’s like to come from nothing’,” says Awaludin.
To contribute to Yayasan Chow Kit’s fundraising campaign, email Ananti at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 017 656 9997.