The first time she stepped into an Orang Asli settlement, former air stewardess Noor Safinar Abu Seman was taken aback by the poverty she saw. She could not turn her back on their plight and now, helping the community has become her calling.
“They had nothing. They didn’t even have mugs to drink out of but would cut mineral water bottles in half to use as their drinking vessels. They had no utensils, they had no beds. And worst of all, most of them were illiterate. I mean, to put it plainly, they have been so neglected, ” laments Safinar.
She was determined to help the community and started Projek Asal. Her aim was clear: to teach Orang Asli children to read, write and count and to convince the adults that it’s important to educate their young ones.
One of the initiatives under Projek Asal is Rumah Baca, which are reading hubs set up in the settlements for children to learn to read, write and count, and to encourage them to attend school. She fills them with second-hand books sourced from all over.
Some of these hubs have teachers, usually Orang Asli who have gone through the government’s training programmes and are able to teach the young ones basic literacy skills.
“It isn’t that they don’t want to learn. They are so poor that their only priority is to put food on the table. There are many Orang Asli children who do well in schools and go on to further their education but there are also many who don’t go to school. And not all of them have teachers like Samuel (Isaiah, one of the top 10 finalists for the 2020 Global Teacher Prize).
“It’s really heartbreaking to hear the stories some children shared about how they were made fun of or ignored when they go to school. So, they stop going.
“They are so poor that some of them go to school with no shoes or slippers, ” says Safinar, who gave up her career to bring up her children.
And it was her children who actually led to her doing volunteer work with the Orang Asli about five or six years ago.
“I really can’t remember when I first began working with the Orang Asli but I can tell you why I started. I wanted to teach my children values. They are city kids and I wanted them to realise that not everyone had the comforts of home that they grew up with.
“They are not bad children but you know how kids like to complain about not having enough of this and that... well, I wanted to show them what not having enough really means.
“By taking them with me into the Orang Asli villages, they saw how hard some families have it. And they learnt to be grateful. Along the way, I could see character development in them. I could see them becoming enriched, ” says Safinar whose four children are now all grown up. Muhammad Naim Aziz is 27, Muhammad Ariff Aziz, 24, Amira Sarah, 23, and Muhammad Aisy is 16.
But her work wasn’t just for the betterment of her children. Safinar has grown attached to the Orang Asli community and she feels it’s her responsibility to do as much as she can to help them.
A way of life
Helping the less fortunate, or the concept of #kitajagakita, is ingrained in Safinar.
“I grew up watching my grandparents and great grandparents helping folks in the kampung who needed supplies and couldn’t afford to buy them. It was normal to help those who need help. So it’s not something extraordinary that I am doing. It’s the only way of life that I know.
“When my children were in boarding school, they had friends who were so poor that they would not be able to go home during the holidays, sometimes for years. I would take them in as my ‘adopted children’... and now they are lawyers, engineers and are doing do well. I am so proud of them, ” shares Safinar, 53, who is from Penang. “We have enough, so we must help others who don’t.”
Now that her children are more independent – only one still in school and one in university – Safinar says she can focus on guiding the Orang Asli children as she did her own.
“I may not be a qualified teacher but I did alright as a mum... I managed to put my children through school and get them to university! I will use the same passion and discipline with these children too, ” she says.
When she is back home in Kuala Lumpur, she reaches out to her friends and their contacts for preloved items for the Orang Asli, such as mugs, crockery, clothes, shoes, bags, brooms, rakes, and other household necessities and food staples.
But her focus is on collecting books and stationery to facilitate the children’s learning.
“It doesn’t matter that it’s preloved because most of the things we get from people in the city are in good condition. And books – old or new, it’s the content that is what’s important, right?” she states, adding that the women and youth have also shown a keen interest in learning.
Over the years, Safinar has managed to find support among friends and acquaintances in carrying out these projects. Though she uses old, abandoned structures in the settlements for her Rumah Baca, she often does repair work for them to be safe and functional.
She sources for recycled wood, old doors, tables and chairs and carts them to the settlements, along with volunteers, for a weekend of work. Among the volunteers is her godfather, Pak Man, a house builder and carpenter who has been instrumental in fixing the often dilapidated structures.
“We work together; us and the Orang Asli. I tell them that it’s their home and their settlement and we are there to help them but they have to do the work too. And they do it willingly. So for three days or so, we stay with them, eat with them and work with them. And because I sleep in their homes on the bamboo floor and eat together with them, I have gotten to know them and the issues they face.
“People in the city have stereotypes about the Orang Asli... that they are lazy or don’t want to work. That’s so untrue and I’ll just give you a very simple example of why I say that. We brought in rakes and brooms for them to use because, though they are very clean, their living areas were messy. We taught them how to use the rake and brooms and on our next visit, we were pleasantly shocked at how clean and neat the place was. Even the areas under their houses were swept clean. All they needed were the brooms and a little guidance on how to use them, ” she says.
One step at a time
Because of the pandemic and the different stages of the movement control order (MCO) that have been imposed since March, Safinar hasn’t been able to “go to the ground” as much as before. But she stays in touch and helps the community, remotely, as best as she can.
“I miss them and they have been asking me when I am coming to see them next, ” she shares.
Earlier this year, when the MCO was first enforced, Safinar taught some of the Orang Asli women she works with how to sew reusable face masks, sourcing good cotton material for them to use and supervising the quality of the masks produced.
“It was another way for them to earn some income. I don’t take anything out of it. I hope to help the community set up a Rumah Jahit and Rumah Makan where they can sell food because, honestly, the food they cook is delicious. But I am not sure when, given the current restrictions, ” she relates.
Safinar is also helping to teach the Orang Asli how to manage their finances better with the help of her accountant son, Naim.
“This is their weakness – managing their money. There was an incident where, after earning some money, they went to town and bought a big TV and some Hindustani movie DVDs and they had no more money for transport to come back home. But slowly, we hope to teach them to save and hopefully then, we can set up enterprises for them to earn a living using the skills that they have, ” she says.
Though things are uncertain now because of the pandemic, Safinar intends to work with the community “for as long as I am able to”.
“I am not trying to change their culture or the way they live. But, because I have gotten to know them very well, they trust me enough to tell me what they want. And what many families want is for their children to have a better life. For me, the best way is through education and so I want to help as many Orang Asli children as possible learn to read, write, count and go to school, ” she concludes.
To find out more about Projek Asal, go to facebook.com/projekasalrumahbaca/.
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