PETALING JAYA: It is the middle of the night and no one is expecting a respected school principal to be roaming the streets of a rough neighbourhood.
However, Zulkernai Fauzi is a man on a mission. He wants to convince needy parents to send their children to his school – Sekolah Bimbingan Jalinan Kasih.
The school, located in Chow Kit, was specially set up by the Education Ministry in 2013 to provide free education for street children, including stateless children, who do not have identification documents.
“About half of the 152 students here are those without identification documents.
“They can’t go to normal schools, so we provide them with access to a formal education but one of their parents must be a Malaysian citizen, ” Zulkernai said.
The other students in the school, he added, are at-risk children from broken families, welfare homes or living in a poor social environment.
When the 53-year-old became its principal in 2013, he was burdened with the thought of the many children who were not schooling.
“When I first came here, there were only about 43 students but when I surveyed the area in Chow Kit, I believed there were many more, queuing for food at night, not being educated, ” he said.
Zulkernai then decided to take it upon himself to do something.
Dressed in a simple T-shirt, jeans and slippers, he would go out to the streets, recruiting his students late at night.
“I would go searching from 10pm to about 2am or 3am.
“The challenge is to find the children and to convince their parents to send them to school.
“Some of them don’t believe me at first. They thought ‘why would there be a teacher going out at night to look for students?’
“Many of them don’t see the importance of education. The most important thing is survival. I may not be able to help the parents, but I want to help the children.
“I don’t want them to continue living in such conditions, ” he said.
The living conditions of some students were appalling, as he related how he found some living under the bridges by the river and in rusty shipping containers that had no ventilation or electricity.
For Zulkernai, the school must be a fun learning place where the students, aged four to 19, know for certain that they are cared for and have guidance.
Besides ensuring they know the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, he said the students are also taught skills such as cooking and sewing.
They are also taught music and arts.
The students, he added, are also never short of activities such as games, sports and educational talks.
However, Zulkernai has a grander vision than just teaching at-risk children.
He aims to totally transform the Chow Kit community.
“I no longer want this area to be a rough neighbourhood. The country is advancing and so is society. I don’t want the children and the community here to be left out from modernisation and development.
“What has to be the game changer? Education. I want the children to know right from wrong, how to be a good citizen, to have strong integrity, to compete with the outside world, ” he said.
For his efforts, Zulkernai is recognised as one of the 10 winners of Star Golden Hearts Award 2019, an annual award that celebrates everyday Malaysian unsung heroes.