Sunday May 9, 2010
Saving one child at a time
DR Hartini Zainudin is a whirlwind of a woman. She talks a mile a minute, dazzles you with her big heart and leaves you awed and inspired by her work: she is one of those who set up Pusat Jagaan Nur Salam in Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur, in April 2007.
The first thing Dr Tini (as she is known) tells me is that she does not have any biological children. All her three kids are adopted; would that be okay for the story?
Well, she is a mother, and she is super. So, yes!
“Zaid was the first baby,” she tells me, her expression softening. “He was literally left at my doorstep – at the Pusat Aktiviti Kanak-Kanak Chow Kit, before Nur Salam was formed.
“His birth mother marched up to me, handed him over with his papers and left. He was 11 months old. We waited three months for someone to adopt him, after which I thought to myself: ‘Here we are advocating people to save children, so what’s stopping me from saving him?’ So I took him home.”
When Dr Tini’s mother saw Zaid in her arms, her first reaction was, “No, no, no!”
“I just handed him to her and told her I’d be back for him in a few hours. You see, I know my mother well. When I returned, she had fallen head over heels in love with him! He’s now four.”
Zara, her daughter, was saved from a child trafficking ring.
“We had received a call to rescue a baby in Klang, so we went,” Dr Tini relates. “The minute I stepped into the house, I knew it was child trafficking. Zara, two-and-a-half months then, was propped up on the sofa. There was another child playing on the floor.
“I asked the ‘babysitter’ for Zara’s papers and name, but she didn’t have anything for me. My instincts told me to walk out, but how could I? I took Zara with me. I knew if I’d left her there, she would likely be dumped on Pulau Ketam, for prostitution, child labour and who knows what else!
“Then I went to make a police report. When we went back to the house, the woman and the other child were gone. I don’t know what happened to them.”
It took her two years to obtain the necessary papers for Zara, who now has permanent resident status. She estimates another seven to eight years of paperwork before her daughter becomes a Malaysian citizen.
Undaunted, Dr Tini recently adopted Salim, a 14-year-old Rohenian caught for peddling drugs.
“I am his legal guardian – his mother signed over custody to me. He is stateless as well, and with the drug offence, he would have been sentenced to life inprisonment.
“Now, he has at least a fighting chance. He is now in a drug rehabilitation programme with Pengasih. I am basically buying him some time, until he turns 18,” she says.
Dr Tini’s business card states that she is Nur Salam’s general manager. In reality, she does everything, from fund-raising to running the programmes at the centre, rescuing kids, advocacy and lobbying for amendments to the Child Act 2001.
“Changes are being made, but not fast enough, in the areas of child pornography and prostitution. Only the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development puts the rights of the child first. Elsewhere, there is very little sensitivity to the rights of a child, and there is zero participation from children. Under our court system, only the rights of the parents matter.
“You see this ridge on my forehead?” she says, pausing to point. “I swear it wasn’t there before. This is from constantly banging my head against the wall for work,” she adds with a laugh.
“But I must admit we are doing so much better now – at least cases get highlighted.”
As we switch gears and talk about maternal duties, Dr Tini, who is in her 40s, admits she would not be able to do it without a strong support system. Her mother and sisters help with the children while she is at work, and she has a maid.
“My day starts at 5.30am, when I get Zaid and Zara ready – they go to my mum’s place. They are the apple of her eye. Zaid goes to school while Zara stays home with grandma. I am usually in the office by 9am and finish around 5pm. Every night I am on call to rescue children.”
Mum’s input aside, Dr Tini credits her father for instilling a sense of fairness in her.
“My father was very poor and had to stop schooling to help bring up his 14 siblings. He never forgot his roots and always taught us that even the poorest person can do something for himself.”
Everyone deserves respect and a chance, her parent believes. “He used to tell me that a sacrifice is not a sacrifice if you call it that. One must be ikhlas (sincere) and do things from the heart.”
From her mother, Dr Tini adds, “I got this great love for children and the gift to talk to them. I will eventually tell my kids that they are adopted.
“I still see Zaid’s mother around Chow Kit, and I know he has half-siblings. When he grows up, it is up to him whether or not to find them. As for Zara, “I’m getting a DNA specialist to do a profile on her so that in future, if she wants to, or if someone is looking for her, at least we have that information on file. Salim, of course, knows he has a mother.
“I would like to protect my kids from all the bad stuff in the world, but I know this is life. Some things happen by chance but a lot is about choice. It’s the same with my kids; I will give them the chance they need to succeed, and the options. But it really boils down to their own choice later on.”
Now that she is a mother, how does she feel about seeing children being abandoned, abused, or worse, in her work?
“You feel like crying all the time. But I tell myself, save one child at a time, and that every child matters. Every child has a name,” Dr Tini says.