Orphaned and Unfortunate: The girls who fell through the cracks (Part 2)
A first-hand account of two institutionalised orphans who were dealt a bad hand in life and were ignored by a system that was designed to help them.Zaidi Azmi
SHAH ALAM – They may have been born 10 years apart and may have never met each other, but the lives led by two women who only wanted to be known as Suhaida and Alia have been largely similar – both were orphaned, abandoned, and institutionalised.
Both were also stateless, but unlike Suhaida, who is ushering a semblance of normalcy to life, Alia’s fate – one which she has come to terms with – could not have been worse.
Alia is a victim of the alleged systemic cracks in the government orphanages officially called Children’s Home. She now finds herself unwittingly in an inescapable prostitution ring.
“I had to age-out of the children’s home when I reached 18. It was only then that I realised that I had not received my identification card (IC),” says the 34 year-old in a thick northern Malay accent.
“The officers there did not buy into it at first, but afterwards remarked that they had forgotten to apply for my IC.”
On a hiding to nothing – Alia’s story
It was also then that Alia learned that she was an abandoned baby, dumped at a mosque in a state up north.
“They say it was difficult to proceed with my IC application as I do not have a birth certificate,” she said.
“And because I was already 18, the institution was no longer legally bound to help me. So, I was told that they were powerless to do anything about the situation.”
To the unfamiliar, Malaysia only has 15 children’s homes, all of which are managed by the Social Welfare Department under the purview of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry.
It was established under section 54 of the Child Act 2001. Its inability to help Alia invariably goes back to the fact that the same act defines a child as a person under the age of 18 years. Once kids in the government’s children’s home turn 18, they are released from care out into the wild, often with very little to fend for themselves.
When the inevitable moment came, Alia had no choice but to leave the institution.
“I sneaked in and slept at a mosque on the first night I left the institution. I cried myself to sleep,” she said, fighting back tears.
“I was abandoned at a mosque, then sent to a government institution and upon leaving, again, I ended up at a mosque. Full circle.”
Eventually, a man approached her, claiming that he knew about her documentation issues and adding that he could help her get her IC.
“I was sceptical at first. But he named names that I knew, people from the institution. So, I took a leap of faith and decided to follow him. I was stupid,” she said.
The man brought her to a cheap hotel, booked a room, and told her to stay put and promised he would visit her daily and bring the IC application forms.
Ever the hopeful, Alia religiously filled in each and every form the man brought for her. And with each and every form she filled in, her savings dwindled.
“When I no longer had any money to pay for, I started asking him for updates. He got angry and scolded me for being impatient,” she said.
“A few days afterwards, he brought a few scary looking men with him. He said I needed to go with them because I needed to repay my debt to him. For the hotel room and food.
“I was scared but I didn’t have any choice. So, I went off with those men. That was the last time I saw him. My IC? I never got it.”
Later on the same night, she learned that she had been sold to a prostitution ring and had to service her first client. She said she was inconsolable.
Four months on the job, and Alia was pregnant. She tried to keep it on the hush, but not for long. At five months, the prostitution syndicate found out about her pregnancy and ordered an abortion.
“I resisted when they ordered to abort it but they drugged me. When I woke up, I saw a nurse shoving tiny mutilated pieces of limbs into a plastic bag,” her eyes welled up.
She said she tried to escape once but was caught.
“My boss said he doesn’t mind giving me some freedom. I can go watch movies and shop at malls but I must never try to run away from him,” she said.
“He also said that it is futile for me to run to the authorities. He says he has friends in high places.”
But an example must be set. A warning was doled out. Alia had one of her toenails ripped out.
Alia did not explain why she wanted to tell her story now. Four years ago – when she first met the journalist – she swore she would take it to her grave.
“I don’t really know why... somehow the timing felt right. But I am not looking to be saved. I have accepted my fate,” she added.
“I just want the people out there to know my story so that no orphans would have to walk the same path as I did.”
Road to redemption – Suhaida’s story
Like Alia, Suhaida also left children’s home with unresolved statelessness and like Alia, she too was approached and swindled by those who offered her a helping hand.
But the 24-year-old was a tad lucky, as the drug and human trafficker who took her in after she had her savings siphoned by a man was kind to her – even gave her allowance.
“He never laid a hand on me. Though he admitted that he initially wanted to sell me off, but he never followed through,” she says.
“He regarded me as his sister and even offered to get me a ‘new life’. He said that he knew people who can do it. New name, new identity, new birthplace.
“But I declined. I don’t want a fake IC. I want a real one. I want my own card, free from encumbrance.”
Eventually, the man distanced himself from Suhaida.
“He told me that I should not be living like this. That the job he is doing is wrong and he does not want to get me involved in it,” she recounted.
Suhaida was lucky. Somehow, she got wind of a transit home in Kuala Lumpur for aged-out orphans who have nowhere else to go.
The transit home was managed by a non-profit called J’keb Foundation which was founded by an orphan, the late Che Rozi Azrul Che Aziz, who – like her – used to live in a government institution.
J’keb was renamed Youth Empowerment Foundation (YEF) Malaysia last year following the death of Che Rozi Azrul in February 2019.
It was during her time at the transit home – from 2019 to 2020 - that Suhaida embarked on a mission to apply for her own IC which she finally got in February 2022.
Growing up without an IC at the children’s home meant that Suhaida was deprived of formal education.
She used to feign ignorance if any of her inquisitive peers asked about her not going to school with them. Sometimes, she would tell them that she had yet to reach schooling age.
Many believed her, as Suhaida’s petite frame lends credence to the white lie.
Eventually, the management prepared her a script to answer should any of her inquisitive peers peppered her with questions regarding her education.
Her fictional previous school from then on was a noteless school somewhere in Negri Sembilan.
“I was told not to tell the truth to anyone. It was to avoid me from being jeered at in case I got into a fight with my friends in the institution,” Suhaida recalled.
Instead of studying in the national curriculum, Suhaida, who was born in Kuala Lumpur, was given vocational lessons such as cooking, baking and sewing but secretly, she had always yearned to learn.
“I think if I had gone to school...my favourite subject would be English. Oh well, wishful thinking,” she said.
A few months after the death of Che Rozi Azrul, Suhaida moved out of the transit home to make way for other orphans who wanted to seek refuge there.
She settled in Johor Baru. Job hunting was hard, even more so due to the fact that back then, she did not have an IC.
“Many thought that I am an illegal immigrant. I was even kicked out of a group job interview session once I explained my situation,” she said.
“But to me, the toughest part was finding money to pay for healthcare services. A simple flu would cost me hundreds of ringgit. Getting sick would bleed my savings.”
However, now that she finally holds her very own IC, Suhaida is optimistic that she could turn her life around.
“I don’t think I can keep up with the current school syllabus but I don’t want to give up on my life just yet. I owe it to ‘Abang Azrul’ to live my life to the fullest,” she smiled.
(The third part of ‘Orphaned and Unfortunate’ will be in the form a mini documentary featuring interviews with every subjects who were highlighted in the series and matters that were more suited for visual story-telling rather than the written words)
The journalist is a grant recipient of Internews Europe’s Investigative Journalism Story Grant sponsored by the European Commission. This article is part of Internews’ Community Voices – Suara Masyarakat project.
This publication/story was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Internews and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.