SHY looking Amri Sawing was about eight years old when his family came to Sibu. His father was a construction worker and his mother was not working.
The couple were uneducated and poor, and they could not afford to send Amri to school.
Four years ago, when Amri was 12, he went to school for the first time – and the name of the school was Destiny For Children (DFC). There, he met many children just like him.
“I was very shy because I had never been to school. I never had to sit down and study and I didn’t know how to read and write. It was very hard. But I came every day and slowly I learned to read and write,” he said.
Today, Amri is 16 and literate.
He also trained hard for the Chaoukball Game and a few months ago, was selected as a national player for the Chaoukball Competition in Melaka.
Amri will finish schooling at DFC next year but his future seems bleak. He doesn’t have any qualification.
“You ask me what is the worst case, my answer is being here (DFC) is the worst case,” DFC principal Pauline Rogers Jaban told thesundaypost.
Pauline has a point.
DFC attendees have dreams like all children – to be a teacher, a policeman or a banker. The difference is their dreams seem foolhardy.
Why? Because children who study at DFC are deprived of academic qualifications to make their dreams come true. The reason is that they are either stateless, school dropouts, or street children, who have never been to school before. All cannot be accepted into mainstream schools.
There are many like Amri who have no choice but to be placed in DFC.
“This is the last place a child should be. Malaysian children have the privilege to go to mainstream schools that offer better education – and certainly a better future.
“Why bring the children here? We just give them basic education and character-building and when they reach 17, we can only give them certificates to certify they have studied here,” Pauline lamented.
One of DFC’s purposes is to open the door of hope to underprivileged children. If the school’s purpose is to offer hope, what kind of hope is it offering?
Not on par
Pauline agreed the education provided in DFC could never be on par with mainstream schools.
“We improvise our syllabus to suit the children’s learning abilities. We teach maths, Bahasa Malaysia, English, art, moral and science. We simplify the subjects according to the children’s understanding.”
However, even with a simplified syllabus, there are a few children who show good potential to be on par academically with their mainstream counterparts.
“Some kids here come from better homes – from families who can afford to send them to mainstream schools but they are not Malaysian citizens,” she said.
Ninety per cent of the DFC children are living in poverty.
Pauline said these children might not go far academically but what DFC is trying to address is beyond academics – it’s a social issue.
Many of these poor children will end up like their parents. Their main problem is being stateless.
A total of 108 children enrolled in DFC this year, 16 of whom were either school dropouts or had never been to school with 92 being non-citizens or stateless.
“It’s a vicious cycle and we are giving them a way out. The children here must have a different mindset, one that will empower them to better themselves and help their families,” Pauline explained.
But that’s a difficult task with no guarantee of success.
Pauline has conducted a relationship class to educate the students, especially the teenagers, on the importance of schooling and not falling into a relationship at an early age.
A few months later, one of the girls who attended the class fell into a relationship and stopped schooling. But another girl who had fallen into relationship before, understood, and decided to return to school.
“She got it and came back. She told me she had two younger siblings. If she didn’t go to school, her siblings would not go to school,” Pauline said.
It’s rare for the poor to have the courage to make a difference in their lives. Most have already been defeated by poverty. Even among the poor, there is a feeling of inferiority.
“Some have poor self-esteem. They look at their clothes and shoes and feel they aren’t the same as some children here even though they all live on the poverty line.
“They even feel they are below the poverty line. I think bringing them out of their shyness and negative outlook is the hardest. Academically, most the kids can make it but with them, it’s more a problem of attitude – how they perceive themselves,” she added.
Pauline, who has been teaching for many years, knows the only way to be rid the children of their shyness and inferiority complex is through exposure.
So the DFC has a sports day every year. There are also dancing and singing classes and the children are encouraged to participate in public performances to build up their confidence.
Pauline said some children did not grow up in a happy environment and activities such as dancing and singing would encourage them to express themselves and be joyous.
Is it enough?
Having a place for the children to be children again is good but is it enough to create a better future for them without qualifications?
Many have asked whether DFC is making any difference for the children since there is a high possibility they may end up suffering the same fate as their destitute parents.
“But would you rather see these children loitering around the street when they should be in school,” she asked.
“Isn’t it better they are here – a place where they can be cared for and where we give them some basic education and food?”
In DFC, children are provided breakfast and lunch during school hours.
“Some might go hungry during school holidays – they hardly eat. I ask them what do they do during school holidays, they reply they just go to sleep until the adults feed them. Hence, the children love to be in DFC where they can have warm meals and attend class,” she said.
What happens when the children leave?
Pauline said DFC gave them basic education such as reading and writing and learning to count to help them find a better job than their parents’. But whether they will put their learning to good use is a question frequently being asked.
It’s important for DFC to not feel discouraged but instead preserve in what it’s doing. While there are people who question the school’s efforts, it has also gained a measure of public trust.
“We are a non-governmental organisation (NGO) and there are people who give us their trust and assist us financially,” Pauline said.
She has a plan for the seniors next year – introducing them to farming.
“I’ll bring them, especially the boys 15 and above, to a one or two weeks farming course – with the consent of their parents of course.”
She said she knew a young woman now doing her final year in tailoring, who is willing to accept some of the DFC children.
“Again, we have to be very careful. The children I’m going to send must have ICs. We don’t want to create trouble for them.”
That would be a one step closer to a better life for these children.
Recently, DFC held a camp to expose the children to farming and out of a blue, a 14-year-old boy muttered, “I can be rich also.”
It was the first time Pauline heard the word ‘rich’ from one of the children.
His friend thought he was dreaming but Pauline said the boy could make it if he worked hard enough.
True, there are not many attainable dreams for these children due to lack of qualifications. But DFC can always work on those dreams that could be attained, dreams that are realistic.
“I told the older kids, you don’t have the qualifications to attain those dreams but you can attain the dreams that are workable and doable for you.
“Even if you can’t be a policeman or a teacher, you can still find other jobs. Even if you’re going to be a dishwasher, then wash, do it right, be truthful, work hard and be responsible.
“Don’t be ashamed of yourself or your work. Don’t let people despise you whatever career you are in – be proud of yourself. As a principal, I must have that kind of mindset help them,” she stressed.
Many of the children have been defeated by their low self-esteem. It will take them great courage to think they can make a difference. And given their background, merely telling they can make a difference can be intimidating.
For Amri, embarking on a new life outside DFC next year can be a daunting thought. He has found a home in the school where he has also discovered his identity.
Date with destiny
“This is a messy job. Every day, we struggle with these children – and financially as well. Our passion is for these children. Leaving DFC is not the end of Amri’s time, only the beginning. He is moving towards something out of destiny,” Pauline said.
From illiterate to literate and from one of the boys in the street to one in the national Chaoukball team, Amri, however, is still not considered as a success story.
That’s because in DFC, the chances of success are slim. If Amri could be courageous enough to make a difference for himself, he would send a ripple of hope to other children like him.
“I can’t promise success. I think it’s not how much success but how much you can change the mindset of a child.
“The question is whether they are bold enough to make a difference for themselves once they leave here,” added Pauline.