The undocumented little ones among us

The students of Destiny for Children, Sibu singing the Malaysian national anthem while attending a recent school assembly.

It is touching to see these children between the ages of 5 and 15 standing upright to sing the Malaysian national anthem. The older ones appear stern and focused while the younger ones with their wandering eyes are obviously more interested in the stranger in their midst.

After the assembly, principal Pauline Roger Jaban, a Bidayuh from Kuching gives those present a motivational speech and instructions on Sports Day which is to be held the next day.

Pauline Roger Jaban, principal of Destiny for Children in Sibu

Everything seems normal, like any school, except that this is not a regular school.

Destiny for Children, Sibu (Destiny) is a school run by a non-profitable organisation, catering for ‘rejects’ or dropouts from the Malaysian school system due to various reasons.

There are many reasons why these children are not in school. Some are at Destiny because their parents are city nomads, moving from place to place, resulting in these children being unable to keep up with the schoolwork required by the Malaysian education system, and thus slowly, drop out of the system altogether.

Others are at Destiny simply because they have no choice - they have been rejected by the formal school system because they are undocumented or stateless children.

There are presently 85 students at Destiny and 51 or 60 per cent of them fall into the category of stateless children while six are Indonesians. The remaining 29 children are Malaysians, who are mainly Ibans.

While the older children here appear to be well-behaved and seemingly very appreciative of this last opportunity for an education, the younger ones, who all look innocent, seem completely oblivious to the high possibility of a bleak future.

Their mothers know exactly how difficult their children’s future could get, did not look as relax as these innocent students.

Pina Situruk, 40, an Indonesian housewife, could not stop her tears from falling when speaking about the future of her two boys - Arnel, 9 and Arjuna, 7 - whose father is a Bajau, from Sabah.

“After Arjuna graduated from kindergarten, I tried so hard to enrol him into Chung Hua Primary School (in Sibu). I tried and tried. Whatever documents I was asked to submit, I did it promptly, until we finally reached the stage where Arjuna was asked to go for a medical checkup.

“We thought, finally he had made it. If the Education Department did not approve it, why ask Arjuna to go through a medical checkup? Yet in the end, we were told that Arjuna’s application was not approved.

“In order for Arjuna to receive a proper and formal education, we were even willing to pay the fees of a foreigner even though my husband is a Malaysian, a Sabahan. But still our application was turned down. I was devastated,” Pina told DayakDaily recently.

Pina Situruk, an Indonesian whose husband is a Sabahan, has failed in her attempt to apply for citizenship for her son Arjuna.

With no school to go to after graduating from kindergarten, Arjuna stayed home for one year until Pina heard of Destiny. Now, Arjuna is studying in Level One with 16 other children.

Pina knows that this predicament is because her children are not considered Malaysians, which is also the part that baffles her.

“Yes, I am an Indonesian but my husband is a Sabahan. My children were both born here. My home is here. My parents in Indonesia have passed on. I have been living in Malaysia for the last 20 years. I just don’t understand why my children can’t be Malaysians,” she pointed out.

Another Indonesian, 39-year-old Kawalti, whose husband is a construction worker is suffering the same fate.

Despite having a proper marriage document, she did not manage to obtain a birth certificate for her daughter Malindo, 6, who has no choice but to attend Destiny.

“I am very worried. What will happen to Malindo when she grows up? Now she can’t go to a regular school, and if this school (Destiny) didn’t exist, she would have been an illiterate.

“Being an illiterate with no identification card, what would happen to her then? Even though she can study here at Destiny to learn how to read and write, she will have no certificates. She would not be able to go to a secondary school. She would not be able to get a proper paid job. Life is still a long way (to go) for Malindo. It would be a hard life for her.

“I am not recognised as a Malaysian - I am fine with this. I am not worried about myself. But my daughter, who is born here and a child of a Malaysian, can’t even acquire a Malaysian citizenship. I am very worried. Very worried,” Kawalti said.

She had tried twice to apply for citizenship for Malindo - once in Sibu and another time in Kuching. Both her applications were turned down. She could not hide the disappointment from her face when she spoke of the experience of rushing between Sibu and Kuching which in the end, all came to naught.

Kawalti, an Indonesian mother whose daughter Malindo has so far failed to obtain citizenship despite being fathered by a Sarawakian Iban.

In Sarawak, there are many more children like Malindo who are undocumented or stateless. Welfare, Community Well Being, Women, Family and Childhood Development Minister Datuk Fatimah Abdullah said in April this year that the state had identified 1,297 stateless children across the state. As many as 687 have been given documents, another 235 were in the process of sorting out their registration while 79 were confirmed to be non-Malaysians.

She explained that when a child is born before the parents’ marriage was properly registered, the child would assume the citizenship of the mother. If the mother is a foreigner, there would be complications as the child in most cases will then be classified as a foreigner, following the mother.

Fatimah however stated that parents should inform the National Registration Department for the application of citizenship under Article 15A of the Federal Constitution.

Kawalti was uncertain why Malindo’s application had been turned down twice, when Article 15A of the Federal Constitution clearly allows her to assume citizenship. Despite two failures, she is determined to apply again, whenever the next chance arises.

“Without citizenship, where can Malindo go after this school? I don’t want her to have no school to go to.

“I have to do it for Malindo. I don’t want her to live my hard life. I want her to have legitimate papers, to go to a proper school all the way, even to university and later perhaps even be able to join the civil service. This is what I hope for her.

“But without citizenship, where can Malindo go after she finishes Level 5 here? She would have no place to go after she graduates from this school,” Kawalti said.

This is also the concern of Chris Tang, 64, chairman of Destiny.

The fate of these children is easy to predict. Being undocumented, they would not be able to attend any secondary school after Destiny, which does not offer any certificate or even if it does, the certificates would need to be recognised by the Education Department.

Two Level One students at Destiny for Children, Sibu playfully pose for a photo.

After Destiny, these children may end up as street children again or some might have to start work because of poverty. And with only a limited education and no certificates, they would not be able to obtain a well-paid job, and would thus, remain trapped in poverty.

When Destiny was first set up, it had a simpler purpose - to help the street children roaming in the so-called Tiong Hua Road Area.

The Tiong Hua Road Area is a residential area within the four roads of Hua Kiew Road, Ho Peng Road, Oya Road and Jalan Kampung Nyabor Road. It was one of the earliest settlement areas due to its close vicinity to town which provided much convenience for its residents.

However, due to the low lying and swampy nature of the land, houses in the area started to sink and some even collapse over years. Many houses in the area have been deemed unfit for occupation.

With most of the original house owners moving out, many of the houses here are rented out to the urban poor and hardcore poor. Some abandoned ones are illegally occupied or squatted in by the urban poor. The area is now deemed as a slum area.

As the housing area turned into a slum site, social problems started to emerge. One of them is the common sight of children of schooling age roaming around the streets, catching fishes in the drains or playing in the swamp water during school hours. The sight of these idle children means a vicious circle of poverty is already in force.

The presence of these children and the poverty that they were experiencing caught the attention of some people, including Tang.

“Poverty is a cycle. If we don’t help them, the small problem of some not receiving education will turn into some big social problems. We believe that only through education can we help these children to break the cycle of property,” he said.

Chris Tang, chairman of Destiny for Children, Sibu.

Destiny was set up in June 2012 exactly for this purpose - to break the cycle of poverty through high-quality education and reduce social problems. It is a non-profit organisation whose target groups are stateless children, street children, school dropouts and children of school-going age who for whatever reasons could not make it to school.

Destiny provides them with quality education and early intervention with the ultimate aim of preventing social problems by offering quality pre-school and academic assistance programmes.

“We hope to provide a specialised learning environment for the underprivileged children who are unable to cope with the demands of formal education and help them to go back to school.

“For those who are turned down by the education system due to the issue of nationality, we also try to fill in that vacuum so that the children still have access to education. It is their right,” Tang said.

Apart from preventing social problems, Destiny also aims to protect the children’s rights, especially of the underprivileged - stateless and street children, orphans, school dropouts, victims of violence and disabled children.

Level One students of Destiny for Children, Sibu and their teachers. Many of the Level One students at Destiny for Children, Sibu are stateless children.

Including principal Pauline, there are nine teachers and two support staff. Apart from the imparting of knowledge, the school also offers counseling, health education, moral and character building, curricular activities, art training, living skills training, and audio and video education.

Each day, the children attending school will be provided with nutritious meals for breakfast and lunch. Special occasions such as birthdays and festivals are also celebrated.

“It is the aim of the school to provide a holistic education by helping the children grow in stature and wisdom in finding their place in society,” Tang said.