The image of a man resorting to eating rats to survive was too much for a group of ladies to endure. The image which made its rounds on social media caught their attention and jolted them into the realisation that this was indeed the harsh reality for some as a result of the recent imposition of the Movement Control Order (MCO).
“If they don’t work, they don’t get an income,” says Angela Karto. “This is real. People were so hungry that they had to eat rats.” The plight of the man who was an Indonesian construction worker struck a chord with Angela, who is also from Indonesia. Angela then contacted her group of Indonesian friends residing in Malaysia, urging for something to be done. The group – Dewi Zulvinah, Leta Juangku, Whulandary Herman and Malaysian Sarah Shahdan who joined in the effort – didn’t hesitate. “We decided to do something,” says Angela. “There is hunger all over the world but Malaysia is our adopted country and if we can help, we should help.” “As mothers, we were asking what we can do,” adds Leta. “We received messages from mothers saying that their children hadn’t drunk milk for a week. We thought that at the very least, we can help provide food.”
No one, Angela admits, had any experience in doing any sort of donation drive. Furthermore, the ladies decided to embark on this on their own. They approached it “mum style,” delegating different roles to each of them. But along the way, they discovered that things were quite dire.“We didn’t know the severity of the situation, not just among foreign workers but among Malaysians too,” she says. “Along the way, we learnt how to do it better. To do it more efficiently and effectively.” They quickly realised that different groups required different kinds of help. Foreign workers needed food. Locals seemed to be in need of protective gear like face masks. “We noticed that a lot of masks were dirty and they had been worn continuously. We had to educate them that it was dangerous. Many of them were elderly and being a vulnerable group, they had to take greater care. We discovered that it was important to understand what they needed help with,” Angela explains. Initially they began by using their own funds, but as they went along, they discovered that what they had seen was just the surface. As they delved deeper, the severity of the situation unraveled. And it was not something confined to the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
“We would find families living under monsoon drains,” says Sarah. And this was in the heart of the city. “It was so bad during the MCO. Some of them said they hadn’t eaten for 10 days. They relied on tea and coffee, with sugar only for sustenance.” Combined, the group has a strong social media presence which made it possible for those in need to request for help. At first there was some hesitation about sharing their efforts so publicly, but eventually they did as it served as a means to create awareness on what was being done. “We all have some form of power to help,” says Whulandary, a former Miss Universe Indonesia. “I have my followers and my title, and I asked what I can do to help.” Soon after through Instagram, Whulandary received a request from someone who said they were substituting rice and sugar for milk to feed their kids. “I couldn’t bear to hear that,” she exclaims. “I have a baby. I believed that I could do something to help.” And so despite having an infant, Whulandary felt the need to go down to the ground to distribute food. “We started to receive a lot of messages,” says Sarah, after their initial efforts. “They were asking for help too and so we decided to go all out.”
The stories were shared through the Instagram handle everythingisloveforothers. The setting up of the account also provided accountability to donors. “A lot of people wanted to help but there has to be trust,” explains Sarah. “We have to show how the money is spent.” The group, which continues to help now, was particularly active during the MCO, which also coincided with the month of Ramadan. The process proved to be an emotional one. Some of the photos they received requesting for aid showed infants and children who had not eaten for days. “It makes you depressed because you feel you want to help everybody but you can’t,” says Sarah.
The charity drive was run for close to two months and it seems they didn’t have to travel far to find groups in need. One may be mistaken to think that hubs like Putrajaya and Cyberjaya would be insulated given the fact that they are populated mainly by offices. But when they ventured into the fringes of those areas, there were hidden pockets of people living in shacks.
“You wouldn’t know,” Sarah says. “Only when I went in, I realised the situation. I was surprised that there were groups who lived in houses on stilts with nothing inside.” It wasn’t just foreign workers. There were Malaysians too and in some cases, locals who were married to foreign workers. Their first priority was to provide for the women and children. In some areas, there were women who were no longer lactating because they lacked nutrition. They also came across two women who miscarried because they were unable to seek medical attention when they needed it.
“They had no transportation to go out, no money to go to the clinic,” says Sarah. “By the time we took them, they had miscarried.” Areas in which development projects were taking place were particularly prone to have people in dire situations. “There are a lot of workers,” explains Angela. “We saw how they lived. Some of them shared living spaces, the women were living with men with no regards to their modesty.”
In some cases, the workers were locked in on the site, with no access to food. Others were living in quarters that had neither drainage nor access to clean water. The women were at times criticised for highlighting these with some accusing them of tarnishing the country’s image. “But it is what it is,” says Angela. “It did happen. We hope that by highlighting it, we will create awareness.” Their focus too was on giving aid to whoever was in need. It was also what the donors wanted. To reach out, they worked with other groups such as Kembara Kitchen, Fugee School and Caremongers Ampang.
“It is really important for charities to work together,” says Angela, adding that these organisations continue to do an “amazing” job on a daily basis. At times, the emotional toll proved too much to bear, but during those moments they leaned on each other for support. “We had to bring each other up because you can’t quit,”states Sarah. When on the ground, they came across Danny, a construction worker who lost his job after a fridge fell on him at work. He was illegal and therefore could not seek medical help. Unable to work, he soon became malnourished, which then led to his lungs collapsing. They found a donor who was willing to take care of all the medical bills, but it proved to be too late and Danny passed on.
“We all felt that he shouldn’t have died,” says Angela, adding that it could have been prevented. The harsh reality of life for the B40 group gave the women a new perspective on things. Angela admits that at the start of the MCO, she was a “negative person.” “I felt angry. I kept thinking about what’s going on in the world, but when I went down to help, I stopped thinking about it. It really helped me a lot. I learnt to be content.”
“I saw that people were just waiting for help,” says Whulandary. “It broke my heart to see the kids. Every morning, Angela and Dewi used to send photos of babies in need and I thought it was so easy to make this baby happy. Anyone can do it.” “It really opened my eyes,” says Sarah, reflecting on her experience. Now that the MCO is over, she urges us to continue giving with charitable efforts. “Continue to help and continue to give support to those who are helping others.”
Photography: Eric Chow @ Blink Studio
Creative direction: Ibnu Aswan
Styling: Nigel Lee assisted by Joyce Lim
Makeup: Khir Khalid & Cat Yong
Hair: Ckay Liow