School for Paperless Children

Kampung Titingan is a village in Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia. Many illegal immigrants have settled here and the crime rate is so high even locals shun it. Despite that, Tzu Chi volunteers visit this “black area” to provide aid and help resident children receive an education. If unaided, these stateless children might grow up illiterate, just like their parents, and be hard pressed to make a living.

Illegal stilt houses abound in Kampung Titingan. Living conditions are awful, and there is a severe lack of education among the children there. Lim Su Nguan

An intense heat presses down on people walking on the streets of Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia. Near the Al-Kauthar Mosque, a local landmark, children, teenagers, and women holding toddlers can be seen waiting around under the scorching sun. When cars slow at the nearby roundabout, they quickly approach the vehicles, knock on their windows, and ask for money.

Not far away, on the wharf behind the Tawau Fish Market, men heft and move fresh catch for little pay. Children peddle paper bags in the market or carry things for people to earn some paltry meal money.

As you move away from the downtown area, it’s easy to spot young people holding bags of smuggled cigarettes, ready to sell them to pedestrians or drivers slowly cruising through the streets.

Most of these children and adolescents are from the village of Kampung Titingan, Tawau. They live in illegal stilt houses perched above the ocean. Though they are old enough, they don’t attend school. Groups of young people spend their days loitering on the streets. Some sniff glue, perhaps not so much for the high as to numb their hunger.

Paperless residents

People have been immigrating to Sabah, a Malaysian state on the northern tip of Borneo Island, for over 50 years now. As a result of this influx, three residents out of ten in Sabah are immigrants. Many of them have settled in Tawau, on the southeast coast of Sabah.

Some of the non-Malaysian residents in Tawau are descendants of Indonesian laborers who made a living by farming; some are descendants of refugees who fled a civil war in southern Philippines years ago; some are Bajau Laut, known as “sea gypsies” due to their nomadic life on the sea.

None of these people are recognized as citizens by the Malaysian government. Without a legal identity, even third generation immigrants—born and raised entirely in Malaysia and who consider themselves locals—are still “outsiders” because they do not have identity papers.

Kampung Titingan, located on the coastal area of Tawau, is the largest shantytown in the region. Many illegal immigrants live there. The village boasts an abundance of illegal wooden housing, and it has such a high crime rate that it’s called a “black area.” Even local Tawau people think twice about setting foot in the neighborhood.

A view of illegal stilt houses in Kampung Titingan. Residents conduct their daily activities, from eating to relieving themselves, on the sea. Lim Heng Lai

Maria Morris Kwan (關寶檢), 74, is an ethnic Chinese born in Indonesia. She immigrated to Malaysia when she was 16, and she has lived in Tawau for more than 50 years. “Nobody wants to go to that place,” she said of the “black area.” “Even cops refrain from going there alone. They’ll only enter in groups of two or three.”

Most residents of Kampung Titingan are day laborers and live hand-to-mouth. If they can’t find work, there is no food on the table. Many are illiterate, marry young, and have as many as seven or eight children. For them, medical care and education are just pie-in-the-sky dreams.

Soya, 53, is a Bajau Laut who came to Kampung Titingan from the Philippines in 1972. Despite his decades in the nation, his lack of legal status has left him and his ten children without access to basic medical care and education. His attempt to obtain legal status has made him a victim of con artists several times over.

“It’s hard to make a living,” Soya said. “I’ve tried to go a whole day without food [to save money] and only drank water. I don’t dare to think about my children’s future. I can only rely on heaven’s grace.”

Soya’s son, Soni, has four children. Though he is a fisherman like his father, Soni hopes that his children can go to school and realize their dreams. He doesn’t want them to lead the same hard life that he and his father have led.

“I have no papers, so I can’t go anywhere,” Soni lamented. “I’m 30, but the farthest place I’ve ever been to is downtown Tawau.” He said that he has cried for his children because he had no money to feed them.

Could Soni’s children fare better than him and his father? Do the other children in the “black area” have any reason for hope?

A child on his way to buy water. The stilt houses in Kampung Titingan, being illegal, receive no public water or electricity. Some residents pay people living on land who have legal connections to water and electricity to have water and power lines connected to their houses. Those who cannot afford this arrangement have to buy water from families who have running water. Lim Su Nguan

Helping hands

Tzu Chi volunteers started working in Kampung Titingan as early as 16 years ago.

The wooden stilt houses erected above the sea in the area are connected by a maze of rickety boardwalks. Since the houses are all illegal, residents cannot get any public services in their homes, so they connect to illegal power sources. They also use cheap electric appliances. That combination amid the densely built wooden structures could spell disaster. In the event of a fire, flames spread fast.

Tzu Chi volunteers have distributed aid to fire victims in the region seven times since 2003. They gave residents emergency money and supplies. But because the area was notorious for illegal activity, volunteers didn’t establish further contact with residents.

In 2012, Tzu Chi awarded scholarships to needy children in the neighborhood. Much to the volunteers’ surprise, 96 residents made donations to the foundation at that time.

In 2013, volunteers in Malaysia kicked off a membership drive with the goal of achieving a million donating members. Volunteers stepped up their efforts to encourage more people to financially support the foundation to carry out its philanthropic work. These efforts even led them into the “black area” as they went from door to door to solicit donations. In just 26 days, they recruited more than 2,100 donors. People marveled that the black area had become a “bodhisattva zone.”

In March 2016, Echo Chien (簡慈露), CEO of Tzu Chi Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, and other volunteers visited homes in Kampung Titingan. Amil Ibrahim, head of one household, expressed to Chien his fervent wish that his children could attend school. Chien acknowledged the severe lack of education for children in the neighborhood. “The first step in improving the lives of these children is to help them get an education,” Chien said to volunteers in Tawau.

With encouragement from Chien, Tawau volunteers began to plan for a learning center for local children.

“We were very excited when we heard about the plan for a learning center,” said volunteer Leong Yien Ngo (梁嫣娥), a middle school teacher. “But these people are stateless and mostly Muslim, so we had to proceed with care.”

Volunteers first approached Abu Bakar Bin Adel, chairman of Kampung Titingan’s Village Development and Security Committee, about the project. Abu Bakar is a respected elder in the village. He had come to know Tzu Chi volunteers five years before when they came to the village to distribute aid after a fire. The elder took volunteers to visit homes in the neighborhood, helped them find teachers, and helped dispel residents’ suspicion of the Buddhist group.

On one of their visits to the village, volunteers asked Anisa, a local girl apparently past school age, whether she wanted to go to school. Anisa’s eyes welled up with tears. Hardly able to utter a word, she nodded “yes” to the volunteers’ question while wiping away her tears. She only managed to speak after a while: “But [I need to work because] I can’t bear to see my kid brother picking up glass bottles to make money.”

“Tzu Chi wants to help those who are stateless and financially unable to go to school,” said chairman Abu Bakar. “I strongly support that. With an education, children here will have a better idea of what they should and shouldn’t do, and they will be less likely to go wild. Some of the youngsters here even do drugs. We must work together to tackle issues like that.”

Breaking a vicious cycle

Once the project was underway, volunteers looked everywhere for a suitable location to establish the learning center. Since it should ideally be within walking distance for the local children, volunteers settled on an upper floor of a shop, barely a 15-minute walk from Kampung Titingan.

The Titingan Community Learning Centre opened on March 6, 2017. Children showed up for class at six in the morning on the first day of school, even though school would not begin until eight. Clad in new uniforms that volunteers had given them and toting book bags, they were finally going to school.

The center offers lessons in English, Malay, math, the Quran, and arts and crafts. Tuition is free. The initial enrollment was 50 students spread over two classes, but the plan is to expand to 120 students in five classes in 2019.

Two full-time Malay teachers teach the classes. They started with kindergarten materials, building up from the basics. It wasn’t easy. The children, accustomed to playing rough, had an attention span of just five minutes. The teachers had to raise their voices a lot in the noisy classes just to be heard. “During the first two months here, I all but lost my voice,” said teacher Nurul Mariana Binti Siminggu.

Leong Chin Wah (梁菁華), a staffer at the Tzu Chi Tawau office, was born and raised in Tawau. She substitutes at the center when a teacher takes time off. “Before I came to know these children better,” Leong said, “I took no pity on them. I even feared them. I would avoid them on the streets when they begged for money.” Now she knows that they are in fact quite simple and unsophisticated. They beg because they have no choice.

Besides the two full-time teachers, volunteers help out too. Moey Poh Lian (梅寶蓮), 60, used to run a kindergarten. She opens the door at the center almost every morning and greets students with warm smiles and hugs. She pays close attention to how the youngsters are doing. “You seem down today. Are you okay?” “Are you feeling unwell?” She checks on them and makes them feel cared for.

Moey gives the children plenty of love, and they love her back. When they see her, they affectionately take her hand to touch their foreheads, a gesture of respect for one’s elders.

“Love has a way of radiating from you,” Moey said. “We don’t need to say much. The children can feel it.”

Teacher Nurul Mariana Binti Siminggu and students at the center  Sue Tow Fong
Children in Kampung Titingan walk to the Titingan Community Learning Centre for school early one morning. A Tzu Chi volunteer brings up the rear. Sue Tow Fong

When I grow up, I want to be…

Gigi, 17, yearned to study at the center, but she chose not to so that there would be slots left for her younger siblings. She escorted them to the center every day, waited there until the classes were over, and then took them home. From her home to the center and then back home—this was Gigi’s whole world.

Volunteers know that Gigi really wants to go to school, so they ask her to help out at the center, such as preparing snacks for the students. When possible, Moey teaches Gigi basic arithmetic and lets her sit in on lessons. Gigi is very responsible, like a big sister to the students. When teachers or volunteers ask her to do things, they rest assured knowing that she will do a good job.

One time Gigi failed to show up at the center as usual. Her absence was not characteristic of her, so Moey and another volunteer, Tan Boon Tiong (陳文忠), looked into it. They discovered that Gigi’s father had been injured in a fall. Moey and Tan went to their house, a wooden structure built over the sea at the fringe of the village. To reach the house, they had to traverse some rickety boardwalks on stilts. The stretch of walkway just before Gigi’s home was especially narrow and precarious. Moey needed Gigi’s help to make it across.

“At first, I dared not cross it,” Moey recalled. “The planks were thin, and underneath was the sea. Gigi and her siblings are used to crossing it, but she said that they all had fallen into the water at one time or another when they were small.”

Gigi’s mother had passed away five years earlier after giving birth to her youngest child. Of the 12 children in the family, two had passed on and two had moved away after getting married. The family’s house was austere; the only piece of furniture was a wardrobe donated by the learning center. The roof of the house was riddled with holes, and broken wooden partitions in the house were covered with cloth. Gigi said that they had passed many a night in the rain because of the leaky roof.

Her father had been injured when trying to fix the roof. He had stepped on a rotten spot and fallen into the sea, injuring the back of his head. Unable to afford a visit to a doctor, he applied some medicine on the wound and stayed home to rest. Because he couldn’t go out to work at the wharf and bring home pay, the family had gone hungry for several days.

Volunteers promptly delivered money and supplies. Among the food the volunteers brought them was a tray of eggs. “We later learned that they finished all the eggs in one day because they had never had them before,” said Moey. “They usually shared just a pot of porridge for a day.”

The following month, Tan and a few other volunteers brought repair materials to Gigi’s home to help fix the house. They also brought a water tank to install for the family. Gigi’s father and brothers joined them in the undertaking.

Before the arrival of the volunteers, Gigi’s father had dismantled the toilet in the house, which was enclosed with sackcloth for privacy. He then secured the walkway leading to their back door with additional planks so that the volunteers could move the repair materials through the back door instead of having to cross that difficult stretch of passageway before their home.

Tan recalled a previous visit during which he had fallen into the water. “The moment I dropped in,” he said, “I felt that I really should take up recycling [to help make the ocean cleaner]. The sludge on the seabed was very dirty. I washed myself many times at home afterwards, but the marks the mud left on me were still visible, and I still smelled.”

Tan really feels for Gigi and her family. He said that the girl once told him that on one occasion when it rained very hard, they could not make it in time to the mosque nearby to take shelter, so they stayed home. “Several of the children crowded into the wardrobe for shelter and passed a horrible night there,” Tan said.

Tan believed that material aid would only help relieve some immediate difficulties for the family and that only an education could offer the children a key to a better future. That was the impetus for setting up the learning center.

“When I first met the children in the neighborhood,” Tan said, “they spent their days aimlessly. All they could think of was today. They did not think of what tomorrow might bring. But after they became students at the center, they began to think about what they could be in the future. We have helped them realize that there is hope for tomorrow. We encourage them to study diligently to strive for a better future.”

Gigi (right) leads volunteers to her home to repair the house and install a water tank. Sue Tow Fong
Volunteers visited Gigi and her family many times after her father was injured in a fall from the roof. Sue Tow Fong

Many children to be helped

There are an estimated 300,000 stateless children in Malaysia. Their education has long been a big problem, but that might be starting to change. The Malaysian government has decided to allow stateless children a right to education starting in 2019, if either parent of a child is a Malaysian citizen or if the child has been adopted. This easing in policy, however, is no comfort for most children in Tawau because their parents are both stateless. A long road is still ahead of those children before they can go to school.

Despite volunteers’ good intentions to help stateless children in Kampung Titingan by establishing the learning center for them, the Tzu Chi Tawau office has had to field questions and doubts from all sides concerning the center. People have raised questions like “How much learning can you really provide? Even if the children study through grade 6, what then?” and “Why do you help foreigners instead of local people?”

In response, Lo Jin Oi (羅珍愛), head of Tzu Chi Tawau, said that while it is true that the learning center is not yet in the position to issue formal diplomas to its graduates, the basic knowledge students learn at the center—like rudimentary arithmetic and English—could go a long way toward helping them land jobs. They can work in stores, for example, if they know how to do sums and make change. “Besides, if they can finish sixth grade here at the center,” Lo added, “I believe that other doors will open for them. If we don’t help them take that first step now, their future might be doomed.”

Children at the center at first knew not a word and could not stop making a racket in class, but they have improved a great deal. Test results from 2018 showed that they have reached the level of first grade. One of them, 14-year-old Abdul, has even been hired to work in a store because he has learned to write and do basic arithmetic. Now when villagers see Tzu Chi volunteers, they ask whether Tzu Chi will open more classes and enroll more students.

Though small in numbers and short on resources, Tawau Tzu Chi volunteers plug along to help these children. Helping more children is their goal, but even saving just one student is better than none.

May 2019