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Visiting Jenny Pong Siew Chin


Maria Skouras | Posted July 6th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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In March, I traveled with another eH volunteer to visit Jenny Pong Siew Chin.  We went to interview Jenny and videotape portions of her daily life for a documentary on inspiring Malaysian women called “Portraits of Perseverance” directed by the Executive Director of eHomemakers (eH), Chong Sheau Ching (Ching Ching).

Prior to meeting Jenny, I knew that her legs were amputated over twenty years ago and that she moved around her house by pulling herself on a trolley.  I wasn’t sure what to expect though and I was a bit nervous to meet someone who was living under such extreme circumstances.

When we arrived, Jenny welcomed us in with open arms.  She was extremely hospitable, upbeat, and open.  I was in awe of how much positivity she exuded in the face of all the unfathomable circumstances she’s lived through.

Over the course of the day, I learned more about Jenny’s road to recovery and daily life.  She is one of the most extraordinary women I’ve ever met.

Jenny shared how after her legs were amputated, she entered a different world with new challenges.  When bathing, ants and insects would often bite Jenny’s stumps.  It was only when her mother discovered the bites that Jenny realized she had been attacked.  Feeling frustrated and distraught by her body’s immobility and loss of sensitivity, Jenny experienced a range of emotions and her temper often flared.   Her anger towards her disability was compounded by her disappointment and confusion over her husband’s decision to abandon their marriage during the time she was in a coma.

Jenny's Mom
Jenny's Mom

*Click on photos to enlarge.

With her mother’s support, Jenny started overcome her anger and depression.  She committed herself to developing ways to live with independence and pride.  Her mother taught her how to do her daily chores in new ways; now Jenny cooks simple meals, like eggs, on burners placed on the ground, washes her hair using a hose in the kitchen, and pulls herself from the trolley to her bed at night.

Jenny Washing her Hair
Jenny Washing her Hair

Jenny Getting into Bed
Jenny Getting into Bed

Eager to become more self-sufficient and earn an income, Jenny was referred to the Salaam Wanita eco-basket project.  She attended trainings, but weaving the baskets required too much arm strength and was too strenuous for Jenny.  eHomemakers provided her with computer training as well, but looking at the screen for too long made Jenny dizzy.

Instead, Jenny found work making Chinese funeral shoes, which people buy as a customary offering to the deceased.  Jenny has been putting together the paper shoes for over 20 years and recently received a raise from .12 Malaysian cents per pair to .18 Malaysian cents.  When she feels healthy, she can make up to 150 pairs of shoes per day, which earns her about $9 USD.

Jenny Making Chinese Funeral Shoes
Jenny Making Chinese Funeral Shoes

While Jenny’s income is meager, she is grateful she has a job.  Unfortunately, her ability to work fluctuates as she is in and out of the hospital for check-ups and treatments.  She has leukemia, kidney problems, diabetes, and chronic pain in her spine.  At only 43 years old, she has also had a heart attack.

Jenny has serious health and economic concerns, yet she hardly acknowledged them when we went to visit.  Rather, she smiled from ear to ear as she discussed the work she does as the voluntary President of The Hope Era, a society for special citizens, in Ipoh, Malaysia.  She spends hours organizing meetings, planning events, and working to improve the quality of life for the Society’s 100+ members.  Jenny is under doctor’s orders to reduce her stress and to relax more, but she continues to work hard to help the Society’s members.  In her view, her own health and well-being is equally important to those of her society members.

Profile of Jenny
Profile of Jenny

Over the years, Jenny has developed a relationship with Ching Ching.  Ching Ching has used her eH network to find furniture for Jenny’s house and raise funds for her medical expenses.  Ching Ching’s biggest aspiration has been to find an engineer to develop a hydraulic chair to help Jenny move around her house more easily.  Within the past year, an engineer from Singapore has offered to build the chair and is now making trips to Malaysia to determine how he can best assist Jenny.

In the meantime, Jenny remains focused on her work with The Hope Era.   After meeting Jenny, I am sure her society members have learned invaluable lessons from her enduring optimism in the most extreme circumstances.  I know I have.

Jenny will be featured in an upcoming documentary on inspiring women in Malaysia called Portraits of Perseverance.  eH Executive Director Chong Sheau Ching is the creative mind behind this film.

3 Responses to “Visiting Jenny Pong Siew Chin”

  1. Karin says:

    Thank you for sharing Jenny’s story with us, her ability to rise up through her hardships is an invaluable lesson we can all learn from. I am so impressed with her determination and with your ability to graciously tell them.

  2. iain says:

    This is a sweet profile, full of respect for Jenny. It’s amazing how some people rise above their misfortune. You’ve done some really good profiles, Maria. They show how eHomemakers is becoming a mouthpiece for some remarkable women and marginalised communities (including people of transgender). Thanks for helping us to understand.

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Jenny Pong Siew Chin – Overcoming Tragedy


Maria Skouras | Posted July 6th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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Jenny was born on January 3, 1966.  Along with her 6 brothers and sisters, she was raised in a small village down a long dirt road in Ipoh, Malaysia.  Ipoh is known for its limestone hills and beautiful women.  Jenny is one of these women.

Living a country lifestyle, Jenny’s family grew their own vegetables and tended their own chickens.  Their house was built by family and had dirt floors and no electricity or running water until about 10 years ago.  The house requires constant repairs to fix the roof and walls; the day I visited Jenny a severe rainstorm had blown a large part of the roof off of her bedroom and needed to be repaired.

Jenny's House
Jenny's House

*Click on photos to enlarge.

Jenny learned responsibility early in life and by the age of 7 she was helping her mother grow and sell vegetables to support her 7 siblings.  Like her mother, she stopped going to school when she was 12 years old to assume additional responsibilities for the family.  She washed dishes at a local restaurant and worked in a karaoke bar as a teenager to earn income for her siblings.

When Jenny was 18 years old, she married her sweetheart.  Less than a year later, she was pregnant and excited to be a mother.  She went to the general hospital in Ipoh give birth, but the baby was stillborn and she required an operation to have it removed.  Heartbroken, Jenny returned home to recuperate physically and emotionally.

A few days later, Jenny was feeling exceptionally weak from a post-natal viral infection.  She got up in the night to urinate but collapsed.  When her mother found her in the morning, Jenny told her that she needed to use the bathroom but couldn’t get up.  Her mother told Jenny that she had already urinated on the floor.  Jenny had no idea because she had lost sensation in most of her body.

Her parents brought her to the ICU at the hospital where Jenny fell into a coma. As the days went by, Jenny’s mother stayed by her side and was confident that she would regain consciousness.  After 2 long months, Jenny awoke but she still did not have feeling in her arms or legs.  She remained immobile in the hospital for 2 years.

During this time, Jenny waited for her husband to visit her, but he never came to the hospital.  He moved out of the house and Jenny has not seen him since.  While it pains her to think about the happy times they shared and whether he has a new family, she has no intentions of looking for him.

Jenny’s mother continued to provide emotional and physical support to her daughter.  She encouraged Jenny to try to squeeze a rubber ball and after a few days she was able to make slight movements with her arms and hands.   While Jenny strengthened her arms by pulling buckets of water up from the local well, her legs never regained feeling.  To move around her house, she used her arms to pull herself on the ground.  People in Jenny’s village called her “the mermaid” because of the way her legs dragged behind her.

With her doctor’s diagnosis that her legs would never function again, Jenny had them amputated.  After the surgery, Jenny discovered that the incision was uneven and prevented her from sitting upright.  She continued to drag herself on her stomach along the dirt floors in her house to do her daily chores until her 11-year-old brother advised that she use a trolley to prevent her clothing from becoming soiled and her stomach from being injured.

Jenny Pong Siew Chin
Jenny Pong Siew Chin

With her brother’s help, a trolley was constructed for her to get around more easily in the house.  Jenny lies on her stomach and pulls herself along with her hands.  Learning to get used to her new vantage point of the world, which is about two feet off the ground, has been a difficult and emotional journey.  With time, Jenny has been able to see her circumstances and the world in a positive light.

Jenny at Home
Jenny at Home

She shared more about her road to recovery and daily life with me when I visited her in March.  To read more, click here.

Jenny will be featured in an upcoming documentary by eHomemakers on inspiring women in Malaysia called Portraits of Perseverance.

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Sulastri – PT Foundation


Maria Skouras | Posted June 23rd, 2011 | Uncategorized

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Sulastri started working with the Pink Triangle Foundation (PT Foundation) in 1992 and over the years has been promoted to Manager of the Sex Workers Program.  Initially, she was searching for a place that would foster and accept her sense of individuality; she found what she was looking for at PT Foundation.

“I wanted to find the freedom to express myself.  I am so happy I can wear what I want and be myself here.  I’ve gone through a lot of difficulties; being on the street is not easy.”

Sulastri
Sulastri

While Sulastri knows the range of barriers transgender and transsexual people face; disapproval from their families, discrimination from employment opportunities, disparaging remarks from strangers; she is hopeful that more people will become tolerant with time.  She also finds that younger people who are coping with difficult situations are better equipped to handle them.

“The younger generation is more open, educated, and curious to get information they’ve never heard of before.”

And when members of the Mak Nyah (transgender) community come to PT Foundation with questions and concerns, Sulastri is happy to provide assistance.

“I am a role model for my community.  They might think they are weird or doing something wrong, but it is different here.  We tell them to be proud to be transgender—to be proud of who they are.”

As someone who has dealt with discrimination, Sulastri can identify with those who seek guidance from PT Foundation.

“I can relate because I have been through all of that.  I can read their body language and know what they are feeling.”

Even though Sulastri empathizes with those who seek guidance from her, she admits that it isn’t easy counseling members of her own community.

“There are many different issues and different circumstances – homelessness, drug users, sex workers.  Prevention and counseling is not that easy.  The problems are complex and can be shocking.”

Sulastri featured on a poster for transgender issues
Sulastri featured on a poster for transgender issues

To assist her clients best, Sulastri listens attentively to their concerns.

“We are not here to change them.  We are here to help them help themselves – just to guide them.”

Nisha, Sulastri’s colleague and Manager of the Transgender Program, chimes in, “We don’t play God here.”

Sulastri and Nisha
Sulastri and Nisha

Sulastri and Nisha will be featured in an upcoming documentary by eHomemakers on inspiring women in Malaysia called Portraits of Perseverance.

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Nisha – PT Foundation


Maria Skouras | Posted June 10th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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Nisha is the Transgender Program Manager at the Pink Triangle Foundation (PT Foundation).  Each week she leads support groups or counsels individuals who are going through extremely difficult times due to their gender and sexual identity, as she did in recent years.

Nisha is confident and beautiful, and she is open to speaking about her own painful personal experiences as a Mak Nyah, or male-to-female transsexual, if it helps others find the strength to accept themselves and live their lives fully.  Before she begins to recount how she came to PT Foundation, she adjusts her long hair so the curls cascade down her back.  Even though she looks glamorous for any office setting, she still hopes that our photographer won’t take any candid photos.

Nisha
Nisha

Nisha was arrested in her hometown of Melaka for cross-dressing while spending the day out with a group of friends.  Cross-dressing is against sharia (Islamic) law, and a religious officer apprehended her.  Subsequently, she was sentenced to a two-month prison term.

“The doors were like Jurassic Park,” Nisha recalls of the intimidating entryway to the prison.

Prison was an even more dangerous and traumatic experience than Nisha could have ever imagined.  Sex change operations are banned in Malaysia, but in the months before she was arrested in Melaka, Nisha had gotten breast implants to help her look the way she always felt – like a woman.  In prison, her long hair was cut off and she was forced to strip naked and walk in front of the inmates as they made vulgar remarks.

“I will never forget the rows of cells.  I was asked to show my breasts to each one.  I tried to remain calm, but I was crying on the inside.”

Just for trying to be herself, Nisha was persecuted and sexually abused.

“I kept asking ‘why is this happening to me?’”

A warden offered to guard Nisha from other inmates, but he demanded sexual favors in return.  Without other options, Nisha fulfilled his desires in exchange for physical protection.

The only ray of light Nisha felt was when her mother came to visit her in prison and they experienced a breakthrough in their relationship.  Seeing the torment Nisha had been put through, her mother finally understood that her child was not choosing this lifestyle, but really felt like a woman on the inside.  She accepted Nisha for whom she is and even fulfilled her request to bring a wig for her to wear on the day of her release.

After spending two hellish months in jail, Nisha started working in the nightlife industry. While this work provided her with money to pay her bills and more, Nisha still felt deeply unhappy and knew that she wanted other options.   She came to PT Foundation to gain a sense of empowerment and to find inspiration from others who had been through similar situations.

PT Foundation influenced her life in such a positive way that she started to volunteer with the organization.  Now, six years later, Nisha is the Transgender Program Manager.  In her new role, Nisha is able to shape programming and advocacy strategies to combat gender and sexual identity misconceptions.  With the rise of boot camps in Malaysia to “correct” effeminate schoolboys, Nisha’s work is essential.

“In Malaysia, transgender people are not recognized.  Society doesn’t know about it.  They think they can change (effeminate) kids, but they can’t.  It just lowers their self-esteem or they run away from home.”

Fortunately, these boys have a support system waiting for them in Kuala Lumpur.  They can always turn to Nisha and the PT Foundation for guidance and understanding.

Please read “Born this Way” and “The Torment of Being Different” on allMalaysia.info for more information on these issues.

Nisha will be featured in an upcoming documentary by eHomemakers on inspiring women in Malaysia called Portraits of Perseverance.


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Pink Triangle Foundation


Maria Skouras | Posted June 1st, 2011 | Uncategorized

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Pink Triangle Foundation is a community-based organization in Kuala Lumpur that provides education and support groups related to HIV/AIDS and sexuality.   Founded in 1987, PT Foundation has grown to serve 5 communities: drug users, sex workers, transgenders, men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM), and a positive living program for people who have HIV.

With 5 drop-in centers providing food, temporary shelter, showers, counseling and other important HIV/AIDS information, PT Foundation provides services to over 40,000 people each year.  Trained counselors tailor their services to suit the individual’s needs and concerns.

The Foundation strives to create awareness on safer sex, provide a safe place for individuals to share their concerns and ask questions, empower community members with information on their legal rights, disseminate healthcare information, reduce the stigmas felt by their clients, and educate the public on the issues related to sexuality to help put an end to discrimination.

Jeremy, PT’s In House Program Manager, has been with the Foundation for four years.  Among his many responsibilities, he helps organize a coffee talk series where gay men can talk openly about issues in their daily lives and seek advice from others.

Jeremy
Jeremy

PT takes a proactive approach to spreading the word about their care services.  Outreach workers are sent to seek out men who might be interested in the Foundation’s resources but are unaware that they exist.

“There are similarities between the disenfranchised groups we help like stigmas and a lack of information.  We go where the men like to hangout and we educate them on different issues, like HIV and AIDS.”

Jeremy Showing me PT Safe Sex Kits
Jeremy Showing me PT Safe Sex Kits

Working with the media is another one of PT’s most challenging tasks.

“We try to change media perceptions and portrayals.  We educate them on ‘what a sex worker is’ and other terms they may confuse, like transsexual and transvestite.”

Through educating the public and the media, every day Jeremy and the staff at PT Foundation are paving the way towards a more tolerant and accepting society.

PT Aids Campaign
PT Aids Campaign

PT Foundation is one of the community organizations collaborating with eHomemakers on a new communications system.  The system will enable organizations to reach out to their clients, volunteers, members, and employees with free and discounted rates on mass text messages sent online.

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Siew Lian and Auntie Chee


Maria Skouras | Posted May 23rd, 2011 | Uncategorized

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The heat is so overwhelming in Kuala Lumpur that it is common for locals to take a mid-afternoon break to indulge in a cooling dessert or beverage.

After celebrating Easter Sunday outside in Sentul Park, Auntie Chee must have been especially parched.  Not only did she want one cold treat, she wanted two: cendol, a popular Malaysian dessert made of coconut milk, syrup, shaved ice, green pea flower, and pandan, and ice kacang, another shaved ice dessert with toppings such as sweet corn, grass jelly, and red beans.

Two desserts?  After a bountiful Indian lunch with heapfuls of rice, tandoori fish, chili calamari, mutton, and fried noodles with shrimp?

Auntie Chee and Siew Lian at Lunch
Auntie Chee and Siew Lian at Lunch

Siew Lian didn’t flinch at her 78-year-old mother’s request.  If Auntie Chee wanted two desserts, Siew Lian would drive wherever she needed to cool her mother’s palate and satisfy her craving for sweets.

Such patience and accommodation is refreshing, if not surprising, especially for a woman like Siew Lian, who speaks quickly and walks with purpose.   Most days, Siew Lian moves at light speed between completing paperwork, fundraising, event planning, and counseling patients and family members for the Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) Association.  Helping her mother indulge in more than one dessert is a welcome assignment for Siew Lian.

As one of the founding members of the SLE Association in Kuala Lumpur in 1994, Siew Lian has fostered the organization’s growth for over 15 years.  Siew Lian and 10 like-minded people established the Association to fill a deficiency in the social and psychological support offered to SLE patients and their family members.   In its early days, the Association operated from a cramped corner in the general hospital.  Today it has its own office in a more central location and over 2,000 members.

Siew Lian
Siew Lian

Photo credit: Sasithon Pooviriyakul

Siew Lian is passionate about helping others understand SLE and related health issues, like hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, cataracts, and kidney failure.  She speaks from the heart about her own experience, having been diagnosed with SLE in 1987 at the age of 29.  The doctors originally thought the pain she was feeling in her joints indicated that she had rheumatoid arthritis, but after collapsing under the hot afternoon sun, the doctors examined her once again and determined that she had SLE.  They found that her body was producing autoantibodies that were damaging her healthy cells and tissue.   As a result, Siew Lian’s immune system was weakened and she felt physically and emotionally exhausted.

Months later, her symptoms were compounded by cryptococcal meningitis, a fungal infection she contracted from being in close proximity to pigeon droppings that were outside her office window.  Siew Lian’s parents moved from Penang to Kuala Lumpur at this time to assist her while she was undergoing heavy steroid treatments to prevent further deterioration of her organs and tissue.

After six months in the hospital, Siew Lian’s condition started to improve and she returned to her job at the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority.  She also started providing support for other lupus patients and developing fundraising events for SLE.   Eager to help others with SLE, Siew Lian overexerted herself in taking on too many tasks for a fundraising dinner and experienced her most serious, stress-induced relapse in 1997.

When steroids failed at improving Siew Lian’s condition, she was prescribed chemotherapy pills.  She vividly recalls the oral treatments as extremely painful.

After a slow recovery, Siew Lian returned to work and volunteering  as the Honorary Secretary of the SLE Association.  She eventually retired from her job in 2003, and was offered a paid position as the Executive Secretary of the SLE Association in 2008, a post she has held since then.

Working at the Association requires resilience and flexibility.  Siew Lian vacillates between handling paperwork at her computer, fundraising for patients who require joint replacements, providing bed-side support to ill and dying SLE patients, providing information about SLE and pregnancy, and addressing the diverse array of questions that arise from multicultural patients.

Completing courses in counseling has helped Siew Lian address some of the difficult misconceptions and cultural beliefs that influence how people perceive SLE in Malaysia.

“Many people believe they’ve been hexed or that they have dirty blood,” Siew Lian explains.

“We are a multicultural society.  We really have to listen to understand where people are coming from.  Counseling lessons have helped.”

Siew Lian monitors online forums where people can ask questions about SLE and seek answers and advice from others.  Often times, people will suggest that others use home remedies or blessed oils to remedy symptoms of SLE.  While these aren’t recommended or proven methods of battling SLE, Siew Lian gently leads patients to their own conclusions about how they should best seek treatment.

“How do we reconcile cultural beliefs and modern medicine?  More people are becoming educated on these issues, but there is more work to be done.  We must be sensitive to everyone’s beliefs.”

Siew Lian exercises this same sensitivity and patience in everyday life, even when Auntie Chee wants to celebrate life by eating double desserts on a hot day.

Siew Lian and Auntie Chee
Siew Lian and Auntie Chee

Photo credit: Sasithon Pooviriyakul

One Response to “Siew Lian and Auntie Chee”

  1. iain says:

    Love this profile! Really well written. Siew Lian sounds like an amazing woman, full of energy in spite of her affliction.

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Easter with Siew Lian


Maria Skouras | Posted May 10th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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The moon was still dangling above Kuala Lumpur when I woke up at 4:45 AM to attend Easter Sunday Service with Siew Lian, an extraordinary volunteer turned staff member at the SLE Association.  Emerging from my state of slumber, I searched around in the dark for the top and candy-colored skirt I had laid out to wear the night before.  Once fully awake and dressed, I was excited to spend the day with Siew Lian and my friend, Sasithon Pooviriyakul, a talented photographer from NYC who is traveling through SE Asia.

Siew Lian is one of five women Chong Sheau Ching (C2) is featuring in a documentary called “Portraits of Perseverance” that she is filming with a grant from the Krishen Jit Astro Documentary Project.   The individuals selected are sources of inspiration for C2 in her efforts to assist women who have endured hardships due to health problems, disabilities, economic hardships, lack of education, gender, and discrimination.  Sasi started an amazing photo blog for “Portraits of Perseverance” featuring our day with Siew Lian.  Check it out here.

I had met Siew Lian when she came to the office to learn more about how to use the video camera and lighting for the documentary.  “Portraits of Perseverance” will empower the participants to engage in citizen journalism, an active form of reporting and spreading information by members of the public.  Each woman will film her own video journals and discuss her life, inspirations, and the issues that fuel her each day.

Siew Lian invited Sasi and me to join her on Easter because the Full Gospel Assembly Kuala Lumpur (FGA) is a central facet in her life and we were interested in learning more about what inspires and motivates Siew Lian in her work with the SLE Association.  She started coming to this charismatic Church in 1989 under the encouragement of her Christian doctor.  Siew Lian was in the hospital at the time undergoing treatment for a severe SLE relapse.  She grew up practicing Buddhism, but her doctor encouraged her to turn to Christianity to improve her condition.

Siew Lian credits her recovery to her doctor’s good care along with prayer and her faith in God.  She has been attending the Church ever since.

At 5:30 AM, Siew Lian pulled up to Chong Sheau Ching’s house and Sasi and I climbed in the back seat of her car.

“My mother was so excited for today, she couldn’t sleep last night,” Siew Lian shared.

Siew Lian’s 78 year-old mother, who goes by the name “Auntie Chee,” was sitting in the passenger side seat eagerly awaiting our arrival at “Alive Together,” the FGA sunrise service.

Siew Lian with Auntie Chee
Siew Lian with Auntie Chee

As is common in Kuala Lumpur, we got a bit lost due to the lack of road signage, but before long the desolate highway was populated with cars and we knew we were in the right place.  We had arrived at Sentul Park near the near the KL Performing Arts Center, where the festivities would be held.

And festivities they were.  It was the most elaborate and celebratory Easter service I had ever seen.

We entered the park and walked among throngs of people towards a huge concert stage.  Over the loud speakers, a song called “How Great is Our God” played.  Young and old congregation members raised their hands in the air and sang along to the lyrics flashing on two stadium-sized screens on either side of the stage.  Siew Lian and Auntie Chee joined in, singing in unison with their fellow FGA devotees.

Full Gospel Assembly Easter Stage and Screen
Full Gospel Assembly Easter Stage and Screen

Songs of praise and adulation were interspersed with skits pondering the greater meaning of life and urging audience members to look beyond money and status for greater fulfillment.  A hush fell over the audience as the crucifixion scene from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” played on the big screens.

The Church leadership, Elder Dr Ng and Elder Dr Ang, welcomed the crowd of over 3,500 for attending “Alive Together” and praised the Lord for the beautiful weather and the generosity of those who made it possible for the service to be held in the park.  After a brief sermon on Jesus’s death and resurrection, the stage was handed back over to the performers who rallied the audience with drama and dancing.

The pinnacle of the service was when individuals from the congregation climbed on stage to express how God had given them the strength to overcome drug addictions, reform after committing crimes, and recover from disabilities and illnesses thought to be life threatening.

The festivities closed with the distribution of red ribbons, religious banners, and national flags to members of the audience.  Some individuals shut their eyes and lifted their faces to the sky while singing God’s praises while others welled up with tears.  Children danced in the aisles as grandparents looked on approvingly.  One silver-haired woman even took out a massive, hollow animal horn and fervently blew into it.  As the music tapered off, people exchanged Easter greetings with their neighbors and proceeded to the complimentary breakfast provided by FGA.

Full Gospel Assembly Easter Service - Woman with Horn
Full Gospel Assembly Easter Service - Woman with Horn

Over breakfast, Siew Lian and Auntie Chee caught up with friends and swapped stories, still buzzing with excitement from the energetic service.  After an hour of conversing, the sun’s rays became more intense and the congregation members trickled out of the park and towards their cars.

It certainly was a great day to be alive and in the presence of Siew Lian, Auntie Chee, and my friend Sasi.

Easter Group Photo-Sasi, Maria, Siew Lian, Auntie Chee
Easter Group Photo-Sasi, Maria, Siew Lian, Auntie Chee

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The Indispensable Lucy Goh


Maria Skouras | Posted May 4th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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Lucy Goh has volunteered with the Salaam Wanita eco-basket project for 7 years.  In a word, she is indispensable.

Lucy isn’t deterred by the two hour commute from her house to the eH office.  On the contrary, she arrives early in the morning, ready to do whatever tasks need to be completed to help the office be more organized and run more efficiently.  From preparing the inventory for sales at fairs to folding and sorting hundreds of plastic bags used to protect the baskets during transport, Lucy completes numerous, time-consuming assignments that are essential to sustaining the project.  Due to other work commitments, Lucy is only able to come to the eH office once per week, but she accomplishes a great deal during that time.

Lucy_Daughter
Lucy_Daughter

Knowing that her work makes it possible to sell the weavers’ baskets gives Lucy the determination to work hard.

“I feel happy that we can help them in small ways,” says Lucy.  “A single mom may feel like she is alone, but eH provides a place for her to gain more confidence.  I feel fortunate that I can learn more about their hardships and help them.”

Helping others is a central part of Lucy’s lifestyle and outlook on life.  As someone who has struggled with SLE (Systemic Lupus Erythematosis), Lucy spends three days a week counseling other lupus patients and their family members through the SLE Association.  The causes for lupus are unclear, and the symptoms vary for each person, making this autoimmune disease especially difficult to diagnose and understand.  Lucy shares her own experience and offers advice to those who are coping with this illness.

SLE destroys the body’s own healthy tissue can cause joint pain, anemia, rashes, reproductive complications, inflammation of the heart, kidney failure, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms.  There are many different kinds of lupus, and the 90% of the people affected are women.

Accepting and treating the disease is emotionally draining for patients and their relatives.  When family members are unable to cope, Lucy often accompanies patients to the hospital for check-ups, helps families make decisions about appropriate nursing homes, and acts as a support system for those who are feeling hopeless.  Lucy feels fortunate that she has three children and a husband who have provided a strong support system for her.

Even with her family’s support, Lucy has experienced the depths of depression from SLE herself.  She was undergoing a severe relapse when her close friend and eH part-time staff member, Justina, visited her.  Justina encouraged Lucy to get out of the house and start volunteering with the eco-basket project when she had the strength to do so.  She took Justina’s advice and motivated herself to visit the eH office.

Lucy began her relationship with eH has a weaver herself.  She also volunteered to take others who were without transportation to the trainings.

“I had a car and could drive.  I’d pick up the single mothers who wanted to learn how to weave and I’d take them to the trainings.”

“I was restless, but making baskets filled my time.  I enjoyed weaving the baskets, but because of my illness, I couldn’t keep making them.”

Lucy and Maria
Lucy and Maria

Photo Credit: Sasithon Pooviriyakul

To create the base of most baskets, the weavers use wire wrapped in magazine paper.  Pulling the wire taught to create a clean weave caused Lucy to get many cuts.  As an SLE patient, Lucy needs to be careful about maintaining her health.  The cuts could become infected and her condition could worsen.  Instead, Lucy began rolling paper for the more experienced weavers to make baskets.  In return, she would make $15 USD for every 1,000 sticks rolled.  This work also proved difficult because each weaver had a different preference for the length and width of the rolled paper.

“Every weaver has her own quality control for the rolled paper.  To them, some rolls might be too thick or too thin.  I eventually gave up rolling to assist with the eco-basket project’s administration and sales.”

The weavers’ particularity for the paper rolls was a blessing in disguise for the eco-basket project.  7 years after first visiting eH, Lucy is the backbone of the office and an indispensible team member.

To learn more about SLE, read this article in the Star Newspaper.

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Toh Oy Sim


Maria Skouras | Posted April 19th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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Toh Oy Sim, one of the newest Salaam Wanita eco-basket weavers, exudes positivity when she steps into the eH office.

Like many of the weavers, Toh perseveres in the face of adversity and maintains a positive outlook on life.  She was kind enough to share some of her story with Anne, the eco-basket coordinator who generously acted as our translator, and me.

Toh Oy Sim
Toh Oy Sim

Toh Oy Sim

Toh began by recounting the year she turned 28.  That year was a turning point in Toh’s life and one of one of emotional highs and lows.  She happily married her husband and was hopeful about what the future might hold for them both.  A few months later, her blood pressure started to rise and her health declined.  She felt feverish for about two weeks, and when her condition didn’t improve she went to see her physician.  After running several tests, the doctor informed Toh that her high blood pressure had adversely affected her kidneys, which were shrinking and malfunctioning as a result.   He advised Toh to start undergoing dialysis to stabilize her condition.

When the kidneys are no longer capable of filtering waste products from the blood, dialysis rids the body of toxic substances and helps cells and organs maintain a proper balance of electrolytes.  Toh visits the Dialysis Center for treatments three times per week in the afternoon for four hours each.  Three dialysis treatments at the Center cost 390 RM ($130 USD).

In the years following her diagnosis, Toh decided not to have any children because of the health risks associated with her failed kidneys.  Pregnancy would have also required her to go to dialysis every single day, which was a daunting prospect.

These days, when Toh goes to the Center for treatment, she does so alone.  She seldom sees her husband because he is a truck driver and spends most of his time away from home.

It has been 16 years since Toh was first diagnosed with kidney failure.  Her inconsistent health record has made it difficult for her to find steady work.  Another barrier Toh has faced is her limited education.  She stopped attending school when she was 15 years old to help raise her Aunt’s children.

Toh’s health issues and personal circumstances have only made her want to work harder.  Participation in the Salaam Wanita eco-basket project has given her an opportunity to work from home.  Toh is extremely grateful for this opportunity because the income helps cover some of her medical and household expenses.  She first became involved in the eco-basket project four years ago, when she started rolling magazine paper for the experienced weavers to make baskets.  This is one of the most difficult and time-consuming parts of making the baskets, but Toh has mastered the technique.

Over the past year, Toh has been learning how to make the baskets herself.  She is one of 12 women who were selected to attend basket-weaving trainings under a grant from UBS.   Toh has shown great improvement in the shape and weave of her baskets.  She is proud of her progress because it isn’t easy for her to pull the paper tightly due to weakness and sensitivity in her left arm.

Toh's Eco-Baskets
Toh's Eco-Baskets

Toh presenting her completed eco-baskets

I noticed that each time Toh came to the eH office, she was wearing wool arm warmers in Malaysia’s oppressive heat.  Toh pulled the fabric up and showed me a golf-ball sized protrusion on the inside of her left arm.  She put my hand on top of the mass and I could feel the area vibrating.

Toh Oy Sim
Toh Oy Sim

Toh Oy Sim's arms reveal that she is a dialysis patient

When I asked Toh what the bulge was, she wasn’t sure how to explain it.  I consulted with a doctor and it is likely a fistula, or enlarged vein that is connected to an artery to increase the blood flow through the vein.  In turn, the fistula makes it easier to insert needles to remove the blood and perform haemodialysis to clean it and return it to the body.

Toh organizes her schedule around dialysis, but she does not let it consume her life. While her blood is being cleaned, she continues to roll magazine paper.  At the end of the day, the baskets she’s made fill her with pride.

When she comes to the eH office to drop off her completed baskets, she radiates with satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

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From the Inventory Room to the Sales Table – Baskets in Motion


Maria Skouras | Posted April 13th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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Chong Sheau Ching launched the Salaam Wanita eco-basket project over 7 years ago with the vision of helping women work from home in other ways than using a computer to start e-businesses.

What she didn’t know then was that this project would expand rapidly requiring an office and a full-time eco-basket administrator.  Today the eHomemakers office is home to an inventory room full of baskets and weavers stop by each week for trainings or to drop off orders.  Two technical staff members work part-time from home to manage the “justmarketing” website to promote the baskets to international buyers.

Locally, the baskets are still sold primarily during school sales, fairs, and holiday bazaars.  The sale opportunities vary each month depending on the holidays and whether eH is able to negotiate a free or highly discounted table.   If eH pays full-price for a table they risk losing money if the basket sales aren’t strong.  Fair and festival organizers can give projected attendance numbers based on previous years, but whether the buyers are interested in purchasing the baskets cannot be guaranteed.

Volunteering with eH has given me the opportunity to participate in the intricate process of preparing to sell baskets at a festival.

Step 1: The eco-basket coordinator must keep a calendar of all the upcoming local fairs and festivals that provide good opportunities for basket sales.   The coordinator reaches out to the organizers and requests a free or discounted table at least a month in advance.

Step 2: Once a table has been confirmed, the eco-basket coordinator needs to find volunteers to staff the table.  A culture of volunteerism isn’t established in Malaysia, making it harder to find people willing to spend a day staffing the eco-basket table for free.  In addition, the volunteer must be willing to come to the eH office to pick up all the baskets, promotional brochures, and materials needed for the fair.  eH has very limited funds and resources, so the volunteers must be willing to buy their own lunch and pay for gas and parking as required.

At the end of the day or after the weekend, the volunteers are responsible for returning everything.  eH must also be sure that they can trust whoever is volunteering to protect and return the money that is earned from the basket sales.

It usually requires several text messages and phone calls before dependable and willing volunteers can be identified.

Step 3: A few days before the fair, the eco-baskets that will be sold must be pulled from the inventory.  In the past 2 months, eH started using a bar coding system.  Each basket that will be removed from the inventory room needs to be scanned.  Depending on the size of the table and the number of volunteers available, anywhere from 50 to 90 different baskets will be selected and scanned for the fair.

Scanning the Eco-Baskets
Scanning the Eco-Baskets

Step 4: After the baskets are scanned, each one must be wrapped in a plastic bag to prevent it from being damaged or scratching other baskets when they are packed together.  eH collects and reuses plastic bags for this purpose.  (If the bags are dirty, a volunteer will wash and dry the bags.  Then they are folded into compact triangles and kept in boxes according to size.)

Wrapping the Eco-Baskets
Wrapping the Eco-Baskets

Step 5: Smaller baskets are stored in larger baskets to make them easier to transport.  They are brought downstairs and put close to the door so they can be easily moved outside.

Stacking the Eco-Baskets
Stacking the Eco-Baskets

Step 6: Before or on the actual day of the bazaar, the volunteer will arrive and an eH staff will help that person place the baskets, cash box, and other materials in the car.

Step 7: The volunteer(s) sit at the eH table and try to sell the baskets to potential buyers!  Other handicraft vendors will be present, so the Salaam Wanita eco-baskets must be distinguished from the competition with the personal stories of the women who made them.  As one might expect, on some days the sales prove to be more successful than others.

Steps 8, 9, 10…: The volunteer returns all the materials to the office.  All of the baskets are taken out of the plastic bags, the bags are folded and stored according to size, the unsold baskets are scanned back into the inventory system and put back into their proper storage place, orders are placed with available weavers for more of the top-selling baskets, and the sales money is taken to the bank for deposit.

The process of preparing and restocking the baskets for a one-day event where the sales are not guaranteed is very time consuming.  Moving forward, eH hopes to secure partnerships with international wholesalers and corporations for bigger orders and more consistent income for the weavers.

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Fellow: Maria Skouras

eHomemakers in Malaysia


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