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A sense of belonging for children living with HIV

© UNICEF Malaysia/2008/Nadchatram
Residents of Rumah WAKE, Ganesh* and Tze Lee* have fun with their Uncle Darus who is also the home's project manager.

By Zhang Su Li

KUALA LUMPUR, 1 December 2008 - Snow white canvas school shoes from size 1 to 7 forming a line almost as long as the wire fence of the house were drying under the late afternoon sun.

The Rumah WAKE was quiet with sleep. A small head peeked over the metal bar of a bunk bed. Gradually, chatter and pattering of small feet could be heard from every room as the children began to appear one by one like coloured balls from a magician’s scarf. The aroma of freshly fried cucur bawang wafted out of the kitchen and lured them to help set the long table for tea.

Just over a dozen children between the ages of six months and fourteen years live in Rumah WAKE. Some are orphans and some were abandoned, but almost all born HIV-positive. While HIV is transmitted mostly by injecting drug users, there is a worrying rise in infections among women through heterosexual transmission. The children of Rumah WAKE are some of many in this country who did not have the benefit of a clean slate, but inherited a history of HIV that started before they were born.

Yearning for a “real” home

© UNICEF Malaysia/2008/Nadchatram
Despite her laughter, Rumah WAKE resident, twelve-year old Tze May* yearns to belong to a family she can call her own. Tze May and her sister Tze Lee lost their parents to AIDS.

One of a handful of orphanages in Malaysia that cares for children living with HIV, residents of Rumah WAKE receive free medication and health care from the Government, coupled with loving care from the home’s dedicated staff. The benefits of such support have translated in good health for some children, while a few others have excelled in school.

But it was the adoption of two-year old Priya that seemed to be the topic that dominated the children’s thoughts that day. The children had grown to love Priya like their own sister. The news that she had been adopted and was going to live with a family brought them much joy. But it also brought them sorrow. 

“Can we stay with you too?” twelve-year old Tze May was heard asking Priya’s adoptive parents when they came to pick up the toddler. Tze May expressed the mixed feelings of the other children. It was as though in the light of good news, the fact that they were left behind was made even more obvious.

Coping with a sense of “abandonment”

Quite out of the blue, and without emotion, Tze May said, “I am an orphan.”

Both Tze May’s parents were HIV-positive. Her mother died when she was seven. The following year, her father died. She and her sister, Tze Lee have been staying at Rumah WAKE ever since.

The word ‘orphan’, though quietly uttered, sounded louder than the laughter and chatter. Underneath all the joviality lay the residual trauma of having lost both parents within a year, and then having to go through environment changes and the instability of being neither here nor there. But perhaps the thing that hurt most was the feeling of being abandoned.

Tze May’s aunty sometimes takes her and her younger sister along on her own family outings. “We go shopping or watch movies,” Tze May said.

Sometimes they spend the day at the zoo or at a theme park. But each time the family returns to their own home, what remains at the end of the day for the sisters is a feeling of abandonment again. When asked where she would rather live, she replied, “With family.”

Children thrive best with families

According to UNICEF Representative to Malaysia, Mr. Youssouf Oomar, informal fostering, adoptions and kinship care are generally preferred to institutional care.

“Institutionalised care is not an appropriate option and should always only be considered as a very last resort,” said Mr Youssouf. “Let us not forget that orphanages are, after all, halfway houses.”

“We know children thrive best in a family setting. As such resources are more effectively used in strengthening the abilities of families and communities to care for orphaned and affected children in their midst. Where institutional care is offered, programs must be developed to integrate children back into their communities at the earliest opportunity,” he added.

Rumah WAKE’s project manager, Encik Daruz, has a simple hope for the children, which is “for them to continue their education and get jobs.” Secretly, however, he hopes that every child from the home will have the chance to experience a loving home, with a “mother” and a “father”.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of the children portrayed in the story.





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