Re­build­ing lives

The Mak Mi­nah Project gives out mi­croloans to help home­less fam­i­lies move into their own homes.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By S. INDRAMALAR star2@thes­tar.com.my

CRADLING her 18-month-old daugh­ter Kai in her arms, Su­raya, 37, wears a wide smile as she wel­comes us into her flat.

The 15th floor flat is small and sparsely-fur­nished but bright and wel­com­ing. The din­ing ta­ble is laden with food; there is laksa made by Su­raya’s 69-year-old mother, a big jug of syrup drink pre­pared by Su­raya’s sis­ter Marisa, and jars of Hari Raya cook­ies.

As she ush­ers us in, Su­raya ad­mits that she still finds it hard to be­lieve that this is her home. She does not take the roof over her head for granted as she has been home­less.

“We are truly grate­ful to Sara,” says the 37-year-old sin­gle mother, her eyes welling up with tears as she reaches out to Sara Sukor, one of the co-founders of The Mak Mi­nah Project, a so­cial en­ter­prise, which of­fered Su­raya and her fam­ily a mi­croloan to put down the de­posit for the flat’s ren­tal. The loan also went to­wards fur­nish­ing their home.

Their flat is more than just a shel­ter for this fam­ily; it’s also a way to get their lives back on course.

Just over a year ago, Su­raya and her fam­ily were among the city’s home­less, seek­ing refuge at An­jung Sing­gah, a tem­po­rary shel­ter for the home­less and dis­placed.

Kai was just over a month old when Su­raya and her fam­ily found them­selves on the street with barely any money and nowhere to go, the cul­mi­na­tion of a se­ries of mis­for­tunes.

“Our lives seemed to be spi­ralling out of con­trol at the time. Noth­ing was work­ing out for us. We were cheated by friends left, right and cen­tre,” re­calls Su­raya.

“I don’t know how we ended up home­less. No, no... it was my fault. It was be­cause of a man.”

Su­raya was five months preg­nant when her part­ner left her high and dry. They were plan­ning to get mar­ried but he kept post­pon­ing the wed­ding date. He had told her to stop work­ing, as­sur­ing her that he would cover their ex­penses. And then he dis­ap­peared.

“I had just RM500 in my hands when he left. Our rent and util­i­ties were not paid and soon af­ter, our car was re­pos­sessed,” she says, tears giv­ing way to anger.

Things got worse fast. Marisa was re­trenched from her job as a car-park at­ten­dant and had a tough time get­ting an­other job. She was fi­nally hired as a sales as­sis­tant at a shoe shop. But one day Su­raya had to be ad­mit­ted for an emer­gency cae­sar­ian, and Marisa skipped work to look af­ter her. She lost her job.

By then, their funds were de­pleted and they had no one to turn to. They couldn’t pay their rent and ended up at An­jung Sing­gah, where they heard about a soup kitchen that was giv­ing out di­a­pers to home­less moth­ers.

“That’s when we met Sara. Af­ter hear­ing our story, she im­me­di­ately of­fered us help and within two weeks, she’d found us a home,” says Su­raya

Home is where life be­gins

The Mak Mi­nah project isn’t a char­ity. It of­fers loans as seed money for home­less fam­i­lies to find a home and get off the streets.

The loans are in­ter­est-free and fam­i­lies are only ex­pected to start re­pay­ment af­ter three months, giv­ing them enough time to look for em­ploy­ment and set­tle into their new lives.

“The loans are mainly to set the fam­i­lies up in a home. Most land­lords re­quire a few months’ de­posit, which the home­less don’t have. The money also helps them move into their new homes and get by while they look for work. The amount de­pends on the in­di­vid­ual needs of each fam­ily but they are ba­si­cally just enough to get them on their feet again,” ex­plains Sara.

The Mak Mi­nah Project was con­ceived in 2014. Sara and her friend Ayu Ab­dul­lah vol­un­teered at a soup kitchen and their en­gage­ment with the home­less com­mu­nity ex­posed them to the myr­iad of is­sues faced by the ur­ban poor.

“When we got to know the home­less, we found that one of their big­gest is­sues was not hav­ing enough money for a ren­tal de­posit. It’s not easy find­ing af­ford­able hous­ing in KL and it is worse if you are home­less and have no money.

“Af­ter lis­ten­ing to their sto­ries, we felt we had to do some­thing,” says Ayu, an en­gi­neer with En­act, a not-for-profit en­ergy and com­mu­nity devel­op­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Fund­ing de­cent homes

The two friends de­cided to crowd­source funds for their ini­tia­tive, which they call the Mak Mi­nah Project. The team is made up of Sara, Ayu, and two part-time staff Maisyarah Ma­zlan and Alishia Zulk­i­fli.

Within months, they man­aged to col­lect enough funds from fam­ily and friends to re-home their first fam­ily. As more peo­ple found out about their ini­tia­tive, their funds grew and to date, four fam­i­lies have ben­e­fit­ted from their loans.

“Su­raya and her fam­ily were our sec­ond fam­ily and we are ex­tremely proud of them. We gave them a loan of RM3,500 and they have been re­pay­ing us, with­out fail, for the past one-and-a-half years. By next year, they would have fin­ished their re­pay­ments,” says Sara, a full-time mother who was for­merly with the World­wide Fund For Na­ture.

Through their net­work of friends and con­tacts, Sara and Ayu found af­ford­able but de­cent homes for their clients.

“We are par­tic­u­lar about where we home them. We want them to move into a neigh­bour­hood that is con­ducive for them to raise their fam­i­lies. We don’t want them to move from one dump area to an­other. In the end, it’s all about the chil­dren. We want their chil­dren to grow up in a good en­vi­ron­ment and to be part of a com­mu­nity that is healthy and whole­some,” says Sara.

One of the con­di­tions of the Mak Mi­nah loans is that the fam­i­lies must send their chil­dren to school reg­u­larly.

“This is re­ally im­por­tant. We are in the midst of re­struc­tur­ing our pro­gramme and we want to in­tro­duce an in­cen­tive sav­ings scheme for their chil­dren to keep them in school. We are still work­ing this out,” says Sara.

Con­tin­u­ing sup­port

On top of the loans, the project also of­fers fam­i­lies sup­port ser­vices which in­clude coun­selling, skills train­ing and fi­nan­cial plan­ning.

“We part­ner up with or­gan­i­sa­tions or peo­ple who can of­fer these ser­vices and are al­ways on the look­out for peo­ple we can work with. While we don’t find them jobs, we help them with their applications and pre­pare them for work as much as we can,” says Ayu.

Ten­ancy agree­ments are strictly be­tween the fam­i­lies and their land­lords. Mak Mi­nah stands in as a guar­an­tor for the fam­i­lies, if nec­es­sary. The team also checks in on their ben­e­fi­cia­ries as they try to get back on their feet.

“Some fam­i­lies need more mon­i­tor­ing. We don’t need to check on Su­raya and her fam­ily any more as they have ad­justed well. Marisa has a job in a ho­tel and is up for a pro­mo­tion. Su­raya isn’t work­ing yet but both sis­ters are good seam­stresses and that can be an­other source of in­come for them too,” says Sara.

How­ever, other fam­i­lies need more su­per­vi­sion.

“Our third and fourth fam­i­lies need a lit­tle more sup­port and we are still help­ing them get on their feet. Firstly, they re­lo­cated to Lukut (in Ne­gri Sem­bi­lan) be­cause they found jobs there. We tried a new hous­ing model with them – both fam­i­lies share a three-bed­room house. They have their own rooms but share the liv­ing room and kitchen.

“We hope that they will be able to sup­port each other as a com­mu­nity. If one fam­ily falls on tough times, they can rely on the other fam­ily for sup­port. But they are still work­ing things out and need our sup­port,” says Ayu.

Graphic: ZULHAIMI BA­HARUD­DIN

— Pho­tos: RICKY LAI/The Star

Su­raya still finds it hard to be­lieve she has a place to call home.

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