This M'sian Child Rights Activist Has Devoted Her Life To Creating A Safe Space For Youths

A single mother, Dr Hartini Zainudin runs Yayasan Chow Kit, a 24-hour crisis centre. She refuses to accept anything less than the best for every child she comes across. And behind this belief lies a deeply personal tale of heartbreak.

Cover image via Yayasan Chow Kit & Yayasan Chow Kit (Facebook)

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Meet Dr Hartini Zainudin.

More fondly known as Tini, the 60-year-old single mother is a child rights activist.

A file photo of Dr Hartini.

Image via New Straits Times

She is also the co-founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, a centre where at-risk children, teenagers, and their parents find safety and shelter.

In a conversation with SAYS, Tini, who is of Malay/Chinese descent, shared that her life has never been the same since she decided to devote her life — which she described as "a crazy train ride" — to children.

"I'm passionate about the rights of children," she shared with this SAYS writer, while jokingly adding, "except when it comes to the rights of my own children."

"As many parents do, I struggle with raising children. Nothing unusual about this except, for the most part of my adult life, I work around child issues and rights. So, there is this blurred line between work and my personal life.

My life with kids is funny and exasperating, fascinating, and an absolute adventure. There are good days with children and bad days, tragic and triumphant," Tini said, adding that she, however, loves the blurred lines between her work and personal life for the reason that it is surrounded by children.

Tini vehemently believes in the basic rights of all children, ensuring that they have a happy and safe life. It's why she started Yayasan Chow Kit.

Yayasan Chow Kit is a 24-hour crisis and drop-in centre that provides meals, activities, therapy, case management, and educational programmes for at-risk children and teenagers around the Chow Kit area.

Besides the above, Tini shared that her goal for the centre is to serve not only the interest of the community of children who have been identified as high risk or at risk and their parents. At the same time, it is a safe house that serves as the hub for ongoing, dynamic, sustainable, volunteer-led activities.

For the uninitiated, Yayasan Chow Kit was formerly known as Nur Salam, meaning light and peace.

"We were the 'house of light and peace' for children, or in other words, a sanctuary," she said.

Tini with children of Yayasan Chow Kit.

Image via Wiki Impact

Before starting Yayasan Chow Kit, Tini spent some two decades in the US, where she gained a Doctorate from Columbia University in New York and had aspired to be an English teacher

She returned to Malaysia in 2001 and got involved with the marginalised community here. After volunteering for a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Yayasan Salam Malaysia, Tini, from her experience in the US, realised what the poor and marginalised children here needed most — a bigger space to seek refuge.

From this realisation came the idea that eventually formed Yayasan Chow Kit, where every child under the age of 18, regardless of race, religion or creed, is embraced. The centre also tries to address the problem of street children in KL to find better solutions in prevention, treatment, and advocacy.

A mother to a couple of adoptive stateless children, Tini refuses to accept anything less than the best for every child she comes across.

And behind this belief lies a deeply personal tale of heartbreak.

Recalling an incident from November 2008, she reflected on how circumstances at the time forced her to turn away a six-year-old girl who had come knocking at her doorstep for help.

"She must be 20 by now," Tini shared.

The child was brought to Tini after she had been caught shoplifting for the second time in an hour.

"The police brought her back to me. Six-year-old. Why? Why did you steal again, after you just got caught? Did you want to be caught? Tell me what's wrong," Tini recalled asking the child.

That's when she broke down. 'Why did you take my brother and not me?' she asked me in rapid Malay.

According to Tini, all she could do at the time was to hold the child and whisper feeble excuses as to why she was there and prayed that she doesn't ask her to make promises she couldn't keep.

"I had taken her younger brother as my adoptive son. That's when I found out that her biological mother had given her away to a sex worker as a baby. We managed to track her down and get her away from the woman, who had brought her up. She was traumatised and neglected and hadn't been adopted legally.

"My son was only three years old. He had come to me a year and a half earlier. The news had gotten around and the women in the community had told me of this older child. My son's biological sister. Same father and mother. But there was no way I could adopt her, too.

"I didn't make much money. I was a single mum and had just started the children's programme in Chow Kit. We had just built a centre and were moving on to our second centre, and a baby centre too — both within six months of each other," she shared.

File photo of Tini.

Image via Free Malaysia Today

At the time, Tini thought she would first get the child free from the woman and let her stay at the shelter till she figured out what to do

"She was six. I had a three-year-old. I couldn't take both of them. Not just yet. I thought it would be enough to introduce her to her little brother and invite her to his birthday party. I was wrong," Tini said.

"She told me — between sobs and me holding her tiny, skinny body — that she had no one. That nobody loved her. She was all alone. Why wouldn't I take her? Then, she'd have a mother and a brother. I couldn't explain. I just rocked her. After an hour of rocking her in my arms, she quietened down and I could see the light go out of her eyes as she politely got up, said that she was okay, and walked off," Tini recalled.

Tini, who is now a mother to five children and is in the process of adopting another child, told SAYS that she hasn't seen that six-year-old girl in 14 years now — not since the day she had to leave her and three other children at another shelter because she didn't have a safe shelter for children at the time.

"I couldn't visit her regularly because we were fearful her biological father would follow me and take her. To see or hurt her. Just terrible circumstances for a little girl," Tini said.

She added, "When the father got out of jail, he came looking for her. And found me. I knew I had to hide her. She was then adopted by a woman who runs a shelter for children in Kuala Lumpur. I hear all sorts of rumours about this home. The abuse, the madness, but she's been legally adopted and I can't see her. Or the three siblings."

I know they think I abandoned them.

"Over the years, I've had my share of heart-stopping questions that give me pause for thought. Among the most difficult questions: 'What is the worst thing you've seen?' So many... It's not what I see, but what I hear that haunts me and how nothing I say or do can help take away that pain," she recalled.

The incident left such a mark that Tini made a promise to herself and her staff that they would never turn away any child who came to them

"I swore I'd never be so afraid again and so unprepared and I'd never hand a child over to someone else again because I had no resources. And that the system must improve. I'd do my best to make it better," she told SAYS while sharing about a similar case of a 12-year-old girl from last year.

"She was kicked out of her adoptive mother's home at 10 years old. There was a pandemic and I couldn't get to her till last year. The same heart-wrecking sobs over her birthday cake, a woman she calls mother who never shows up and promises being broken, over and over again," Tini shared.

According to Tini, while she's devastated, angry, and feels helpless, she also has more people around her now, and no matter the odds, they would persevere and have courage.

"Every child matters, so we try and try again. Because I've failed so spectacularly in the past and I'm sure I'll fail again. But this time I'm older, more experienced, and a better self than 14 years ago.

"I will never turn any child away as long as the child asks me for help. Because I know what happens when we adults fail children, they get hurt in every way possible and the damage is terrible," she emphasised.

Photo of Yayasan Chow Kit kids at YCK 7 Voice 2.0 KL Show.

Image via Yayasan Chow Kit (Facebok)

According to Tini, people forget that they have a duty and obligation to at least try and save children. It's also why, she shared, her service is always to children and why she never says no to any child in need.

If I don't have the answers and resources, I ask for help.

And if an adult or the system says that something "cannot be done", she questions, "why not?"

"Especially when the system fails to protect the child. This is why we cannot accept less than what's best for every child. Because when we set the child up to fail, we set them up for heartbreak. Because some of us have chosen to do better by children. We must persevere and try to stay as courageous and as steadfast as we can. Because all children matter or should matter," she added.

Tini with the children of Yayasan Chow Kit.

Image via Yayasan Chow Kit (Facebook)

When asked what's next for Yayasan Chow Kit and can the rakyat help, Tini shared that the centre is in the midst of moving to a new space

However, relocating to the new building is facing hurdles due to the difficulty in getting funding.

She envisions Yayasan Chow Kit becoming a one-stop centre for social innovation, impact, and investment by streamlining its programmes and focusing on a few social protection pillars.

"The goal is to address poverty one area at a time, through strategic investment," she said, adding that the rakyat can help by donating funds for the centre's 'brick by brick' campaign.

"We're hoping 6000 individuals will donate RM100 for a brick. Their names will be painted on a brick on a specified wall. We want everyone to know that people care about them and are invested in their future," she shared.

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