Aisha the Homeless - Invisible in the Realm of Loss
She came to my centre, which held weekly support groups activities for the marginalized, and burst out crying. At that point the only assistance I could offer was just to listen. Homelessness left her in despair, she was unable to build her confidence on her own, nor was it easy for her to sought services from civil society and government agencies without a valid address in the city. Bureaucracy offered no solution when one had no home. Anxiety was her companion during these troubled times; she would lose herself to the profanity of living under a bridge near Putra World Trade Center.
Aisha was snared by false hopes.
Living in hardship, unable to come to terms with her life and the bleak future, she continued living her life, begging during the day along a congested Jalan Raja Laut, and working in the kitchen at night. Her employers were merciless, utilizing her labor to profit their greed. Her life in the gutters, a nightmarish realm of sexual harassment by roaming predators, malnutrition due to irregular eating habits and occasional absolute hunger, that jump-started the decline of her identity as Aisha Abdullah.
Similar to many homeless people, she became invisible to society and the Institution. Her outstretched cupped palms were ignored, her hard work gone unrewarded and her failed desire to escape the clutches of loneliness. Nothing seemed to work. But those angry burning eyes remained, filled with confusion, unable to grasp her situation, closing only when exhaustion overcame her strength.
I met her a few times, along the dirty alleys of Chow Kit and sometimes under the bridge. We spoke at length, doing what I could to share my meals with her – the homeless would scavenge the garbage cans for food scraps: our waste, their sustenance. I sought the help of the establishment but was met with blank stares, "no funding" excuses and the lack of political will to help a vagabond such as her, and many others. Coordinating relief became an abomination. It came to no surprise. Who was really there for Aisha? The parents were unable to rescue her, not that they didn't try. Her cousin had located her, their conversation turned into an argument and she disappeared, much to his disappointment. Urban poverty was best left in its sad state of invisibility, especially those with mental illness, or what Malaysians would call "gila" ~ sad indeed, depressing of course.
"Kenapa aku gila?" / "Why am I mad?" she kept asking me. She was not mad in the technical sense, although society was clearly insane for their self-induced ignorance. Nights were infested with swarms of vermin, sores and scratch wounds on her arms, legs and neck.
One evening, during an unbelievable showery weather, the city faced one of the worse downpours. I managed to make my way under the bridge. The river was brown and bloated, carrying debris and garbage in its rampage. I barely had a foothold between the torrent and river bank, searching for Aisha and three others who frequently made the bridge their home. I needed to evacuate them to higher ground, at least a dry place, anything away from the angry river.
She was there, alone, drenched in rain water, sitting on bricks. Her fingers, shivering from the cold, held a limp wet cigarette. The muddied water on the cement slab was above our ankles, and she sat far too close to the river. Aisha mumbled, staring aimlessly at the raging river. I spoke to her as gently as possible, worried for our safety. I remember gazing at the river and my Citizen watch, and keeping a mental note of the time. I asked her about her plans, and she continued mumbling, something about her work that night. I offered her a kretek and she smiled to herself, declined and placed her cigarette in between her lips.
I told her we had to evacuate, to leave for a while and to return when it was safe. Aisha stopped her gibberish talk, turned her face, stared deeply into my eyes and said "Memang betul tu" / "That's right" ~ interrupting people’s train of thought was something I dislike doing, but this was one exception to that rule. We got to safety, and the next day, Aisha was back, cleaning the cement slab, completely engrossed with her housekeeping.
Aisha eventually pulled herself out of the misery; packed her two black sacks of dirty clothes, left the bridge she sarcastically called home, with the help of a small group of social workers. The months of friendship, counseling and patience had worked. She was welcomed back by her ageing parents and relatives. She was lucky.
Many others do not have the opportunity, assistance, nor the self-determination to tear themselves away from Kuala Lumpur and return. Being invisible sends their hopes down to the abyss of loss, and would not survive their homelessness, stigmatization of being homeless drives people to live in near-isolation. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights state: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” But how was this put to action for millions of homeless people in South East Asia and for Aisha?
Alas, such is the carnage that can be found, not in a country wrecked by thunderous earthquakes, or mindless war, but in a "harmonious and caring" civilization. Not a twist of irony, but a bloodied, wretched irony of apathy.