Cover Datuk Munirah Hamid (Photo: Khairul Imran/Tatler Malaysia)

The founder of Pertiwi Soup Kitchen shares her observation of the pandemic’s impact on the homeless community

One of the many NGOs on the frontline was none other than Pertiwi Soup Kitchen, whose founder, Datuk Munirah Abdul Hamid, has a firsthand account on the pandemic’s impact on the homeless community she’s helped for over 64 years. “When CMCO came, community centres opened and the homeless were slowly released after being rescued by government aid, and while some of them got jobs as well as accommodation after the programmes, most returned home,” Munirah states. “The ones who are out there now are mostly old folks who’d rather be outside than stay in a retirement home. So I suggested to other organisations that we have a safe house, especially in the Chow Kit area where families are living in cubicles that have neither ventilation nor windows.”

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As a result of their cramped environments, the children of those families play at the roadside, which endangers their lives and puts them at risk of being exposed to the virus. According to Munirah, a safe space is vital, to not only protect them and their families but the community at large. “Let’s look at the bigger picture,” she explains. “You give culinary classes to a person living in a small, unhygienic environment. You hand them a certificate that indicates their skills, but it’s useless. That's because regardless of that person’s culinary prowess, no one will buy it from them because they’re concerned about hygiene!

“Giving them tools and skills is not enough—they don’t know how or what they should do with them afterwards if you don’t guide them. It’s the same with children, and the sad reality is that they could potentially join the homeless if they’re not provided opportunities. We need a more sustainable model, a certified space where children not only get to learn and have fun, but for people to learn how to create their products according to their interests while being guided on how to sell them.”

She also reveals her frustration at the lack of public awareness towards the needs of the poor and the homeless as people would provide what they assume the community required with little thought of the consequences after. “What are the poor going to do with 40 toothbrushes? And if you give them an overabundance of food that has a short expiry date, that’s just going to become food waste. The public shouldn’t just educate themselves, but collaborate with groups that are already on the ground and know what the community really needs.”

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Regardless of the uphill battle ahead, Munirah doesn’t see it as such. From helping her mother distribute milk puddings at the age of five for the homeless at her hometown, to joining Pertiwi in 1967 at the behest of her two older sisters for the empowerment of women’s rights in Malaysia, and finally, running a 10-year-old mobile soup kitchen that also provided basic healthcare services, the 69-year-old has never once stopped her charitable crusade, nor does she intend to do so.

“You can’t delegate passion,” she declares proudly, “and this is my passion, my vision, my baby. I wasn’t intimidated by the responsibilities ahead when I first started out alone because I knew no one else would do it. I was prepared to do anything really. So why worry about something beyond your control? For as long as I can do it, I’ll do it, and I’ll enjoy it while doing so.”

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To check out the full Impact List 2020, get your complimentary copy of the December 2020 issue here.