For over 30 years, Datin Suhana Sulaiman and her team at PERKIM Ulu Kelang have engaged in NGO work, helping single mothers, the Orang Asli community, the B40 group and senior citizens.
A warm smile greets me when I meet Datin Suhana Sulaiman. A motherly figure, she is a good listener and is very caring, traits that define the work she does. “I have been involved with PERKIM (Pertubuhan Kebajikan Islam Malaysia) for the last 30 years,” she says. “I started doing charity work in my late 20s. In the past three years, however, I have been more involved in creating programmes for the B40 group, single mothers, senior citizens, orphans, the Orang Asli community and helping families suffering from chronic illness or disabilities. Simply said, we help all those in need within our capacity.”
Having started as a normal member, Datin Suhana started to get more involved in PERKIM after she was elected chairperson of PERKIM Wanita of the Ulu Kelang division in Selangor and vice chairperson of Perkim Wanita Selangor. “When I was voted into these positions, it was my job to head our team of 650 members, create new outreach charity programmes and source for funding,” she explains. The most challenging part of her work at the NGO, she says, is getting funding, whether from corporate companies or individuals. “We do not have stable donors – we might get MYR1,000 from a company, a catering discount from a food vendor, or even a waiver on using an event hall for a charity event. But there’s always not much money. However, I am blessed with 200 active members who tirelessly help out.
“One of our recent projects was a Back to School programme, where we donated school supplies, uniforms, shoes, books and cash to poor families. We had 100 families to help, but we only raised enough funds for 60 families. Our members come together and each of them donate a little out of their own pockets. One sponsored five uniforms, while another donated five school bags. Somehow, with God’s will, we had enough to distribute to every family,” she remembers.
Her work, she admits, has become more challenging recently, as the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a rise in the urban poor or B40 group. “People have this perception that you have to go to remote areas to find poor families. Just look around you – there are urban poor who live in the most basic conditions and struggle to buy food for their children. The only difference between them and the homeless is that they have a home. But they may not necessarily make enough to feed their families, and pay for electricity and other household amenities. Many people are struggling and need help.
“PPIM (Persatuan Pengguna Islam Malaysia) recently gave us 500 boxes containing essentials such as rice, oil, sugar, milk, instant noodles and biscuits to donate to the needy. We arranged for a day to distribute the boxes and, although we were supposed to hand them out at 11am, I was shocked to find people queuing up as early as 8am. That they were willing to wait for hours showed that these people were in need. They had come from all over, some on foot, just to get what little we can give,” she says.
That she is moved by the people she meets is evident when I ask about her most memorable experience in PERKIM. “I remember visiting this kampong where we were conducting a programme. While we were doing our rounds, I heard a baby crying continuously in one of the houses. I went in and found a young Orang Asli mother – she was probably 19 years old – trying to calm her crying child. She told me the baby had been sick for three days. Her husband was a security guard but they couldn’t afford to see a doctor. I felt so bad that I wanted to cry as well, and I reached into my handbag to give her some money. Then she started crying and thanking me, saying that she had been feeling totally helpless and here I was, a miracle sent to her home to help her.”
It is stories and experiences like these that inspires Datin Suhana to continue her work. “Sometimes people are just desperate; they have done everything they can but they just need a little helping hand. This is where PERKIM comes in, helping them get stay their feet and make ends meet.”
One of PERKIM’s initiatives is a tuition centre in Academy Menara Gading in Sungai Plong, Selangor, which has been running for over 20 years. It is funded by donations from corporations and individuals, and managed by one of its members. The centre offers free tuition to students whose families otherwise cannot afford to pay for it. “We want the children to excel in school so that they can have a career in the future and help their families,” explains Datin Suhana. The teachers also visit religious schools where they focus on subjects, like mathematics, science and history, that are not part of the syllabus in those schools. This, she says, is to better prepare the students for their SPM examinations so that they will have the option of choosing a career other than just being a religious teacher. The programme has been a success and, for Datin Suhana, most meaningful when former students at the tuition centre come back to volunteer and teach other students, giving back what they once received.
As she goes about tirelessly doing whatever she can, Datin Suhana has a simple goal for the future: “The person who succeeds me when I retire will do better than me; will continue with our charity work and achieve more than we have with PERKIM.”