Syed Azmi Alhabshi is a busy man. I managed to find his phone number online, with the famous words ‘WhatsApp 019-….. only, straight to the point.’ I scrambled to text something short, sweet and convincing in a straight-to-the-point paragraph before sending it. He replies 28 hours later, at 1.32am, agreeing to the interview and photoshoot. Great, I thought, but why is he still replying to messages in the wee hours of the morning? I decided my question wasn’t straight to the point enough for WhatsApp – I’ll just ask him at the interview instead.
I soon discover that Syed Azmi gets an average of more than 200 messages a day, and the most he’s gotten in a single day is 484 messages. At the end of each day, he makes the tally returns to zero, replying to each message himself – hence why he was still texting at 1.32am. He finds that solving each problem helps to prevent bigger problems, but he also tends to the more mundane, including one message from a girl that said: “My friend is not talking to me anymore, and I’m not sure if I should invite her to my wedding?” He went live on Facebook to address the issue, which led to a 30-minute discussion. While some might see this as a trivial matter, Syed Azmi understood that, for her, it was a big issue.
I’ve been following Syed Azmi online and know that he is very involved with children and the B40 group, assisting where he can. Together with two other people, he co-founded PUAKPayung (Persatuan Untuk Anak Kita), an NGO that focuses on children aged 18 and below and promotes safe spaces for them. Initially, he did a lot of pilot work in the field, setting up free markets, gaining knowledge for their NGO platform and engaging with the government. Then, Covid-19 happened and everything changed. Now, he identifies himself as an educator, using the Malay word ‘bimbing,’ or to nurture.
The pandemic has ensured that everybody is on the same level and it’s now about rebuilding yourself. This year, he is focused on holding a lot of people’s hands to make sure they can stand on their own two feet. “Everybody thought that what we need is more money to help people, but no! All our funding comes from the public; we don’t get any funding from the government or corporate companies. Instead of asking for cash, we ask for things like ovens, fridges or air-conditioning,” explaining that the audience he is engaged with on social media are invested in the stories he posts.
It is the way he reports on social media that has gained him a huge following. He doesn’t, for example, share that someone has donated five ovens; instead, he explains why the ovens are needed and how they will help families in need, allowing the audience to see how their donations work.
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He is also the voice for children advocacy, helping families and children going through sexual harassment reporting and trials. People often don’t know what happens behind closed doors, so he brings the stories out. Syed Azmi and his team want to promote safe spaces for children, especially in rural areas and B40 families. Most of them live in very small spaces, sometimes three families share a one-bedroom apartment, which means there is no privacy at all. What they do is rebuild toilet doors to prevent harassment – a simple and, at around MYR70 a door, cheap solution to create security for children in own homes. “The most challenging part of what I do is that I help put people in jail for sexual misconduct against children, but after a few years, they will be freed. So, you know you are not going to be safe. But that is the consequence of doing this kind of work.”
During our conversation, I soon realise that Syed Azmi’s true talent lies in communication and being able to reach people in difficult places. I ask how he guides people, for example, unwed mothers, to making the right decisions and his answer is telling: “I am 44 but I speak to them like I am 24. It might be a simple thing, but that’s how I relate to them. If they feel you’re older, they assume that you’re orthodox or old-fashioned. I also talk about understanding their needs and wants without being judgmental. I am fair and provide them with options. For example, an unmarried pregnant girl has four options: she can offer the baby up for adoption, abandon it, abort it or she can accept it. That’s the reality. If you are being fair, every girl has these four options and they need to know them. With this knowledge, these girls will then make the best choices. I give out the same information on my Facebook Live session and you’ll soon discover that most of these girls are going through the same problems.”
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He also set up Rumah Bonda for unwed pregnant mothers, a safe place for them to deliver their babies. He wants people to understand that the young will make mistakes, but it’s not for life. “We help them so they can move on and build a better life for themselves.” Most of the girls end up in Rumah Bonda because their parents are angry with them, and Syed Azmi’s job is to reconcile the families. “When the grandchild comes, they forget everything. Be human first, then everything else will fall into place. Nothing surprises me anymore,” he says. More than 500 babies have been delivered under his care and the mothers stay in Rumah Bonda for four months after delivery. He has also started a programme to monitor mother and child for the first 1000 days, so they know they’ll always have someone to talk to.
Ultimately, Syed Azmi looks forward to a time when he is redundant. “I hope I can close my NGO within the next five years because there is no need for it. NGOs are there to help fill in the gaps in what the government provide. If the government takes up our roles, then we don’t need to exist. I would like to be one of those NGOs. I look forward to a time that when someone has a problem, instead of saying go talk to Syed Azmi, we can tell them to go to the nearest welfare district office for help. It might take a while, but it will eventually happen.”