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Sharing Special Moments by Melinda Looi

It’s possible to bring happiness with a little creativity, as our columnist discovers. A COUPLE of months ago, I wrote about being asked to organise a creative session with women who have been saved from trafficking and are waiting to go home. Well, as with most good intentions, they take time to materialise.

The idea kept growing in my mind, finally materialising just a fortnight ago. And am I glad it did … it was really good to bring some colour and lightness into the lives of these young women; to see the joy on their faces as they concentrated hard on the activities we organised.

If I were honest, I would have to say that I did feel a little daunted saying yes to Cecil, from SUKA Society, when she first asked me to run a session with the women. Of course, I wanted to help, but I had never met them before, I knew very little about them – what they are like, how receptive they would be to doing things like making accessories, whether they would like me.

The morning itself started on a very promising note. It was bright and cheery, and I thought the heavens were with me. I had roped in my sisters Susan and Yvonne, cousin Michelle and friends Stephanie, Marizza and Ngai Yuen to help out. We were just about to leave my showroom in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur when I get a call from Cecil to say that 22 women had been rescued at midnight and had just been brought to the home. Could I please try to bring enough material for them too?

I can’t describe my rojak (mixed) feelings at that moment. I was happy to know that 22 more women had been saved but did I have enough for them? After a rummage I discovered, yes, there were enough bags. The rest of our activities just required more beads and tools. So, we quickly packed 22 more bags and as many beads, stones and tools as we could. I also contacted my friend’s mum – a wizard in the kitchen who had kindly offered to cook – to increase the quantity of food to be delivered. And we set off.

The women are housed in a comfortable but fenced and gated bungalow. Cecil, who was already there, advised that the girls who had just been brought in were a bit shy and still feeling traumatised, so some might not join us. Those who had been in this home longer, and the braver among the new ones, were already in the living area – smiling, looking very eager. They were from different countries – Indonesia, Vietnam and Africa – but they all wore the same uniform, and they all had similar stories.

All these young ladies come from poor backgrounds and have been exploited because they were willing to go abroad in the hope of earning some money to support themselves and their families. The head of the home gave a short introduction of the women to us, and Low Ngai Yuen – our spokesperson – introduced us to them. Then, the fun began! Once again, Ngai Yuen was a real asset. She got all of us to take part in an ice-breaker in which each of us took a partner and sat on the floor, back to back. We had to link our arms behind us, then try to get up together. It may sound easy, but is not! The trick, as my sweet young African partner – Amelia – and I eventually found out, was to push our backs into each other so the force helped us to get up. The idea was that we had to cooperate with our partners, a lesson that can’t be stressed enough in the world we live in. Anyway, by the end of this session, we had truly broken the ice. Everyone was laughing and joking. It felt like we were all one.

Then we moved on to making charm bracelets. Again, we made it a team effort. Everyone worked with a partner to mix and match different elements to make their bracelets. I had brought crystal alphabets and charms for them to pick from, which they loved. They were so excited with their end products that many asked if they could make bracelets for their friends or babies back home.

While we were waiting for lunch to arrive, we asked the girls to select the beads and stones with which they would like to embellish the bags I had made for them. At this point, some of the women who had been hiding in their rooms decided to come out and join us. It was very touching; I felt we had truly accomplished something special when these young women, with their raw psychological wounds, decided they could trust us and befriend us. This is precisely what Cecil hopes to accomplish with the creative activities she organises for the women – they are meant to restore peace of mind and trust in young women who have had to endure so much anguish. We all sat on the floor and started to arrange the beads on the bags, the way the girls wanted them to be designed. They were really engrossed in this, and when I asked if anyone didn’t know how to sew, only one girl said no. The rest might not even have heard me, they were too busy designing.

Then lunch arrived. My friend’s mum had made some really scrumptious Malay dishes – chicken rendang, prawn sambal, mixed vegetables, nasi lemak, fried eggs and omelettes – to be finished with some local fruits. It was a hit. The young ladies enjoyed good-sized helpings and food must have brought back memories of home, especially for the Indonesians. Replenished with energy, we started on sewing to decorate the bags.

The room became quiet, as everyone focused on their work of art. Interestingly, most of them picked the same beads and colours, yet all the designs were different. And all were super creative. Initially, I had thought that some of them may have difficulties with sewing but it turned out that all of them could sew. Even the girl who said she couldn’t became quite adept after a quick demonstration, and by watching the others. At first they thought they had to give the bags back to me at the end of the day, and when they found out they could keep them, they put in even more effort into their creations. They were so immersed in this, we didn’t have time to start on the necklaces and earrings.

While they were busy at work, I got to talking to Cecil and some of helpers at the home. I discovered all the young women at this home are victims of exploitation, cheated by their agents or employers. One woman had worked for over 10 years without receiving a cent. Instead, she was tortured. She didn’t dare run away because she was scared. Most of them had been forced to work in bars or nightclubs, doubling as prostitutes.

What is most distressing is that many of their parents sold their land or other valuable assets to pay the agents’ fees, in the belief that the girls were going to get good jobs that earn them good salaries. Just imagine their families back home, waiting to receive money they really need. Instead they’ve got nothing – neither money nor news. They don’t even know if their daughters or wives are still alive. And not all these agents are men; women, too, are responsible for luring innocent girls into lives in which they no longer feel human. It was disturbing to hear these stories, but at the end of the day, it felt good to know we had put laughter into their day! We had allowed their minds to be occupied with fun activities so they stopped replaying in their heads the ordeals they’ve had to go through. And we think that we’ve made some friends.

Before leaving, the young women said: “We like you a lot now. Please come back.” And you know what? I think I will. Just as I am helping them, I think I might be helping myself be more human too. And my next stop will be the protection home for trafficked children….

Award-winning fashion designer Melinda Looi tries to marry consumerism and materialism with environmental consciousness, and believes her greatest creations are her children – (Article taken from The Star, 3rd November 2011)