‘Some battles are easier to fight, and some are harder. Over the years, you learn you can’t win them all.’
Aasya Dadabhoy was one of the first few people we met on our trips to Singapore before moving here from the United Kingdom (UK). My son, then 3 years of age, took an instant liking to her. Later I learnt she has been a mentor, tutor and counsellor for children with learning difficulties and psychological difficulties, as well as a support system for individuals with backgrounds that can give anyone a reality check.
When we ask Aasya about some of the cases she has worked with, she admits getting goose bumps talking about them. “After a few weeks of volunteering, they gave me a 12-year-old boy who suffered from really low self-esteem, such that he would sit next to me and I wouldn’t be able to hear his voice when he read or spoke. After 6 months working with him on a 1-to-1 basis 3 times a week, his confidence had grown so much so that he became the conductor for an Indonesian Orchestra; after which the social worker started taking me seriously!”
Born and raised in Karachi, Aasya moved to UK in 1988 as a newlywed at the age of 20. The culture shock she received deterred her from plans for further education, and soon after, she had her first born, Hina, followed by Maria a few years later. Hina has a Masters in Psychology and is a Research Assistant at the Anna Freud Centre in UK, and Maria is studying Medicine at King’s College London, UK.
With her first priority being her daughters’ key developmental stages, Aasya got busy raising her family. Once her daughters started schooling, she volunteered at an estate school, eventually becoming a paid staff, delivering literacy programs for small groups of students, and running 1-to-1 sessions with children with learning disabilities. As she spent more time working with children from underprivileged backgrounds, her passion for it grew.
When FUCHSIA asked Aasya about the challenges she faced, she replied, “When a child comes to you, you don’t know where to begin … but you get so much motivation from the rewarding moments, when you take on such immense challenges and see results.” With a big smile on her face, she reminisces the joy she felt when an 11-year-old girl finally spoke to her after 7 thirty-minute sessions of just sitting and staring.
The appreciation and encouragement she received from peers, colleagues and bosses made the challenges even more worth her while. “They kept sending me for all these courses on speech and language, autism and literacy strategies and different workshops being introduced by the government. The more I learnt, the more exciting and rewarding the work became, and I never looked back!”
Aasya worked predominantly in mainstream schools, with children who bordered on autism, had low self-confidence, low self-esteem or were lagging behind their same-age peers in reading and language skills. Her objective was to instil in them a confidence and develop them to the age-appropriate levels they should be at. While as a professional, she wanted to help every single child, she soon learnt to set realistic goals. One of the toughest lessons she learnt was to not let the work become about her; it had to be about the needs of the child, and having to work within what is available, and at the child’s pace.
After 10 years of working in UK, Aasya moved to Singapore with her husband and 16- and 11-year-old daughters in 2005. Knowing she had to keep herself occupied to get over the trials and tribulations of settling in a new place, Aasya took on voluntary work as a mentor and tutor to children in Darul Mawa, a home for Singaporean Muslim orphans, as she pursued a Diploma in Counselling. In 2010, she joined Pertapis Centre for Women and Girls (PCWG) as a volunteer counsellor/support worker.
One day, a 7-year-old child was brought in to Darul Mawa by his mother who was in her final stages of cancer. She passed away soon after. Having gone through so much at a tender age, this boy showed no empathy and was extremely disengaged. Unable to decipher his drawings in art therapy sessions, Aasya discovered from a psychologist that he was becoming attached to her, and beginning to relate to her as a mother figure.
“My mother suffered a fall and was unwell so I had to travel back home; I told this boy about it. For somebody who was so disconnected, he showed signs of concern and asked loads of questions as to how my mother is, who is looking after her, who will take care of her when I return? This was a milestone and everyone was shocked that this boy was showing emotion which he had suppressed for so long.”
In the same year, Aasya travelled to UK for the holidays, which he didn’t take very well. Upon her return, he did not speak to her for months, which was upsetting for both of them.
Surely, the emotional investment of such work is tremendous, FUCHSIA asks. Indeed. Aasya, too, found herself getting attached to the children. She found that the professionalism and boundaries she maintained in UK got blurred in Singapore because the cases in Darul Mawa and PCWG were more extreme in nature. One of the boys she has worked with is the worst case of physical abuse in Singapore. He arrived at Darul Mawa in such a bad shape that the staff was in tears. Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) was involved as he was under the Child Protection System. He was 11 years old and had never been to school. As Aasya worked with him to prepare for his school entrance examinations, she realised he had no foundation, and could barely read. One-and-a-half years later, he sat for the entrance exam, but failed the English examination by a few marks. However, the principal saw something in him and called him back for an interview. Thanks to the role play he had done with Aasya, his confidence got him probationary time for a month at the school. Today, he has just passed his Secondary 2 with an aggregate of 3.2.
“These kids just need someone to believe in them. They carry a lot of baggage and you don’t know what is going on in their heads. Sometimes the love, care and attention does wonders for them. I teach these children social skills such as how to order food at McDonalds, how to queue up; simple restaurant etiquettes which we take for granted. Some are bright as sponges, and some are cases of such severe physical abuse that make them harder to break into. Little accomplishments – knowing their singular and plural nouns, knowing the days of the week, writing sentences – are amazing to see.”
At the same time, Aasya is quick to admit the toll such work takes on personal life, speaking of days when she couldn’t hold conversations or was in tears, and days when she told her family that she simply cannot take it anymore. The mental exhaustion also took a toll on her body, and there were times she had to take a step back. Aasya’s husband’s support kept her going through the tough times. “My family has been very supportive as they’ve seen my highs and my lows; out of 100 days, 95 would be ‘bad days’ but the 5 ‘good days’ were worth it and kept me going for the past 8 years.”
At PCWG, Aasya saw her job as a counsellor not to advise but, rather, to listen to and support a person. The girls at PCWG were not orphans like the children at Darul Mawa. Some are cases of Beyond Parental Control (BPC), which is when parents report that they can no longer manage their children, who are then ordered by the court to stay in a facility for a stipulated time period. Others are rape victims, pregnant teenagers and victims of domestic violence etc.
Aasya has been humbled by her experience and exposure. She recommends that people should get involved with local charities and voluntary organizations as it creates an appreciation for everything in life. “We, as a community, especially around Eid, do fundraisers where families get together at the orphanage, and the children are handed Eid presents by our children, making it a special occasion for them while grounding us. Living abroad with privileges and comforts of the world, it is important for our children to get in touch with the realities of life. Visit such facilities with your children, have Iftaar with them during Ramadan, plan an activity targeted at a certain age group. Involve your children and teach them not to expect in return, as it is YOU that is giving.”
Falak Amaar Khan is a member of Team FUCHSIA, heading the Fashion section in her capacity as a fashion designer, stylist and choreographer. As a writer, Falak covers fashion, community and entertainment. This super busy mother of two is working towards supporting a cause through her work. She would also love to integrate more into the Singaporean community, and explore the island in a more realistic manner.
Her motto in life? GET ON WITH IT!