A journey of reward and regret: Yishun mum who fostered 5 kids, helps needy students
Mdm Sarimah Amat was named Yishunite of the Year for her contributions to the community.
SINGAPORE: Mdm Sarimah Amat, 53, was bathing her second foster child, a cheerful four-year-old boy with infantile epilepsy, when she made a decision she would soon regret.
The homemaker had tried to keep the playful boy from falling, but it was she who fell in the bathroom instead. Mdm Sarimah hurt her knee and inflamed an old injury, and she decided this was the final straw.
"I told my foster care officer that I don't think he's a match for me," she told CNA. "Because I don't have the skills and energy to match. He would throw tantrums and roll around."
After about seven months caring for the boy, Mdm Sarimah returned him to his natural parents. Three weeks later, he died from the epilepsy, which involves repeated seizures.
But those who know the sprightly woman's journey as a foster parent will understand that she is far from a quitter.
Mdm Sarimah is fiercely passionate about nurturing children and watching them grow. She had worked as a kindergarten teacher and silat instructor, before a serious knee injury, aggravated over all those years running around kids, forced her to stop.
Mdm Sarimah has three children of her own, and the void of not having anything to do compelled her to look at fostering. "I don't want to become a vegetable," she had told herself. "I love children, so what can I do?"
She called for a family discussion, mindful of her children's personal space. And when they agreed, she prayed for a sign that she was doing the right thing.
Soon, she stumbled upon a Facebook post with a quote from the Prophet Muhammad: "The best of homes are where orphans are taken care of."
Foster children might not necessarily be orphans, but this was good enough.
Mdm Sarimah welcomed her first foster child in 2012, a four-year-old girl who first arrived at her Yishun flat. "Her expression was like asking me to rescue her," she recalled of that moment. "I carried her in my arms and I could feel her trembling."
Since then, Mdm Sarimah felt as though fostering was her calling, a responsibility to shower parental love on a child who has been abused, neglected or abandoned. In some cases, their parents have a physical or mental illness, or are in jail.
In 2013, her foster care officer called, asking if she had space for one more. Mdm Sarimah knew from the authorities that there were many children waiting to be fostered. There was no turning back now.
"Initially it was just to try out fostering. Then it’s not that I fell in love with the process, but I felt it’s become my mission," she said, wishing she lived in a bungalow so she could foster more children.
"I am physically capable, I have the knowledge and skillset from being an early childhood teacher, so I can provide hope for these children. I have the capacity, so why not?"
Mdm Sarimah would end up fostering five children in the past eight years, two of whom are still with her. Even before that, she had housed at-risk youths and took in four of her niece's children.
Her community efforts do not end there. She runs a programme to provide stationery and essentials to needy children locally and abroad, and started an initiative to look after the disadvantaged and elderly across 16 blocks in her neighbourhood.
In October, she was named the inaugural Yishunite of the Year, which recognises a Nee Soon GRC resident's contributions to the community.
In a Facebook voting competition, Mdm Sarimah's entry received the most "likes" among four other nominees, many of whom helped the needy through various means.
"Sarimah is a housewife with three children but she has enough love for more," a description of her entry began.
Mdm Sarimah said the award has spurred her to do even more. "I feel like my contributions are small compared to other people, like philanthropists," she said, although she feels everybody can start small.
"You don't have to be rich," she added. "You just have good intentions, and God will take care of the rest."
Mdm Sarimah's selfless acts of generosity have led to feelings of satisfaction and some sadness.
She acknowledged she had a rough start with the boy who had infantile epilepsy, especially because she was straining to handle his special needs. All her experience did not seem to help.
The boy's tantrums included destroying his siblings' gaming device and art project, but Mdm Sarimah remained patient. She fed him the medicine he needed every day to calm down, calling him "happy" despite his condition.
She doted on him and cleaned him up, earning praise from an aunt who said she had never seen the boy so fit and healthy. Even the boy's father could not recognise him during a routine visit, Mdm Sarimah said.
Then the incident in the toilet happened, and Mdm Sarimah decided she could no longer keep up. Weeks later, she received the terrible news over the phone.
"His mum called me and said he was gone," Mdm Sarimah said, adding that the boy had died after spending the night at home with his father.
"I was so sad," she continued, feeling like she had lost one of her own children. "I regretted sending him back. Maybe if I didn't, this could have been avoided. But it's God's will."
Mdm Sarimah pleaded with her foster care officer to let her arrange the boy's funeral and burial for a final goodbye. His body was brought to her house first. "My children were really taken by it," she said. "I still see flashes of him at home."
SEEING THEM GROW
However, Mdm Sarimah was not deterred by this experience.
In 2014, she fostered a six-year-old boy for half a year, then in 2015, a two-year-old boy for five months. They eventually returned to their biological parents, who showed they were committed to caring for their children.
Including the four grandnephews and grandnieces who had lived with Mdm Sarimah since 2009, there could be nine children at home at one point. "It was like a childcare centre," she exclaimed.
READ: Strengthened support for abused and neglected children proposed in amendments to Children and Young Persons Act
The children did not get along sometimes, so Mdm Sarimah sat them down and spoke to them. She asked the older children to guide their younger siblings.
"If they have problems with each other, the more you get them to work with each other," she said. "So they understand each other better. Everybody plays their part in this house."
When asked if she ever got tired having so many children, Mdm Sarimah simply replied: "I always tell myself it's like a challenge."
"When I taught silat, I built my students and made them win matches," she said.
"My grandnieces and grandnephews came with scabs and lice in their hair, without knowing how to read or count. I cleaned them, and in three months, they were singing karaoke. It gives me joy to see them accomplish."
The four of them returned to their natural parents last year.
Mdm Sarimah said she gave all her children, natural or not, equal treatment and love, including in what they got to eat and wear.
"There is no difference because we don’t want the child to feel isolated, or feel like they are from a different family and so are treated differently," she said.
"We want them to feel a sense of belonging and be a part of the family. The child may not be able to express the hurt of being left behind, and being put up with a total stranger to live and adapt. So it’s a silent pain that’s kept inside.
"If we don’t fill that void for the child, it will be a future problem. The role of a foster parent is to fill that void for them, and really fill it up to the brim (with love). Even if it’s overflowing, it’s okay."
Mdm Sarimah wished she had more time to mould her third and fourth foster child, but she accepted that fostering will always be a temporary arrangement. Her eldest foster child would sometimes say she misses her parents.
"The child really needs the natural family. They may be living here happily, but in their hearts they miss their parents. That need has to be met," she said.
"While they are under my care, my task is to instill values in them. So when they go home, they are able to meet challenges with their own family."
In 2016, Mdm Sarimah decided to foster a baby for the first time. This two-month-old girl was different from the rest, as she did not yet come with her own personality or character.
"It's like a blank canvas, and we are the artists providing all the nurturing," she said. "It requires more energy, no doubt, but it's easier to shape her."
The girl, who lost her father when she was still a baby, is four years old now and still lives with her. Mdm Sarimah described her as the apple of her eye.
"When I see her being pampered by my husband, I get a bit sad. For all that she knows, it could be her own dad," she said. "It was heartbreaking to see a young child without a father. I'm more determined to help her make it in life."
Mdm Sarimah's first foster child, adopted in 2012, is also still with her. She is now 12 years old and has just finished her Primary School Leaving Examination. Mdm Sarimah has reminded her that she is defined by her heart, and not her results.
Both of her current foster children visit their natural parents regularly, every weekend or during school or public holidays. Mdm Sarimah tells them to forgive their parents, and be the catalyst for change in their families.
But she admitted she will be extra sad when they eventually go back for good.
"They are the longest with us, so it’s definitely going to be harder. But when the time comes, we need to," she said.
"No matter how much we love them, we can never match their natural parents. We may hug them and everything, but in their heart they know it’s not coming from their real mother.
"But I’ll be sad if they return and more damage is done. Our effort over the years, giving them the self-esteem and values, could suddenly be reversed."
MORE KIDS ON THE CARDS?
As for potential foster parents who are still unsure about the commitment, Mdm Sarimah advised them to chat with other foster parents and look through resources provided by foster agencies.
"But at the end of the day, it has to be a sincere and practical decision that is achievable," said Mdm Sarimah, who makes it a point to tell others about the scheme and has recommended five foster parents.
"When it's time to decide, I would just say trust your intentions. For you to be a caretaker of the children, it is a noble thing to do."
Moving forward, Mdm Sarimah said she has no energy to foster another child for now, pointing out that it is all being expended on her 13-month-old grandson.
Only her eldest child, 29, is married. She also has a 27-year-old daughter and 24-year-old son. Her husband, 54, works in construction as a safety coordinator.
"When my eldest moves out, and my other children get married, the house will be quiet and I have nobody to speak to," she said.
"Maybe I will consider fostering a teenager then, because by then my energy would have been depleted. So teenagers will be good. I know they come with a different set of challenges, but I would love to try."
A LOVE FOR CHILDREN
In the meantime, Mdm Sarimah is keeping busy with the programme she founded to help disadvantaged schoolchildren, called Project Pencil.
It started by accident in 2014, when a friend who was going to visit an orphanage in Thailand asked if she had any pencils to donate for 30 orphans who loved to draw and write.
Mdm Sarimah had just gotten a box of 12 pencils from her neighbour, but she decided it was not enough. She asked her friend for more time to canvass on Facebook.
"The donations went up to 70kg," she said, laughing. "There were drawing blocks, colouring pencils and watercolour paints. That was how it started."
Mdm Sarimah continued gathering essential items to give away for her friend, who went to another orphanage in Indonesia and then a disaster-stricken area in Malaysia. Her biggest haul of donated items was 900kg, and included fresh water and clothes.
Locally, Mdm Sarimah would round up aid for anybody who needed help, including someone who went through a major surgery or whose house was ravaged by a fire. Donations ranged from diapers to cash.
Project Pencil's most recent initiative, called Bag to School, aims to raise S$50,000, providing 5,000 children with S$100 worth of vouchers each for school bags, shoes and stationery.
Mdm Sarimah has overseen more than 20 projects both locally and overseas, and makes it a point to involve her children, be it through packing supplies or calling for donations.
"You never know, the children whose hearts we've touched could be the next leader or president. Most will be mothers who will teach the next generation," she said.
Ultimately, Mdm Sarimah believes her passion to help children stems from her desire to see them succeed.
"If a child is hungry or thirsty, you can buy them food or drinks. But if they need love or guidance, you can’t buy these from 7-Eleven off the shelf," she added. "It’s something that must really be taught and come from the heart."