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Struggle of a Somalian refugee against bullies

Fighting for rights has never been easy, particularly when existing human-made rules tend to favour the rich and powerful, Barathi Selvam writes

BASSAM KHAWAJA 2019/srpoverty.org

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At around 5.30pm on 30 January, I received a call from an activist in Asylum Access Malaysia (AAM), an NGO working on refugees’ rights, that a Somalian refugee family in Ampang was being taunted by a residents’ apartment joint management board (JMB).

Danial Hakeem from Jaringan Pekerja Kontrak Kerajaan (Government Contract Workers Network) and I rushed to the apartment. As we feared, the management office was closed, but we managed to obtain the phone number of the board’s head staff. 

Senseless fine, inhumane water cut

What was the problem? On 12 January, the family of Shanz (name changed for her safety), a Somalian single mother, was fined RM4,200 by the board because her 11-year-old child had allegedly left scratch marks on the lift’s protective canvas.  

As the family was incapable of paying such a hefty amount, an appeal was made with the assistance of Asylum Access Malaysia. The appeal letter proposed two options: a full waiver or a reduction of the fine to RM500. 

Despite being informed of the family’s financial vulnerability and the alternatives provided, the board only reduced the fine to RM3,700 with the option of four instalments.  

Asylum Access Malaysia then tried to renegotiate a lower fine, but the board inhumanely cut the family’s water supply on 30 January, claiming it was allowed to do so under the Strata Management Act 2013.  

This is totally ridiculous because the law does not allow that! Access to water, a basic need, is a fundamental human right, which no party should jeopardise or violate under any circumstances.

The notice given by board did not highlight water interruption if the fine not paid. It only said the fine would be added to the monthly bill and a late penalty of RM50 would be imposed if the family failed to pay within seven days.  

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Despite an appeal to a member of the joint management board, the management body stood firm and refused to reconnect the water supply until the fine was settled. Countless phone calls were made to reach the local MP and state assembly members for an intervention, while concerned individuals were relaying their support for the refugee by contacting the joint management board.

Almost an hour later, we managed to speak to an officer working for the MP, who became a liaison person between the parties involved.

The management board quickly revamped their approach and appeared friendly as a result of the mounting pressure upon them. They requested a meeting, but we refused to meet them until the water supply was fully restored.  

Restoration, water cut and lies

By 9.30pm on the same day, the water supply was finally restored!  

The parties involved then went about trying to agree on a meeting date to resolve the matter at hand. In the midst of coordinating the meeting between Asylum Access Malaysia, the joint management board and the tenant, the management body once again arbitrarily cut the water supply on 1 February 2021 at around 10.30pm.  

This certainly shows the unprofessional and autocratic nature of those with power. We contacted the board’s head staff, who claimed the water supply was never cut, but the taps in the apartment were all dry.

At this point, we received assistance from an Ampang Jaya councillor, who intervened to ensure the water supply was restored. 

The next day, 2 February, the team of Asylum Access Malaysia and I went directly to the place, and we noted the water supply was only restored at about 4.30pm. 

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As the management allegedly exhibited insincere traits in reaching a feasible and just solution, the family lodged a police report as they felt the act of cutting water supply was inhumane, a violation of fundamental human rights and unlawful!  

Rights violation against the poor 

The family had fled to Malaysia from a war-torn country looking for peace, shelter and food.

We do not condone any act of vandalism, but any punitive measures must not be overboard as well. A humane response would be to look at the financial situation of the family concerned and to temper justice with mercy and compassion. 

Though the single mother admitted the son’s mistake and agreed to pay RM500 for the repair, the management board exerted excess power over the poor family. This is nothing but an act of intimidation and bullying.

The board should have also taken into account  the pandemic and that families are stranded at home due to the movement control order. Imagine the complications and deprivations the family had to endure without water.

What an irony that influential people convicted of crimes are mostly roaming around while the poor have to live in fear and are deprived of fundamental rights. 

The issue would not have blown out of proportion if the management board or related parties had taken a humane approach by considering the circumstantial barriers preventing the single mother from settling the fine.

The added pressure of facing a water cut was traumatic and only added to the hardship of the financially stricken refugee family.

The co-tenants have condemned the family for causing ‘trouble’, which may, if unsettled, lead to an estranged relationship developing between  the child and mother. At least, analysing the appeal and reducing the fine would have been a win-win situation for both parties. 

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What is to be done?

Fighting for rights has never been easy, particularly when existing human-made rules and regulations tend to favour the rich and powerful. 

So it is important for the struggle to continue. The battle should not be half-baked, out of fear of the authorities or the oppressor.

Truth and justice will eventually transcend ill-conceived rules, regulations and laws. 

It is the duty of the masses to stand in solidarity with what is right rather than what appears to be convenient. 

This episode reminds the working class, irrespective of their diverse background or affinities, to stand united and resist all forms of discrimination. 

*At the time of writing, a tripartite-meeting with the management board had been confirmed for 5 February.

Barathi Selvam is disturbed by the social injustices he sees around him and uses writing as a medium to advocate for those who are discriminated and oppressed

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