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With education, Buku Jalanan Chow Kit provides opportunities and hope.

Photography SooPhye

It was late morning when I walked the streets of Chow Kit, trying to find Buku Jalanan Chow Kit. There was no signage anywhere and asking around gave no results until I came across a small tuck shop. As soon as I mentioned the name, the proprietor gave a little nod and pointed to the stairs next to his shop up to the first floor.

As I entered the premises, a football whizzed past my feet, retrieved by a young boy in a school uniform. He was energetically playing football with his two friends in an empty space in the room, which was large and airy with windows running along two walls. There was a study area with tables, chairs and a ping pong table, as well as a kitchen and a small seating area. The walls were decorated with inspirational quotes and art by children. There were several shelves lined with books.

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This is Buku Jalanan Chow Kit (BJCK), an education centre and a safe space for children in the neighbourhood, many of whom are stateless and have no access to education. “It’s a space like home, where the children can feel safe,” says founder Siti Rahayu Baharin, whose laidback and cheerful disposition belies a steely resolve and a propensity to do good by her principles.

Situated in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, Chow Kit has a reputation as a poor, rough and overcrowded urban neighbourhood. Development is encroaching, but that is of no help to the disenfranchised who are being pushed even further into the margins. “Chow Kit is not a neighbourhood for children to grow up in. There are no green spaces or places that they can safely play,” said Siti Rahayu.

She was volunteering at the local soup kitchens when she realised that she wanted to feed the mind as well as the body. “Education is a stepping stone for the children to change their lives,” she said. The effects of poverty on children are far-reaching, especially when they do not receive an education. Without it, their opportunities would be severely limited, and they would not have the resources that might get them out of poverty.

BJCK didn’t always have a place to call its own. Siti Rahayu started the programme in an alleyway with classes twice a week. The children would sit on mats placed on the ground, diligently listening to the tutors, mostly students from neighbouring universities, and scribbling in their books lit up by torchlights and solar lamps.

After three years on the street, Siti Rahayu and her team started envisioning a permanent place for BJCK, which came into being thanks to their efforts along with generous donations and sponsorships. Confectionary company Julie’s Biscuits pays the rent while ThinkCity, a community-focused urban regeneration organisation, sponsored the renovations. BJCK held its first class in its new location on the last day of 2017.

The children are taught by Siti Rahayu Baharin (in the middle) and two other teachers

The centre currently has 55 children, 28 of whom attend the school taught by three teachers. The children start coming into the centre in the morning and stay on until evening. For many of them, home is often a cramped single room shared with a large family. At BJCK, they have breathing space to study and play. The school uniform is optional, but the children opt to wear it anyway because it gives them a sense of belonging.

At around noon, lunch is served. On my day of visit, one of the mothers was volunteering in the kitchen and prepared a delicious meal of baked chicken, chicken soup and stir-fried vegetables with rice.

After lunch, the children start their classes, held five days a week. The children are taught Math, Science, Bahasa and English with special subjects such as A Wonder A Day, designed to stimulate curiosity. The students are required to research a topic of their own choosing and present it to the class.

Besides regular classes, BJCK offers additional lessons like art and baking. A large industrial oven sits in the kitchen, thanks to a sponsor. A local university student comes in once in a while to give coding lessons. On Sundays, another volunteer gives Japanese lessons, which are open to everyone.

Other opportunities outside the classroom have arisen for the children. A few were selected to act in a play called Mona ke Daerah M staged by Akademi Seni TFTN, while others have participated in public poetry jams.

“What matters to us is that their education is not only about academics and that they are taught life skills too,” said Siti Rahayu, who refers to the children as “my kids”.

She is adamant not to impose her own values on the children. Instead, Siti Rahayu sees her role as a mentor rather than an authoritative figure. “We want to allow the children to dream but shaped by their own beliefs. We seek to inspire and to provide them with hope and opportunities,” she said. “Everything here is based on trust and love.”

Siti Rahayu, who teaches general studies at a local college, comes from a small village in Kedah and attributes her can-do spirit to her parents. “I owe who I am to my parents and my time at university. I want to give back to society however I can,” she said.

Interested to contribute? Buku Jalanan Chow Kit welcomes people with skills to come and volunteer, whether by running a one-day workshop or a regular programme. Monetary donations are also always welcomed. Get in touch with BJCK through its Facebook page.