Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Meet Agila

Weaving for about a year now, Agila is one of the newest women to learn how to make basic baskets. She was one of 13 women selected in April 2010 for basket-weaving training supported by a grant from the global financial company, UBS. The grant covers 4 weeklong trainings over the course of a year and pays the women for the baskets they produce during that time.

As a low-income resident of the Rumah Panjang area on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Agila was one of the women referred for the training. "Rumah Panjang" means "long house" and is a term for modest housing utilized by indigenous or nomadic people living mostly in jungle and rural areas. Each long house development is different, but the government subsidizes these particular houses for people who are suffering from severe economic hardships.

Rumah Panjang or Long Houses

Each unit within the long house complex has a single room that serves as both a living room and bedroom for its inhabitants, a kitchen, and a restroom. Agila grew up in the house, which belongs to her parents and now houses 11 family members including her 5 siblings and their wives/husbands and children. The government charges a nominal monthly fee to live in the long houses and the residents are responsible for paying their own electric and water bills.

Agila's niece and nephew

Agila received an education until she was 15 years old. Her favorite class was math and she dreamed of becoming a teacher. As the eldest child in her family, she dropped out of school to help take care of her siblings. She married in her early 20’s to a man she was dating for a number of years, but marital issues dissolved her union five years later.

5 years after the divorce, she awoke with a high fever and went to a public hospital for care. She was released from the hospital with an inconclusive diagnosis and six years ago she lost feeling in both of her legs and one of her hands. Nerve damage now prevents her from walking normally and standing up straight. She can only walk with assistance or by holding onto stationary objects and furniture. She tried physical therapy and acupuncture, but the treatments were too costly and required transport that she does not have. Now she relies on natural supplements to improve her condition. Since taking AyuVita pills, Agila feels that her strength has increased and she feels more mobile. She spends the majority of her income on the pills, which cost RM400.00 (about $130 USD) per month.

Other than the low-cost housing, Agila does not receive any official support. To sustain herself, she weaves baskets, prepares and sells a local dish called Nasi Lemak on the roadside, and creates strings of flowers for special occasions and places of worship. Because the basket orders vary per month and Agila is still perfecting her weaving technique, she must work additional jobs to ensure earnings. Her siblings do not have steady incomes and when they do it is put towards their own families’ needs. Agila’s parents make money to cover the rent, bills, and food by working as gardeners and cleaners at a local golf course.

Agila and her sister making strings of flowers

Flowers Agila collected

Even though Agila lacks full mobility in one of her hands, she is still able to make 13 different styles of baskets. The improvement in her confidence and feeling of self-reliance encouraged her to develop other skills, like making the strings of flowers. While her family members are unable to provide her with financial assistance, they help her gather magazines to make baskets and are supportive of her participation in the Salaam Wanita project. Agila remains hopeful that one day she’ll be able to walk normally again and that her jobs will continue to sustain her.

Agila showing us one of her baskets

Thank you, Agila, for welcoming us in your home and sharing your story.

Author: Maria Skouras

eHomemakers’ Guardian Angel, Justina

A few months before I came to Malaysia, eH moved from their office location to a house in a residential neighborhood. A house is the perfect working environment for an organization that encourages women to be entrepreneurial from home when it best fits their circumstances. A house also provides ample space for basket weaving trainings, visitors and short term volunteers to stay over, a room with computers for staff members, and space for the eco-basket inventory.

During my first week at eHomemakers, I stayed late to help C2 and a longtime eH volunteer, Lucy, organize some files and other items. C2 asked me to take a box of old invoices up a flight of stairs to a storage space that hangs over the second floor of the house.

Up the stairs to the Storage Space

I was hunched over, ready to push the box in when C2 yelled up that she had a great idea. "Don’t come down yet!"

She ran up the flight of stairs with a small box and gave it to me to hold while she inspected the space. She asked herself, "What is the perfect location?"

I looked at the box and wasn’t sure why it needed a perfect location. It seemed like an ordinary box.

C2 opened up a wicker container that resembled a picnic basket and held out her hand for me to pass her the box. She exclaimed, "Ah Ha! Justina will like this." C2 gently slid the box in the container, cleared away the nearby boxes, closed the door to the storage space, and we both descended the staircase.

Having just arrived, I thought I might still be delirious from the jet lag and that I had mistakenly heard C2 call the box by a name.

C2 explained that I heard her correctly—in the box was the ashes of one of her longtime staff members, Justina.

Justina was a Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) patient who needed a gallbladder operation to have gallstones removed, but the general hospital pushed back the operation date several times over several months. The SLE compounded the symptoms from the gallstones, causing her to experience a great deal of pain. At the beginning of January she went to the hospital for the last time. She fell into a coma and passed away three days later on January 5, 2011 at age 49.


eH provided an encouraging atmosphere for Justina, who struggled from bipolar disorder and health complications from the SLE. Over the years Justina’s fluctuating physical condition and mood swings made it difficult for her to find a steady job to support herself. Although she had brothers and sisters, she lived alone and wanted to be independent and self-sufficient. She was working a few days a week at the SLE office in KL as a cleaner, but wanted to further improve her quality of life and income. She originally came to eH for computer training and ended up applying her newfound skills to a job in the eH office. She helped record the Eco-Basket inventory, tag the baskets for sales, prepare the baskets for transport to the bazaars, sell the merchandise, and keep the office tidy.

A loyal employee, Justina commuted 2 hours to and from work. If she needed to work at the office multiple days in a row, she would have dinner and sleep at C2’s house to reduce her commute time. With the new office’s location in a house, Justina was enthusiastic about staying there and keeping everything in order. Sadly, Justina never had the opportunity to enter the new eH headquarters.

When Justina died, her family members buried most of her ashes near her father’s grave. C2 also requested some ashes to bring Justina to the eH house. C2 also plans on helping Justina come closer to achieving some of her dreams; she always wanted to go on a cruise, meet the Queen of England, and meet President Obama. While C2 might not be able to fulfill these wishes exactly, she hopes to spread some of Justina’s ashes here in Malaysia on a cruise boat, in the USA, and in London.

Justina Selling Baskets at a Fair

The eH staff became much more to Justina than colleagues; they were her family and she spent most of her time with them. C2 recalled Justina’s appreciation for the opportunity to work with eH. "She came to work with enthusiasm. She completed her tasks with passion and pride." Lucy often worked in tandem with Justina to sell the Eco-Baskets at bazaars. She remembered adjusting to Justina’s mood swings, but also fondly recounted her selling prowess and ability to market the baskets to new buyers. Lucy became very close with Justina over the years at eH. "She had a very good heart. She was my best friend."

While Justina wasn’t able to see the house before she passed away, she is there now. C2 frequently reminds her staff members that Justina is eH’s guardian angel, watching over the staff members and protecting eH.

Author: Maria Skouras

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Volunteer In Malaysia

In January, Maria Skouras left the snowy streets of Manhattan to volunteer long-term in sunny Malaysia with an organization called eHomemakers (eH). eHomemakers’ primary mission is to help women in Malaysia who are elderly, mentally or physically disabled, low-income or single moms help themselves. This is accomplished through computer training and teaching women how to weave incredible eco-friendly baskets out of discarded magazines. Here’s more on Maria’s inspiring story!

Maria Skouras





How did you get started helping eHomemakers (eH)?
After finishing graduate school in cultural sociology and global affairs, I wanted to apply my studies to a placement in the field. I came to eH as a Peace Fellow through a nonprofit based in D.C. called The Advocacy Project. I expressed my interest in women’s empowerment, art and South East Asia, and we determined that eHomemakers and the Salaam Wanita Eco-Basket project in Malaysia would be a great match.

Describe a typical day in your life.
At 8am, I walk to the eH office and join my colleagues for a local breakfast dish, like Nasi Lemak, before starting the day’s tasks. Recently, I have been teaching a new office staff member computer skills. She was diagnosed with lupus at age 13, and as a result of this chronic disease she has not had the opportunity to work and is new to using many computer programs.

I am also working on building partnerships with schools in the United States to teach kids about the eco-baskets, recycling and global cultures. Around 1:30pm, we break for lunch and enjoy a feast of Indian, Chinese or Malay dishes. Post lunch, I work on strategizing how we can sell more eco-baskets in the United States. When the day is finished, I unwind by walking in the local park and admiring Malaysia’s lush green trees and the monkeys who inhabit them.

Maria and Agila, one of the Salaam Wanita eco-basket weavers.

What is the biggest challenge you face and how do you work to overcome it?
As a small organization with limited funds and resources, eH faces many unique challenges. One of the most difficult is encouraging low-income women to learn a new skill rather than making cash quickly by selling flowers or begging. When they are concerned that learning how to weave baskets or use a computer is too difficult and will take too long, we must show them how it can have long-term benefits for their families. Patience, understanding and persistence are required when trying to give women an opportunity to help themselves improve their circumstances.

Did you have any female influences that inspired you to get into this line of work?
Over the summer, I went to Bosnia with a youth human rights delegation. We met a woman named Meda who helped run a small organization called Krajina Tear to provide emotional support, medical attention and other vital services to war widows. Without Meda’s leadership and the dedication of the volunteers who help run the center, the needs of hundreds of women would go unrecognized. Women around the world like Meda, who are diligent and sincere about providing quality services to the public, are the ones who inspire me most.

What is the most touching thing about your job?
Giving women the training and support to learn, grow, and sustain themselves and their families. Everyone deserves an opportunity.

Author: Maria Skouras

A Walk In The Park

In Malaysia, the tropical heat is intense, the food is spicy, and the monkeys roam freely in my local park, Kiara Park, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Each day I unwind from work by walking around the lake, admiring the lush flowers and trees, and soaking in the scenery.

As I watch all of the different families playing and picnicking, I think back to the neighborhood park where I grew up, Laurel Acres. Some of my fondest childhood memories include sledding down what I called “big mountain” with my father or playing a soccer match on the other side of the park. Many of the children who are walking hand-in-hand with their parents will also reminisce about their outdoor excursions one day.
During my youth, trips to Laurel Acres with my family and friends were so frequent that I took them for granted. My work in Malaysia has reminded me that good health and the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors is a gift not everyone is granted.

For five months I am volunteering full-time with a small organization called eHomemakers (eH). eH helps women who are marginalized due to their ethnicity or because they are low-income, uneducated, disabled, elderly, single moms, or suffering from chronic diseases. eH helps these women improve their circumstances and quality of life by providing computer training or teaching them how to weave intricate baskets out of discarded magazines from home. Mastering an unfamiliar skill can be an intimidating activity for women who are not used to being presented opportunities, but it is integral to helping them earn a sustainable income.

Among my assignments, I am teaching women who are new to using a computer how to use programs like Microsoft Word and Excel. One of the women I am training in the eH office was diagnosed with Systematic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) at age 13. The disease has weakened her immune system and attacked the healthy tissue in her hip. At age 24, she has already received a prosthetic hip replacement and must be careful to avoid catching a cold because it could lead to serious health complications. She also has a heightened sensitivity to sunlight, which limits the amount of time she can be outdoors; chronic pain in her joints; and often feels lethargic.

Despite her health concerns, she travels two hours each way to come to the office to learn. As her first time working in an office, collaborating with colleagues and volunteers is a brand new experience. She is shy but eager to learn and happy to receive positive reinforcement. In two weeks time, she has already shown a great deal of growth and I can see her confidence rising. The SLE may prevent her from spending time in the park, but her desire to learn and persevere is a testament to the strength of the human will.

Maria Skouras was born and raised in Mt. Laurel and was Lenape Class of 2000’s class president for four years. She holds two Master’s degrees in cultural sociology and global affairs, human rights from NYU and worked as the Senior Policy Analyst in NYU’s Office of Government and Community Affairs for 7 years. Maria is currently serving as a “Peace Fellow” through a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. called The Advocacy Project (AP). AP works with partner organizations in developing communities around the world to help them build capacity, promote social change, and share their stories. Maria will be writing about her experiences in Malaysia in the Mt. Laurel Sun as well as her blog.

Author: Maria Skouras