INTERVIEW | But for a quirk of fate, Tenaganita executive director Glorena A Das might have been a singer or a police offer. Yet when her brother recommended that she check out a job vacancy at the migrant workers' rights organisation in December 1999, it set her on a path that requires bravery, compassion and fortitude in equal measure.
“I truly believe that it was the affected communities who drew me to this line of work, the local women in the plantation (their simplicity), migrant workers (humbleness), sex workers (fearlessness), people living with HIV/Aids (need to live), refugees and asylum seekers (resistance), stateless children (seeking to belong) and victims/ survivors of human trafficking (hope).
“They have been the inspiration of the work which I continue at Tenaganita. Over the years, they continue to humble me with their struggles and fight for equal rights and dignity,” Glorene (above) told Malaysiakini.
Glorene told the tale of Mila (not her real name), who was only 14 when she was brought to Malaysia from Bangladesh to work as a domestic worker. After a few weeks at work, her quest for a better life became its darkest chapter.
“She was severely abused and assaulted by the employer and his wife, which landed her in hospital for several months.
“When I went to see her, she was in a coma. I thought she would die. But she regained consciousness after three weeks. We took on her case, encouraging her to pursue her case against her employer, and we were also responsible for sheltering her after she was discharged from hospital,” said Glorene who met Mila in January, 2012.
A few weeks after Mila was transferred to a government shelter, her colon and intestines needed treatment due to the severe abuse, but she was not provided with the proper follow-ups. As a result, Mila could not pass motion the normal way, and she had to have a colostomy bag over her stomach.
“A concerned officer, upon seeing Mila in the government shelter, refused to repatriate her until she received proper medical treatment. He referred her to Tenaganita because he knew that we would be equipped to handle her medical case and to help Mila seek justice for all the violations perpetrated against her.”
Mila stayed at the Tenaganita shelter while awaiting funding for her surgery and at the same time worked on her case management.
“It was during these times, I developed a close relationship with her. She called me 'Mama'. Together with friends from Tenaganita, the Gleneagles Hospital and the Swiss government, we finally managed to raise funds for her surgery.
“It was a nine-hour surgery, and some of us stayed with her before the surgery and after. I stayed with her for two days caring for her. It was during this time the doctor mentioned that Mila could try to pass motion for the first time after almost five years.
“I stayed with her overnight. I was very scared, but she was so brave, telling me not to worry and that she was strong to endure whatever pain.
"I remember her telling me 'Mama, I have been through the hell of a pain, don’t worry, I can take it this pain too, okay”. In less than five minutes, she comes rushing to me, shouting 'Mama, saya boleh pergi toilet sekarang' (I can use the lavatory now).”
“For me, Mila is a living miracle because it’s girls like her who make it possible to turn pain into empowerment. She is in touch with me regularly, and now aged 24, she just got married a few weeks ago. I cried like a baby when she told me she’s going to get married,” recalled Glorene.
'The first time she stood up'
Another heartbreaking yet inspiring case was that of a trafficked Vietnamese girl.
“When I first met her, she was so motionless, both physically and emotionally. For more than two weeks I waited for a sign of recognition from a girl whom we had rescued, a traumatised girl who has been so severely abused, raped and tortured by her traffickers and customers.”
The girl needed immediate psychiatric care but that was difficult to obtain from any healthcare facility because of her undocumented status.
“All of a sudden, one morning as I walked into the office, she stood up from her chair. She walked so slowly towards me with her fractured spine and despite her heavy medication, did the most beautiful thing I would never have imagined, which gripped my heart so tight.
“She took my many-coloured curly hair in her fingers and separated them according to the different colours, twirling them around her fingers, playing with them for a while.
“Then she buried her face in my hair and held on to me so tightly and all the while I kept telling myself, 'don’t you dare breakdown in front of her!'” said Glorene.
Glorene said the strength of this beautiful girl who finally acknowledged her in the midst of her severe pain and disturbed mind was something she could never forget.
“I thanked God because this girl had finally shown some interest to live again as she held on to me.
After her recovery, the girl was repatriated safely. She now lives happily in Vietnam and has a child of her own, although she still needs to seek treatment.
“Again and again, all of us at Tenaganita are faced with tremendous challenges when it comes to children, men and women who are so broken, their lives virtually taken away with no hope at all to live. But I am so proud to be with the best of people who never give up trying to mend the brokenness and rebuild the lives of those who come to us,” said Glorene.
Working with towering figures
“When I first walked into Tenaganita’s office in 1999, at the age of 27, I knew nothing about human rights. During my first week in the office, I had to spend a lot of time in the library to learn what human rights meant.
She had never been exposed to migrant and refugee communities, people living with HIV/Aids, plantation workers and other marginalised groups.
She joined Tenaganita as a programme officer at the Migrant Rights Desk and has since worked on issues of human rights, migration, gender and human trafficking before becoming a programme director in 2010.
“I must thank Aegile Fernandez for giving me a chance to be part of Tenaganita and introducing me to the late Irene Fernandez,” said Glorene.
Irene was a towering figure in the Malaysian human rights scene who was arrested and charged after exposing abuse and torture of migrant workers in detention centres.
“In 2014, after the sudden passing of Tenaganita founder Irene, I took on the role of executive director and the task of leading the organisation with a vision for a just, free and democratic society where all are equal human beings with dignity and rights.
“Even though it was often one step forward and two steps back, the strength comes from knowing and recognising the fact that we have the power individually and as a team in Tenaganita to bring changes in people’s lives through our work, especially with communities who are seen as an underclass of the society.”
Many were inspiring
Even though she might not have felt ready at the time, Glorene said she had to be courageous.
“I was catapulted to the helm of the organisation. Irene was a passionate leader and eloquent ambassador of the voiceless, so I continued to build Tenaganita during the difficult times together with a team of amazing and dedicated people at the organisation.
“Leading such an organisation continues to strengthen me in pushing myself to do things differently without compromising the rights and dignity of anyone, even when the road ahead is very narrow, steep and bumpy.”
So many people inspire her to keep going, said Glorene.
“They include the communities I work with, the amazing migrant, refugee and women leaders, the courageous survivors and my strong pillars who are the team in Tenaganita, Aegile for taking me under her wings, the late Catherine Arumugam (founder of Wake) for building my confidence in the early years and long time Women’s Aid Organisation founder Ivy Josiah for giving me a hard talk on taking on Irene’s legacy and making it my own.”
“Above all, a huge inspiration comes from Irene, not just a mentor and teacher but a friend, comrade, and companion whom I miss tremendously. She believed in me that I could lead before I believed in it myself.
“She gave me the space to grow and discover the potential I had within me. Feeling threatened, and there were situations that might have felt threatening for after, all we were putting away traffickers and perpetrators and naming and shaming industries, but every time I am confronted with such situations, I always remember what Irene taught me, 'Never be afraid to speak the truth'. That is a lifelong mantra for me!” Glorene said.
Glorene describes herself as a typical Kuala Lumpur born and bred city woman.
“I come from a family of seven siblings with humble beginnings. My dad passed on in 2000. My family is now extended to my lovely sisters-in-law plus the next generation of nephews and nieces who consistently keep me on my toes with what going on with Generation Z.
“Quite frankly, it’s fun to keep up with them. My family and our values keep me grounded and humble. They are very supportive of me, and though they do worry about my security, they have always encouraged me in my work, always pushing me to give my best. The foundation of my work comes from what has been grounded in us by our parents, to be selfless and giving and always be kind,” said Glorene.
Similarly, she wants to encourage young women to chose their own path and that includes activism.
“I believe girls grow up to be great women. So, I will only encourage a young girl to give her best in this work, because this work opens one’s mind to so many possibilities and great adventures with all its ups and down, never a smooth road but only making her stronger and bolder, building her as her own person with confidence.
“This work creates spaces for one to grow, so during these times, she will begin to see the power she has within herself to change lives and situations while believing in what she does. I will also remind her to share the power she has found with others. That is a great way to build a life. Come on and take that road with us!” urged Glorene.
Stalled reforms very frustrating
Glorene admits that the current political scene is not what she envisioned in May 2018 when Pakatan Harapan finally overcame decades of BN rule.
“There were so many changes to come even if it was not the perfect set up with a government led by someone whom I never believed I in even back in the 1990s. Yet I hoped.
“But every hope and dream was crushed last year by one scene after another with the backdoor government followed by the responses to the pandemic which has only continued with the concept of divide and rule which in turn are leading the drive to divide the working class on the basis of origin, race and colour.”
There is increased xenophobia towards communities on the margins, she added.
“It amazes me how such power games continue to evolve till today and the rakyat remains unclear of the current political agenda. For now, my hope for the people’s democracy has vanished but this means there is still so much work to bring the people’s power to reality.”
Taking the political route herself is not on the cards, despite there having been some requests, she revealed.
“I am very clear on my decision not to do so, and I feel that I can do a lot more with my work with Tenaganita (for now) along with other networks and coalitions in building people and communities to face the resistance and struggles that come our way.
“A united front is necessary against attacks on democratic rights and human rights. Thereafter to use the knowledge and experience to work with young people, while moulding them to be great individual and leaders and possibly changing the narratives within social justice platforms," said Glorene.
It’s not all work and no play
From the time she dreamt of being a singer, Glorene has had a passion for music. She finds that it is necessary to keep herself grounded, given the intensity of her work.
"I am always changing my ways to unwind, to begin with just being with myself. I have learned to love my own company with music and the gentle weight of my four-legged fur baby Mr Cooper on my feet while I read.
"I do a bit of colouring on my Art Book of Mindfulness or just close my eyes and dream. These are the moments I look forward to, every day if possible before I go to sleep and there is a certain calmness in this experience," said Glorene.
She’s also a fan of cooking, comedy shows and great books.
“I love to explore new recipes during the weekends. It is very therapeutic though I am a little fanatical about being perfect but trying to take it with the flow. I lean towards Italian cuisine, and I have learned to make great red pasta sauce.
“I also love my Mum’s cooking, and nothing can go wrong there! I love comedy of any kind, I believe laughing is one of the best ways to unwind and I do sleep better,” she said.
As for English literature - from Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell and Oscar Wilde – she just can’t get enough.
“I even read the entire James Joyce collection even if half of what I read made no sense but I remember talking about Ulysses to a literature professor, it was hilarious. I think it was inspired by Dublin really."
Glorene also loves travelling and can’t wait to set off again once the Covid-19 travel restrictions are lifted.
For now, though, there are battles to fight.
Malaysiakini is running a series of articles from March 8-10 in celebration of International Women’s Day 2021. Read more here.