Hope for a better life in Batam

Travel | It’s hard to miss the blatant poverty on this fast-booming Indonesian...
by Sophia Lee

Posted on Friday, October 30, 2015, at 3:19 pm

WORLD reporter Sophia Lee is traveling through Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and other Southeast Asian countries. She’s sending us regular reports of what she sees, feels, and does—Nellie Bly–style.

BATAM, Indonesia—If I lived in Singapore, I might make a trip to Batam every other weekend. The fast-booming Indonesian island is a hassle-free 45-minute ferry ride away from Singapore. For just about US$30 for round-trip tickets, I can plop into a completely different world within an hour, then kick back in a four-star hotel at a daily rate that wouldn’t even pay for the dinkiest motel in Los Angeles. In fact, everything is so cheap in Batam that I saw many Singaporeans lug big, hollow cases of suitcases over so they can load up on goods that cost triple back home.

But I was not in Batam to shop. I was here to visit Heritage Home, a Christian orphanage in Batam Centre. I did not sleep in a resort but shared a bed with Lisda Lahague, Heritage Home’s full-time caretaker. Lahague, a 33-year-old Indonesian and third-generation pastor’s kid, lives with the children in a residential home that’s indistinguishable from other single-thatch houses in the area.

Even if I had enclosed myself in a swanky hotel suite and spent all day in sparkle-floor shopping malls, there is no way I could have missed the blatant poverty in Batam. Simply driving along the perpetually jammed roads, I locked eyes with sun-beaten young men and old women selling local newspapers or peddling dusty packets of snacks and trinkets. I quickly learned not to meet their eyes, because when I did, their faces lit up, falsely assuming I wanted to buy something from them.

But I found it hard not to stare into these locals’ faces, trying to glean what they were thinking and feeling. Aren’t they tired, walking around all day peddling their wares under a laser-hot sun? That old man pulling a wooden cart piled with gas tanks—does he feel his knees creak and his back muscles twist? Does he ever ask how much longer he must labor like this, and for what? And those toddlers playing barefoot by the sidewalk—what are their dreams, what do they look forward to?

Those were similar questions John Covert, founder of Heritage Home, had asked when he visited Indonesia as a mission trip for the first time in 2011. To sum up a story I’m working on for WORLD Magazine, Covert saw the need for a family-like, Christ-centered orphanage in Batam, where many of the orphanages—even the Christian ones—are run like profit-driven institutions.

Today, Lahague is in charge of the day-to-day operation of the orphanage of 11 children and young adults between the ages of 5 and 20, but Covert visits frequently enough to know each child’s personality and quirks. When he takes the children out for special treats such as doughnuts, people stare at the big white American jostling and joking with a gaggle of brown-skinned kids. None of them are technically “orphans”—most have still-living biological parents who either sold them or gave them up because of extreme poverty.

On my last morning in Batam, I joined Lahague and Covert in visiting one of the orphanage girls’ parents. Their 10-year-old girl, Kristina, is a newcomer to Heritage. Lahague and Covert found her family squatting in a landfill near a pig farm, where her parents still live today with two more daughters and one toddler son.

We drove about 20 minutes from the city center, then made a sharp, bumpy left turn up a dirt hill. From that hill I looked down and saw rows of huts made out of tin scraps, wooden planks, dirty tarps, and other mismatched materials scavenged from the landfill. When I got out of the minivan, I spotted a little girl, about 5 or 6 years old, staring dully out from her “window” constructed of furniture scraps. She had choppy, uncombed shoulder-length hair and a shallow bowl of white rice. I smiled awkwardly at the girl. She didn’t smile back.

Soon enough, as we walked through the little makeshift “village,” curious heads started popping out from behind cardboard and aluminum and sticks. I felt like an intruder, and I imagined that Covert, with his Anglo features, must have felt like an alien from another universe. Some of the residents were quite cheerful. One young man was sitting in the shade with a guitar, and a woman hanging wet laundry outside smiled and waved at me, then yelled out something to somebody in the house before cackling with laughter.

They were mostly homeless migrants from Nias, an island west off the Sumatran coast. People from Nias predominantly identify as Christians, but many of them mix elements of Christianity into their animistic traditions. The economy in Nias is in tatters, so thousands of families have migrated elsewhere for better living, in this case to Batam. I asked Kristina’s parents, “But is it actually better living here?” They didn’t know it would be like this in Batam, they replied. Life in Nias was unlivable, so they moved, and here they are.

They said this while sitting on a hard pallet, which doubled as their sofa and bed. The whole place stunk of pig, feces, and rot. It took conscious, hard-willed effort not to gasp and hurl. I swatted at the countless flies and ants, but the family simply let the insects crawl about their feet and forehead.

Each day, the father goes out looking for any kind of work, while the mother collects recyclables for reimbursement. They usually leave their kids under their neighbor’s care. The children have little chance for a proper education. They get their clothes and shoes from the trash. They even get their food from the trash, I realized, when the father casually reminded his wife to pick up some rice from the garbage. Not surprisingly, their son Romileo was complaining of stomach pain. I then remembered the girl I first saw with the bowl of rice and started worrying about where that came from.

Meanwhile, Kristina’s family is aware that the government can forcibly remove them for illegal squatting at any time. Just a week ago, some of their neighbors were chased out. Next time, it might be them. The parents said all this nonchalantly, even with a slight smile, as though explaining why they prefer noodles to rice.

They also never asked about their daughter Kristina. Even when I showed them a photo of her on my iPhone, they smiled in acknowledgement but didn’t ask further questions about her. “Look, it’s kakak [sister],” the mother said to Kristina’s younger sister Miranti, handing her my iPhone. Miranti stared at the picture and muttered, “I’d rather see Kristina in person.”

Later, as we trudged back up to our air-conditioned minivan, Covert remarked, “That really shocks me that they didn’t even ask about their own daughter. Do they care? And what’s going to happen to them when they eventually get kicked out? Do they plan?”

I have no clear answer for that, but I wonder: When a person has basically forgotten all trace of God-imprinted human dignity and sanctity, can we really expect them to treat themselves with dignity and respect, to hope on divine plans? When a person lives for years in conditions unfit for humans, barely surviving each hand-to-mouth day without much hope for a better future, can we really expect them to care and hope for others?

I left Batam with a heavy feeling. Then I remembered little Kristina, who’s quiet, a little shy, and still slowly absorbing her new surroundings and family. But during morning and evening worship, she sang praises to Jesus at the top of her lungs and prayed with visible earnestness. I don’t know what she prays for, but perhaps one day she’ll be praying for her family to know the gospel love she’s currently learning to enjoy.

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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