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Zulayqha Zulkifli was exposed to community work from a young age.

Her mother was a grassroots leader at a community club and the homemaker used to bring 9-year old Zulayqha and her three siblings with her whenever she volunteered in the community.

Yet that wholesome childhood turned sour when the family fell apart after her parents divorced in 2010.

Then, the 16-year-old Zulayqha had only just completed her N levels. As a result of the divorce, the family home was sold and the siblings found themselves homeless for a period until they managed to get a rental flat.

Zulayqha recounts to The Pride: “It was very disruptive and exhausting for my siblings and me. We had to figure out how to move on, and at the same time play peacemaker to our parents, who were still quarreling and asking us to mediate.”

The children had to grow up fast. The two older siblings, Zulayqha and her brother Zulhaqem, who was just 18 at that time, assumed the roles of the adults for their younger brother and sister. This included taking care of day-to-day activities, such as getting meals and their school uniforms ready.

Choosing the ITE route to connect with people

Children of Divorce
Siblings Zulhaqem and Zulayqha / Image source: Housing Development Board

Money was tight and the siblings had to figure out how to manage. “From a young age, our parents taught us to be independent. We had to make sure we were financially independent and self-sufficient.”

To this end, Zulayqha and her older brother recognised that being academically inclined enabled them to receive bursaries and scholarships. “We would divide the money we were awarded into 4 parts so that each of us would get a share, even the younger ones who did not receive awards. When you do this, you empower people and they do not feel left out.”

When it was time for Zulayqha to register for a place at ITE, she turned to her brother for advice.

“I was very lost and wasn’t sure what I wanted to study or how to progress academically, but I was certain I did not want to give up my studies,” recalls Zulayqha.

Her brother told her that she had good people skills and could connect emotionally with others, and suggested that she consider a NITEC course in community care and social services.

Explains Zulayqha: “I was hesitant at first but to my surprise, it became a calling. I wanted to be an advocate for the underprivileged, especially for children and youths. I realised that I could be a bridge to the resources that they needed. That was the start of my social work journey.”

Zulayqha does not mention her own achievements during the interview, but she has received multiple awards, including the Howe Yoon Chong PSA Scholarship, the Lee Kuan Yew Award to Encourage Upgrading and the Straits Times Generation Grit Award.

Despite the difficulties the family faced, Zulayqha remains positive when reflecting about what they went through.

“We had certain privileges that not all children our age had, such as accessibility to the education system in Singapore. Even though we were homeless, we had at least one functioning adult to supervise us. We chose to count our blessings.”

Setting up the project

Today, Zulayqha, 27, is a social work associate who is completing her bachelor’s degree in social work at SUSS, who co-founded an initiative with Zulhaqem during the circuit breaker last year.

Project Hills, which assists needy families in rental housing blocks in Queenstown and Tiong Bahru, provides free meals as well as cleaning and decluttering the rental units there.

 

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Zulayqha’s experiences growing up allowed her to empathise with the people she meets in the course of her work at Project Hills.

She says: “My siblings and I know what it is like to feel like we don’t have anything. We had to surf the net and educate ourselves on schemes and policies that could help us. Most children would not have this ability to help themselves in this manner.”

With Project Hills, Zulayqha aims to help families in need be aware of the options available to them, and where to seek help.

She says of the Queenstown and Tiong Bahru neighbourhoods that Project Hills works in, “I grew up in these areas. I know the population in these estates and what they need.”

“We offer hot meals and food rations to the families we support. We remember the struggles we had with food when we were younger. There were times when the four of us had to share one meal. We used to eat a lot of instant noodles – we had gastric-related issues because we went hungry or had no proper food. So now, we do not include instant noodles in the food rations. Instead, we provide hot dinners, and fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Saving other people from the trauma she went through


Mid-way through the Zoom interview, Zulayqha excuses herself to assist a beneficiary who stops by to collect a package of food rations. She returns and calmly resumes telling her story. It’s clear that helping others is all in a day’s work for her.

In the course of her work as a social work associate, Zulayqha met a family that was in a similar situation as she did growing up – four young children dealing with the fallout from their parents’ divorce.

“I decided I needed to work extra hard for the family, to cushion the blow for the children. My siblings and I had a traumatic childhood experience from my parents divorcing and I wanted to salvage the situation for these children.”

Zulayqha coached the parents of the family to establish a structure for dealing with their problems and introduced the children to social service professionals who helped them manage their emotions, with services ranging from student care to therapy.

“It’s the least I can do for such families, so that they don’t have to go through what I did.”

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During the interview, Zulayqha’s responses are peppered with frequent references to her family, especially her siblings.

Her siblings went on to make their mark in their own ways as well. Elder brother Zulhaqem has a degree in philosophy from Nanyang Technological University, and subsequently completed his masters degree in Buddhist Studies at Oxford University on a Public Service Commission scholarship. He is now working at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Her younger sister Zulastri is a care facilitator at a school for special needs children, and their younger brother Zulfeqar is a pastry chef at a high-end restaurant. She describes her siblings and their achievements with pride and fondness.

The siblings and their father Zulkifli Atnawi, were one of the nominees for the Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award in 2020.

As Zulayqha relates, she went through tough times with her family, but her speech is marked with gratitude for what she had then and what she has now.

Rather than focus on her accomplishments, she often credits her siblings for the roles they play in bringing the family forward.

She says: “People tend to underestimate the role of an informal support system. There is no safety net more important than your family. The close-knit relationship we had kept us going when things were difficult. We never thought we would come so far.”

Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2020
Image source: Zulayqha

Zulayqha is one of the profiles found on Twenty-One Daughters, an initiative by Daughters Of Tomorrow, a charity that enables women from disadvantaged backgrounds to find sustained and regular employment.

Daughters Of Tomorrow is raising funds to support the work they do. Visit https://daughtersoftomorrow.org/the7yearmovement/ to find out how you can contribute to helping women overcome difficult circumstances.

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Top Image: @theprojecthills