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Have you ever wondered how you could make a difference by yourself?

Sometimes, it takes a negative encounter to spur us towards making a stand for something positive.

One evening in 2015, Nazhath Faheema and her sister were chatting in a cab on their way home when the taxi driver turned to the two young women, whose heads were covered with scarves, and asked: “So, do you know how to make bombs?”

Faheema, now 36, was stunned by her first overt encounter with racism. Ignoring her sister’s attempts to shush her, she spunkily retorted, “Yes, I know, do you want to learn?”

As satisfying as that snappy comeback was at the time, she later realised that she had also lost the opportunity to educate the taxi driver on a simple truth.

Faheema, who had just been appointed Jamiyah Singapore’s Muslim youth ambassador of peace then, admits: “I should have said, ‘yes, we drape the dupatta (a long scarf worn by women from the Indian sub-continent) around our head as part of our faith; and no, our faith does not encourage us to make bombs. And no, as a matter of fact, I do not know how to make one.”

Faheema tells the Pride that that 2015 taxi ride started her on a journey to reduce such ill-informed encounters. She saw the need for a more deliberate and constructive approach to addressing racial and religious harmony in Singapore.

President's Volunteerism Philanthropy Awards
At a discussion about the tudung with other minority groups in 2018. Image source: Nazhath Faheema

So in 2015, Faheema founded hash.peace, an organisation of youth leaders working to counter racism and religiously motivated prejudice.

She says: “Racism may not be as prevalent in Singapore as in other countries, but it exists. I wasn’t planning to change the world. I just wanted to change the world around me, starting by chatting with people I knew.”

And yesterday (Oct 11), Faheema was among the 12 winners at this year’s President’s Volunteerism and Philanthropy Awards. Conferred by President Halimah Yacob, organised by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) and supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, the awards recognise the efforts of those who have given their best to Singapore.

Finding inspiration from Star Wars

Before she started hash.peace, Faheema, an SMU graduate in information systems and law, read voraciously and talked to people. From this, the Star Wars fan developed a methodology — called R2D2 after her favourite character in the sci-fi franchise — for promoting responsible activism leading to sustainable social harmony.

R2D2 takes an individual through a four-step process: Research, Reflect, Discuss and Develop, explains Faheema.

“It’s easy to go online and say something in support of or against an issue. But are you able to stand up for what you say? I wouldn’t say things without first putting it through the R2D2 process.”

So why call it hash.peace?

Faheema explains: “Hash means to talk things out. The taxi driver said what was on his mind and it was alarming, but it is more dangerous that people don’t say what they think.”

President's Volunteerism Philanthropy Awards
Giving a TEDx Singapore Talk in December 2019. Image source: Nazhath Faheema

“I am a Tamil Muslim woman. A minority among the minorities,” says Faheema. She sees the need for dialogue so that young people can understand what other groups feel, and develop empathy.

To this end, Faheema came up with programmes that would promote understanding among different ethnic groups. Knowing that most people would prefer to learn about the history and heritage of another culture rather than attend a talk on racial harmony, she started Heritage Saturdays for people to learn about different communities in Singapore.

And the participants learnt that there is more that connects us than differentiates us.

For example, Faheema herself learnt that the Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew dialect groups among the Chinese community in Singapore are distinguished not just by their spoken dialect – they also have their distinctive cultural practices and cuisines, just like different groups in India!

President's Volunteerism Philanthropy Awards
Faheema is the chairperson for Jamiyah Singapore Youth Group which focuses on youth active citizenry and volunteerism. Image source: Nazhath Faheema

The energetic mother of two children, aged 11 and 9, also chairs the youth group at Jamiyah Singapore and coordinates volunteer activities to help the needy, involving people from different races and religions.

On top of this, Faheema serves as the treasurer of the alumni association of her alma mater — the Canossian Alumni Association.

“I am the only Muslim among the Catholics in the exco,” she laughs. “I see the benefit of being the first Muslim girl in a setting because people get to know me and it breaks down barriers. When I was in school, we would bring our own prayer books during mass, and I would compare my prayer book with those of my Catholic friends. We found similarities in the differences.”

Finally, Faheema shares her hopes for Singapore: “We need to change racist attitudes and behaviour to promote inclusivity in Singapore.

“Maybe racism here isn’t as bad as in other countries but we have to take care of what is here. Every generation’s role is to keep reducing the attitudes of racism so that no one is made to feel more — or less — in this country because of their race or religion.”

Making sure no one dies alone

President's Volunteerism Philanthropy Awards
Lydia chatting with a patient in a ward, pre-Covid. Image source: Assisi Hospice

Another PVPA winner is Lydia Tan, 67, who has been volunteering for six years at the Assisi Hospice.

After retiring at 59, Lydia travelled, visiting her 45-year old son and his family in California, and her daughter, 35, in New Zealand. When she returned to Singapore, she wanted to do something more with her time and started manning a pregnancy crisis hotline.

Then, a friend, whose uncle was terminally ill, asked Lydia to help support him as he had no immediate family.

She looked after him for one month when he was in the hospital, and for another month at the hospice.

Lydia tells the Pride: “Prior to this, I had no experience with looking after the sick. I was fearful, not knowing what to do. I learnt just to be there with him.”

They would talk about the good old days and the uncle would reminisce about his youth and how he was a good dancer. Towards the end, he told Lydia: “I thought I was going to die a lonely old man but this is the happiest time of my life.”

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Lydia says: “I was moved by what he said. It motivated me to think about what I wanted to do. I saw how the clinical team, from the doctors to the nurses, cared for him. It was not just a job for them, it was coming from their hearts with love, compassion and empathy. They were there for him.”

One month after the uncle died in February 2015, Lydia signed up as a volunteer at the Assisi Hospice.

NODA Volunteer
Lydia (right) at a pre-Covid training workshop for NODA volunteers, practising being present and listening. Image source: Assisi Hospice

Not long after, Lydia’s 54-year old brother was diagnosed with cancer and admitted to the Assisi Hospice. She took time off from her volunteer work to care for him. The clinical team prepared her for his eventual passing, but it was a difficult time for her nonetheless.

“To see them give my brother extra care in the last days of his life was moving. I asked myself if I was able to do what they were doing. It came from the heart. This nurse, on her own accord, would rub medicated oil on his temples to help him feel better. These little acts of care to show him that he wasn’t alone, helped a lot.”

After Lydia’s brother died, she resumed her volunteer work at the Assisi Hospice.

“It was a life-changing experience,” she says.

Today, Lydia volunteers at the hospice two to three times a week — arriving at 7.30am to prepare breakfast, and keeping patients company after that.

She is also part of the No One Dies Alone (NODA) programme, providing companionship to dying patients who have limited or no family support. She is the first to respond when a vigil is activated and she often takes the midnight shift to 6 am shift.

Since then, she has journeyed with 48 NODA patients and participated in 40 vigils, even coming in on short notice when it’s not her turn on the roster.

Celebration for Patient
Lydia (right) decorating a patient’s room with another volunteer for a celebration. Image source: Assisi Hospice

In 2017, Lydia joined a paediatric volunteer group trained to care for children. She supervises the young patients, reads stories to them, plays games or pushes them in their strollers.

Lydia, who has two teenage grandsons, talks about a 10-year-old patient with bittersweet fondness. The volunteers and staff at the hospice celebrated the boy’s birthday and Lydia bought him a life-sized standee of his favourite comic book character Iron Man.

He had it with him until the day he died.

Recounts Lydia: “At the end of his life, I was holding him and humming to him.

“He opened his eyes and said, ‘That is a very nice song and you have a very nice voice.’ I asked if he would like me to continue and he said, ‘Yes.’ He passed on not long after I left.”

She adds, with tears in her eyes: “I was grateful I could celebrate (his last birthday) with him. These are encounters that keep me returning to the hospice.”

Volunteering at the hospice makes Lydia want to live life to the fullest, to live and love, knowing that the next day might be her last. She credits the work at the hospice for showing her the importance of forgiveness and not being judgmental, something she says she would not have been able to achieve 30 years ago in her corporate job.

“It is not about what I am giving the patients. It is what they give me that is so important. Dying and death teach me to make the best of life, to give with a humble heart and to love. I would not exchange my work at the hospice for anything.”

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Top Image: Nazhath Faheema, Assisi Hospice