HELPING out is second nature to Madam Zaleha Akbar Ali, a grandmother of 11.
The 63-year-old has plenty on her plate, but finds time to cook for her elderly neighbours and help out at mosque events as an usher.
She also volunteers as a “befriender” under the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) Mosque Befrienders’ Scheme, which helps the unemployed, lower-income families and elderly dwellers of one-room flats with their financial and emotional needs.
The scheme started in 2008 with 79 befrienders. Today, it has 656 volunteers, about 75 per cent of whom are women, mostly housewives.
Madam Zaleha is a befriender volunteer under the South East Mosque Cluster, which covers areas such as Bedok South and Aljunied. Once or twice a week, she goes out with another volunteer to visit Muslim families who receive aid from the Darul Aman Mosque and Al-Ansar Mosque.
She provides emotional support and encouragement, and makes sure that the financial aid given is sufficient. If clients require more help, she submits their requests to the mosque’s social development officer (SDO), who will assess the case and apply to Muis for more financial aid.
The funds are taken from zakat, the annual tithe that is paid by every Muslim head of household for himself and his dependants during the fasting month of Ramadan.
Madam Zaleha, an old hand at volunteering, having helped at the aftercare services at the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association for drug addicts since the 1980s, says her rule of thumb is to listen and empathise.
“These people just need someone who can listen to them,” she says. “They need someone who gives them a pat on their back and holds their hand when they talk about their troubles.
“We never ask many questions or probe into their family or personal issues. That is the job of the SDO. If they want to tell us, we will listen.”
But for clients who prefer to keep their troubles to themselves, Madam Zaleha just does her duty – ensuring that they have received the zakat and checking if they need more aid. These visits last from 10 to 45 minutes.
Having started being a befriender in 2010, she has taken on nearly 40 cases so far. Sometimes, just one visit is enough. Others require a few follow-up sessions.
“If we find that they need more help, we will write in to Muis about their needs and follow up after that,” she says.
The mother of six adds that making people happy really starts with her family.
“I will make sure that my family is well-fed and happy first before I go out to visit my clients,” she says. “If you can’t take care of your family, how can you learn to take care of other people?”
Her husband is a retired businessman who also volunteers at the mosque.
Two of their younger unmarried children live with them in their four-room flat in Chai Chee. The other children are married, and have moved out.
She gets her husband’s permission before she goes for her visits.
“I will not go if he doesn’t allow it,” she says. “But he has always been supportive of me doing volunteer work.”
Although she feels that Muslim women are sometimes confined by these traditional rules, she is glad that more women are taking up leadership roles today.
“Women understand women best. These women leaders are our voices,” she says. “They represent us and speak for us.”
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