Inspired to help, despite her many challenges

Self-employed baker Suhana Suhaimi getting cookies ready for Hari Raya Aidilfitri. She lives with her parents, Mr Suhaimi Sarkam and Madam Moona Awang, in a two-room rental unit, and helps to take care of them. She also volunteers with Tabung Amal Ai
Self-employed baker Suhana Suhaimi getting cookies ready for Hari Raya Aidilfitri. She lives with her parents, Mr Suhaimi Sarkam and Madam Moona Awang, in a two-room rental unit, and helps to take care of them. She also volunteers with Tabung Amal Aidilfitri, helping to sell goodie bags at its fund-raising events.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

40-year-old is not letting cerebral palsy or financial woes stop her

Ms Suhana Suhaimi's slight frame leant out of the doorway. She was beaming as she welcomed guests into the two-room flat in Eunos shared by her family.

The rental unit has been home to the self-employed 40-year-old and her elderly parents for the past eight years - and she vividly recalls their difficult days before that.

With things improving slightly for Ms Suhana, who cares for her parents despite having cerebral palsy, she celebrated Hari Raya Aidilfitri with her family yesterday.

She is also giving back to society.

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The first time Ms Suhana visited the Tabung Amal Aidilfitri (TAA) Trust Fund's office in Tanjong Katong Complex to apply for financial help, she thought that she would have to go home on foot.

"My bank account was empty, and there was no money in my pocket," she said. Learning of her situation that day, a TAA manager gave her $10 and another of its members sent her home.

That was about nine years ago, and her father had had heart bypass surgery not long before that.

DREAMING OF A NEW FUTURE

I want to gain financial independence. I know there are people out there who need help more than me.

MS SUHANA SUHAIMI

Around the same period, her mother suffered a third stroke and had to be hospitalised for two months, she said. The medical bills and living expenses drained their life savings.

"We lived with a relative in Pasir Ris after selling our three-room flat in Bedok, using up the money for my father's surgery and mother's bills," she said.

Broke and afraid to make her mother worry, Ms Suhana would stay overnight with the older woman at Changi General Hospital, saying that she was too tired to go home, or that there was no shuttle bus to the MRT station.

"The truth was, I had no money for the fares," she said.

Her mother's health has worsened over the years. Madam Moona Awang, 72, now uses a wheelchair and is starting to develop dementia.

"Her mood can change suddenly. It's challenging for me," Ms Suhana said, her cheery disposition faltering as tears welled up in her eyes. She quickly regained her composure.

It was with financial help from the TAA, community development council, and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore that her family eventually moved into their current flat in Eunos.

Receiving welfare assistance inspired Ms Suhana to give back to society. It was why she started volunteering with the TAA, and now helps to sell goodie bags at its fund-raising events.

"We have been working hard because of Hari Raya," she said.

The non-profit organisation aims to raise $850,000 for its 2,600 or so beneficiaries over the fasting month, said its senior manager Mohd Yahya Zakaria. The drive is slated to end next week.

While Ms Suhana had worked in administrative jobs since leaving secondary school, five years ago, she decided to learn how to bake.

Since then, the only child has been selling her baked goods to generate income for her family.

When The Straits Times visited her last week, jars of her home- made cookies stood on a shelf in the living room. But she is careful not to make them too sweet, so her diabetic mother can enjoy them.

Food is one of the joys her close-knit family shares. Asked about their preparations for Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Ms Suhana described her father's cooking with enthusiasm, as Madam Moona chimed in.

Mr Suhaimi Sarkam, 82, who is a retired canteen vendor like his wife, regularly whips up dishes such as chicken rice for the family and has specialities in store for occasions, the family said with pride.

Every year during Aidilfitri, he makes lepat, a type of sticky rice dumpling that he cooks with soya beans and coconut. The mixture is then packed and tied in young coconut or palm leaves.

There will also be flowers - some of Mr Suhaimi's favourite decorations - around the house.

Despite her passion for baking, Ms Suhana hopes to return to the workforce soon, and is looking for a job. "Baking is a part of my life. I will never stop, but I want to continue working, to learn something new and continue to support my family," she said.

She added that she does not want to keep relying on welfare assistance. "I want to gain financial independence," she said. "I know there are people out there who need help more than me.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline 'Inspired to help, despite her many challenges'. Print Edition | Subscribe