Photo: MISS archive
Indah is an Indonesian nurse who relocated with her husband from Sydney to Melbourne, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Going through her first pregnancy under a series of lockdowns was challenging, as none of her family or friends lived in Melbourne.
On top of that, COVID-19 had hit her family hard back in Jakarta. Soon after her mother contracted COVID-19, her father also tested positive, and her mother’s condition deteriorated as hospitals remained beyond capacity. Indah relied on the assistance of a young relative who was able to tend to her mother and deliver supplies while wearing full protective gear.
“It was very difficult. I broke down a lot. I felt very helpless not knowing what to do from here,” she said.
She was able to obtain oxygen tanks – sold for five times the usual price – thanks to her cousins and uncle, who did not hesitate to scour pharmacies in search of the tanks. “I felt grateful that we still had access to [oxygen] and could afford it,” said Indah.
Daily video calls were important for the family throughout the ordeal, especially during the three weeks her mother was eventually hospitalized. “The only thing that would cheer her up was seeing my son, her grandson,” she said.
Melbourne has been under six lockdowns over the past 18 months, and Indah felt isolated and often helpless in her new city, as she was not able to build friendships or connect with the Indonesian community. She said faith was her refuge, providing the comfort and confidence that she needed to overcome the isolation and distance from her family.
“We just had to be patient and pray because, without that, I would have been a mess,” said Indah.
Indah is not the only Indonesian in Australia who has struggled during COVID-19. Many others have had similar experiences, relying on online shopping or networks of family and friends in Indonesia to support their families struggling with COVID-19 throughout the archipelago. WhatsApp was a principal source of updates, as breaths were held with each notification for fear of unwanted news.
Like Indah, a group of Indonesian women in Sydney’s diverse western suburbs have turned to faith during the crisis, something they say gives them purpose and comfort. What began as a weekly religion class eventually became a safe space for a group of Indonesian women to offer support to each other and to connect with Indonesia.
The sisters in faith often lent a helping hand to people less fortunate than them in Indonesia. Their initiatives provided relief for many families and for some of the members of the group. After this initial success, the group formed a more organized charity to bolster fundraising and outreach.
Majlis Indonesian Sisters Sydney (MISS), the organization they founded, aims to reduce poverty and promote education in Indonesia. Funi Suhrani, known as Ustadha Funi, the founder and the group’s Islamic studies teacher, said the Indonesian community in Australia was at the core of the charity’s operations.
“We feel like a family, not like an organization, and we all know each other. They’re also not hesitant to say, ‘In my area it’s like this. Can you start a fundraiser for us?” she said.
MISS relies heavily on volunteers from the local community in Sydney and went from 20 volunteers to more than 60 after the organization was formalized last year. Tasks are distributed among volunteers, who utilize their social networks in Indonesia to reach families in need.
While their donations are mainly directed toward projects such as building wells and sponsoring orphanages, the gravity of the COVID-19 crisis has called for immediate action.
Through MISS, the women have been able to support more than 300 families in different parts of Indonesia since June 2020. The group’s COVID-19 aid packages consist of essential food items and monetary support.
Efhila Gabriela Melisa, who is responsible for COVID-19 aid distribution in East Sumatra, said the support had been welcomed by families, especially knowing it was from their Indonesian sisters in Australia.
She added that most people in her village, located next to Bukittinggi, had lost their livelihoods during the crisis, as most worked in the informal sector, mainly as street vendors or drivers. With the spread of COVID-19 and the imposition of mobility restrictions severely reducing the number of people in public spaces, the families have struggled.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), more than half of Indonesia’s workforce is in the informal sector, meaning they work without contractual employment arrangements, which excludes them from employment benefits such as pensions and sick leave.
Far from home
COVID-19 has postponed many travel plans, and for many Indonesians living in Australia, this meant annual trips to visit family back home were not possible. Many were left in distress as they endured repeated lockdowns in major Australian cities, in addition to worrying about the safety of their families in Indonesia.
Before the pandemic, Ustadha Funi and her family looked forward to visiting Indonesia at least once or twice a year. The uncertainties of the changing situation and border closures have left her distraught after losing her mother last year. “When my mother passed away, I couldn’t see her or even see her grave,” said Funi.
For one of Ustadha Funi’s students, Faradilah Bahweres Muhammad, the MISS community has provided a way to cope with the anxiety of being separated from family and of lockdowns in Sydney.
“I haven’t seen my mum for more than two years. I usually go to Indonesia every year. I am worried that if something happens to her and I can’t see her… I don’t even want to imagine that,” she said.
Most of her family in Surabaya contracted COVID-19, some winning their battles with the virus and others departing from their loved ones. Although the situation has improved, Faradilah recalled receiving up to ten messages of condolence every day in family and friend WhatsApp groups.
After relocating to Australia five years ago, Faradilah stumbled upon the group of women that would later form MISS during her search for an Indonesian community in her new home.
“It means a lot to me, this community. We’re not there only to learn about Islam, we’re also there as family and friends, and we help each other,” she said.
This article was previously published in The Jakarta Post