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LOCATED in the heart of the city, there is a shelter housing people living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). There they live free from being judged and discriminated. The premises, a stone’s throw from Sarawak General Hospital, is surrounded by trees and bushes, providing privacy and security to the community that needs it the most. Opened in May last year, Teratak Kasih Tok Nan is a one-stop support centre for HIV and AIDS patients. It serves as a halfway house and offers information on the disease, counselling and emotional and financial support, and runs a peer-support programme. Sarawak AIDS Concern Society (SACS) Dr Yuwana Podin says patients and their family members can rest at the centre in between their hospital appointments or spend a night or more before they return to their hometowns. It has four bedrooms and can accommodate up to 13 occupants at any one time. “We also provide food and money to the low-income families to subsidise their transport fare, particularly those from the rural areas. “We also try to link them up with other agencies if they need further assistance,” she says.

Teratak Kasih Tok Nan aims to remove the stigma associated with HIV patients. Pix by Goh Pei Pei

The peer-support programme is among the initiatives to encourage patients to speak out without fear and shame about their illness, thus motivating them to stay positive. “We organise programmes and celebrations during festive seasons for them to interact with each other,” says Yuwana. “Such ideas work as they will share among themselves how they got infected, how they came forward to seek treatment and even talk about the side effects of certain medication. “They feel comfortable with their fellow patients as they don’t worry about being chased away or insulted. They feel safe and know that they are not alone in their struggle against the disease.” The centre has 28 regulars, including family members of those with HIV. The youngest HIV-positive patient is a 7-year-old girl, who has no idea about her condition. Her mother tells her to take her daily vitamins so that she can become healthy and strong. The SACS outreach team also visits sex workers to encourage them to attend programmes hosted by the centre. “We have activities such as cooking, baking, sewing, make-up tutorials, making handicraft and life skills training, as well as reading and colouring for kids. “Apart from keeping them occupied, we hope to equip them with skills, especially sex workers, so that they can earn a living,” Yuwana says. SACS, tasked with running the centre by the Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF), also builds trust with new patients.

Sarawak AIDS Concern Society president Dr Yuwana Podin says Teratak Kasih Tok Nan has four bedrooms and can accommodate 13 occupants. Pix by Goh Pei Pei

“It’s not easy to get them to come here as they are suspicious about the centre. So, we need to engage them in the hospital or clinic. Sometimes, we just need to say ‘hi’ to make our presence felt,” says Yuwana. Teratak Kasih Tok Nan is named after the late chief minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem due to his dedication in realising the centre, a home filled with love and care. With six staff members, comprising a manager, two nurses and three workers, the centre runs on a modest outlay of RM6,000 a month. SACS’s efforts to educate the public are currently confined to Kuching. There are plans to expand its services and reach out to patients in other cities such as Sibu, Bintulu and Miri. However, raising funds from the public is an issue. “Some people refuse to donate due to misconceptions about HIV. They think the illness stems from immoral activities and the money raised will be channelled to support sex workers,” Yuwana says. Public stigma and discrimination are major challenges as they sometimes prevent HIV patients from seeking treatment.

The cosy interior of Teratak Kasih Tok Nan makes visitors feel at home

Despite the challenges, Yuwana, who joined the organisation about 20 years ago, says she will not give up. “Since I joined as a SACS volunteer, I have never looked back. “I look forward to the day when people living with HIV can speak out and get the respect, love and rights they deserved,” she says. © New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd