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Zainah Rahmiati: “Illiteracy keeps people marginalised and vulnerable”

Name: Zainah Rahmiati
Lives in: Jambo Timu, District Lhokseumawe, Province Aceh, Indonesien
Country of origin: Indonesia
Period in Germany: May 2009 to May 2010 in Saarbrücken, Mannheim, Magdeburg, Bremen and Berlin
Funding organisation: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)
Occupation: Social worker and part-time lecturer

When the tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean in 2004, Zainah Rahmiati was studying in the province capital of Banda Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Since her family was among those afflicted, she applied to work as a translator and interpreter for Oxfam Great Britain. Being deployed in an acute emergency situation and working with the families of the victims was a decisive and invaluable experience for her. Since then, Zainah Rahmiati has worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and several non-government organisations, among them the American and French Sections of the Red Cross, the Indonesian Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency BRR, Aceh-Nias and Save the Children.

Between May 2009 and May 2010, she spent one year in Germany and took part in a training programme organised by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

Which positive experiences were you able to take home from Germany? How did they benefit your career and your project?

Zainah Rahmiati: I would never have expected to improve my life experience, personally and professionally, so much during my one-year stay. When I arrived, I participated in a German language programme for three months. During my stay in Germany, I visited almost all federal states, not only the big cities, but also smaller towns. Whenever possible, I tried to talk to the locals, as I felt that practicing my German with native speakers was very useful for increasing my language competency.

I was connected with many people from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. This enriched my understanding of living in harmony, regardless of beliefs, skin colours, or cultural identities. I also learned that showing respect for others was a helpful attitude for interacting and communicating with people, even if there is a language barrier.

In addition to that, I learned some leadership values from the workshops and courses I participated in during the programme which have been very useful in my project. First of all, good communication skills are very important. They enabled me to communicate and interact positively with my team and others who are involved in the programmes, such as partners and beneficiaries.

Furthermore, as a leader, I try to be a good listener. In my experience, even though everyone has the right to be heard and the right to speak their minds, very often these rights have been neglected and defined differently across contexts and cultures. What I attempt to implement in my organization is to give them space to express their rights and to accommodate the needs of the volunteers and people who we work with, particularly the beneficiaries. I believe that incorporating these values into the objectives of the programmes will have a positive impact on the project’s development, especially concerning the quality of the services.

“Everyone has the same rights to live better and to be treated equally in their community”

For which organization do you work and what is the project that you manage there?

Zainah Rahmiati: I am working for a non-profit organisation called Rumoh Baca Hasan-Savvas (the Hasan-Savvas library). It was initiated to help eradicate illiteracy amongst young people from low-income families in coastal areas of Jambo Timu and surrounding villages in the district of Lhokseumawe and North Aceh. We believe that illiteracy and limited access to education keep people marginalized and vulnerable. In response to these issues, we feel compelled to assist by providing literacy education programmes and activities for young people in this region. One of our actions was to start a library for young people in rural areas, especially for school and university students. Our aim is to provide them with access to good quality books, so that they can broaden their knowledge and skills.

In the project implementation, I am assisted by a number of volunteers and tutors. Also, we work closely with our partners, including government institutions, schools and universities within the area. Since the beginning of the project, we have received a large number of book donations for our library from several institutions and individuals, nationally and internationally. Therefore, in the future we would like to concentrate on raising funds in order to run our entire range of programmes and benefit more people in the areas.

What was your motivation to start the project?

Zainah Rahmiati: My village, Jambo Timu, was an area of armed conflict in the past and it was affected by the tsunami in December 2004. As a survivor, I felt very lucky that I was given a second chance to live and I promised myself to use this chance wisely. A few years later, I was given a chance to meet people from different cultural backgrounds during my professional career. There, I learned how to improve my capabilities, personally and professionally. Additionally, I was given a chance to visit a number of countries in the world, to experience living abroad and to exchange knowledge with international peers in a learning context. I could see the important role played by education in this achievement.

After completing the training programme in Germany in May 2010, I decided to come back to live and work in my hometown. I felt sad to see that rural people were often labelled as uneducated, treated differently and denied access to many job opportunities. That was not right. I understood that everyone has the same rights to live better, to be treated equally in their community and to express their feelings or ambition. I felt that children in rural areas should be given the same opportunities as those who live a city or town. Despite the condition of most of the schools in rural areas, which have very limited resources and facilities to support the learning process, the children in rural areas seemed to be unlikely to obtain a good quality of education in a city or a town, due to their families’ income.

The only idea I had was to help improve the situation with the skills I have in English language teaching. In 2011, I initiated a free English class for children in my village. Surprisingly, some children from surrounding villages also came to join us. I was so happy to see positive responses from the children who participated in the class. Then I realised that, no matter where they live, every child is gifted with her/his own potential and capability. That was a chance for me to help them realise their own potential and make better use of it. After that, I asked myself how to support the teaching and learning activities? Obviously, I needed a library.

  • Zainah Rahmiati (c) private
  • Zainah Rahmiati (c) private
  • Zainah Rahmiati (c) private
  • Zainah Rahmiati (c) private
  • Zainah Rahmiati (c) private
  • Zainah Rahmiati (c) private
  • Zainah Rahmiati (c) private
  • Zainah Rahmiati (c) private
  • Zainah Rahmiati (c) private
  • Zainah Rahmiati (c) private

Which positive effects of your project can already be felt?

Zainah Rahmiati: We have reached a significant achievement during the first seven months of the library operation. In the literacy activity, for example, the enthusiasm and the interest of young people in reading has enhanced significantly. This can be seen in an increase of the number of people who visit the library every single day. To respond to this phenomenon, we have attempted to improve the quality of our service at the library by providing more relevant books to all age groups, educational games, and toys which will attract more children to come to the library. Recent visitors were not only from my village and surrounding villages, but also students and lecturers from different universities in the region. Beside this achievement, we have received a number of partnership proposals from different institutions such as Lhokseumawe State Polytechnic, a few primary schools in Blang Mangat sub- district and a local NGO (Orphan Kafala Program) for joint programmes (e.g. as a research partner in a community engagement programme).

And what are the greatest challenges or obstacles?

Zainah Rahmiati: Honestly, yes, I faced lots of obstacles on my way – not only to do with the limited budget and human resources (volunteers), but also through exaggerated reactions from people around us who are afraid of making a change in their normal lives. The shortage of financial resources is the major problem I am facing presently. I can barely run the programme effectively, as I cannot provide the things we need in order to address the needs of the beneficiaries. On the other hand, volunteers play a vital role in executing the programmes. The problem is that working as a volunteer is not a commonplace thing in our society. People normally have to provide their main, paid work, otherwise, they would not able to generate enough income to cover their household needs. It is very understandable. Therefore, it has been difficult to manage my time to meet the schedule of the programme. I see the lack of appreciation as a normal process that just happens anywhere across the world. People normally react in different ways towards a new change around them.

Capacity building for all

What are your plans for the future of the project?

Zainah Rahmiati: There is a high possibility that this library will become bigger and benefit more people in wider communities, particularly women and children, if we can find reliable donors, qualified local employees/tutors/volunteers. I believe that women and children are the most vulnerable groups within grass-root community, and they frequently become targets of violence and abuse.

Therefore, I plan to develop new strategies to improve the quality of the existing programmes, especially to promote the literacy, and to create new programmes; one that helps to improve the capacity and skills of women (young girls and adults) in rural areas through a micro-economic empowerment programme, and one that addresses children’s rights and protection.

In order to reach these targets, I should make it a priority to build more connections with people and institutions, locally and internationally, and to learn from others’ experiences. Also, I will strengthen the partnerships we have built with local educational institutions, to ensure a long term partnership and contribution to the project.

You mentioned other programmes than the library project that you run as well for rural and underprivileged children. Could you tell us more about them?

Zainah Rahmiati: Living in a modern society is quite challenging. In order to be able to compete with others, for a job for example, people, no matter where they live, require skills and competences. This phenomenon has encouraged me to facilitate access for rural young people to job opportunities by having their skills and capabilities improved in certain fields. Therefore, we attempted to develop a number of capacity building programs, including foreign language classes, creative classes, and cooking classes. My hope is that the programmes will help them to empower themselves as independent individuals and help them to create new employment for others within their community.

“I will not be able to fulfil my ambitions without support from others”

All I do with this project is to follow my passion, share happiness and exchange life experience with others. I realise that I will not be able to fulfil this ambition and to make my dream come true without support from others. I am very grateful that the Alumniportal has given me the valuable opportunity to share my story here. I hope that this story will inspire others who are connected to this portal and motivate them to contribute positively toward an investment in other people’s lives, regardless of their beliefs, cultures, genders and skin colours. I would really appreciate your willingness to take part in our project, If you are interested, please do not hesitate to contact us!

Zainah Rahmiati’s profile in the Community

August 2016


30 November 2016

Great job Ms. Rahmiati. Keep moving forward and inspiring people for doing good. Greetings from the Philippines.

seang sovuthy , cambodia
31 August 2016

Zainah Rahmiati, that is great of you to make it possible to reduce illiteracy. This will bring a great benefit to the community for knowledge could improve living standard of the people. and I would encourage you to be success with your future plan of the project.

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