Yudha Baskoro, Jakarta – We all know that we will die someday, but we never thought death could come today.
We assume that we still have time until tomorrow, next month and even next year. This assumption, however, only lasts until death comes knocking on your doors.
Cancer survivor Desi Purwatuning's memories of those days still remain vivid. Fifteen years ago, doctors diagnosed Desi with stage two colorectal cancer and only three months left in her. She did succumb to despair after hearing the news, but then she slowly got back on her feet. Desi even dedicated her life to reading and collecting as many books – a hobby she has long loved.
One day, children came to her house and asked to be taught how to read.
This marked the beginning for Desi's journey as a teacher to the orphaned and school dropout children in Kojem, a red zone near fishing village in Cilincing, North Jakarta.
When the visiting children's enthusiasm grew day by day, Desi decided to open up a public library. This library was the forerunner of Rumah Belajar Merah Putih, the only educational oasis in the middle of a red zone where crime, drug abuse and prostitution are rampant.
Running a learning center in a red zone is certainly challenging. From time to time, Desi and her students had to study in unexpected places, ranging from under a pool table, behind a noisy boat dock, to a love booth filled with condoms. Parents and locals often bully Desi for teaching these children. Instead of letting these criticisms crush her spirit, Desi continues to fight for Kojem children's education and rights.
"You could say this is an illegal area, but that doesn't mean that children born here are illegal. Even though their parents are unmarried, run away, or have four children with four different fathers. That's not an excuse. Kojem children still have the same rights as other children," Desi said.
Children also receive basic Islamic education at Rumah Belajar Merah Putih. Desi even requires the female students to dress modestly at the learning center. The children also receive training on using computers, laundry, sewing and cooking to help them find better jobs.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put the center's activities to a halt for the first time since it was opened 14 years ago. The center's financial situation even deteriorated after Desi's husband – a mentor and regular donor – died in 2019.
The temporary shutdown did not last long. Last October, one of Desi's students fell victim to sexual assault and sexual harassment. Desi felt as if she was struck by lightning when she heard the news.
She immediately reopened the learning center and voluntarily helped her students investigate the cases via the existing legal corridors until the perpetrators were arrested.
Rumah Belajar Merah Putih has supported 300 orphans. Together with 11 staff mentors, Desi hopes the learning center will become a spark of light that can change Kojem for the better. She wants to free Kojem's children from the image of crime and prostitution.
"To change Kojem, we have to involve everyone, this is like a stick cannot clean one place, but if we use a broomstick, it will be stronger. Changing Kojem requires one's bond and mutual strength," Desi said as she tidied up the pile of prophet story books which she reads to her students everyday.