It was as if everything was preordained. About a month after Kim Thiruchelvam and her husband Beldon Premaraj decided they would consider adopting a stateless child, they received a phone call informing them of a baby who had been abandoned at the Kuantan General Hospital in Pahang. The call was from Yayasan Chow Kit co-founder Dr Hartini Zainuddin who was facilitating the adoption of stateless children at the time.
“My husband was overseas so I called him to tell him about the baby. He asked if the child was a girl or boy and it struck me that I hadn’t even asked (about the baby’s gender). I asked him if it mattered and he said that it actually didn’t. We wanted a child and it didn’t matter if it was a boy or a girl or how that child looked,” says Kim, 46, a freelance public relations consultant who works from her home in Petaling Jaya.
Adoption was not in Kim’s plans. “I always thought I’d have my own children, you know? My husband, on the other hand, had been thinking about adoption. When I turned 40, I knew it was time to decide. I spoke to some NGOs that dealt with adoption and some people who had been through it and we decided to try. And then it all happened so fast … so it really was meant to be, I believe,” shares Kim.
Within two months of first seeing the infant, Kim and her husband Beldon Premaraj obtained guardianship of the child and brought her home with them. She was six months old then and they named her Alaani, a Hawaiian name that meant “precious awakening”.
“We wanted a name that wouldn’t pigeon-hole her into any particular race. But, to play it safe with my in-laws, I added Elsie as her middle name in honour of my late mother-in-law,” says Kim, with a laugh.
Alaani’s birth mother is from the Arakan state in Myanmar. Though neither Kim nor Beldon met their daughter’s birth mother, Kim is certain she loved her baby but was just unable to provide for her.
“The nurses at the hospital told me how Alaani’s mother kept coming back to the hospital to see her. So, I am sure she loved her and it must have been tough to give her baby up but she did it at the best possible place … at the hospital. I believe she just couldn’t afford to care for her. The hospital bill alone came up to about RM8,000,” says Kim as Alaani hugs her from the back, peeping out from behind her mother’s head from time to time.
“You saw me at the hospital,” Alaani whispers softly to her mother, with a toothy smile that her mother reciprocated instantly.
Kim and Beldon decided from the onset that they would be completely open with their daughter about her adoption. In fact, the little one has her own theory about pregnancy and how she came into the Premaraj fold.
“How are babies made, Alaani? What did you say? You eat a lot of cookies, and the cookies go round and round in your stomach like in a washing machine and then a baby comes out. That’s it, right? But you came from my heart?” says Kim, to which the shy girl nods and ducks behind her mother once again for just a few seconds.
“She’s very shy if she hasn’t met you before. Otherwise she is so loud. She’s very precocious. She’s also very athletic and I don’t know if it’s because of where her mother comes from. The Arakan state is very mountainous, which is why my sister-in-law says Alaani is like a mountain goat sometimes,” says Kim, beaming with pride as she tilts her head back to look at her daughter. “I never know if it’s nature or nurture, really. It’s something I am constantly asking myself.”
Born premature, Alaani had a host of medical issues which her parents had to address as soon as they brought her home with them. She failed her hearing test, the two lobes of her brain were not joined and she was severely cross-eyed.
“Even before we got her, she’d been in the hospital twice, for acute pneumonia. The doctors were not even sure she would pull through. The first time I saw her actually was in the neonatal intensive care unit at Kuantan Hospital … she had tubes in her and at that point, I was determined more than ever to take her home. In that moment, I felt a bond with her. It just clicked,” recalls Kim.
The first thing they did when they brought her home was to take her to a paediatrician for a complete medical check. Thankfully, most of her issues were related to her being a premature baby were resolved within six months.
“And the hearing? Turned out the equipment at the hospital was faulty. She can hear fine,” says Kim.
It’s been five years since Alaani came into their lives and Kim feels completely blessed.
“I honestly had no expectations about how motherhood would be. I was just going to take it one day at a time. How has it been? Motherhood has just been such a joy. It gets challenging at times and I have had to learn patience but I wouldn’t change it for anything. The thing about becoming a mother in my 40s is that I am a lot more relaxed about parenting. My philosophy is that if I do get something wrong the first time, I’ll just try again. We want her to succeed but more than that we want her to be a happy child,” says Kim.
Alaani is a happy child, bounding about behind her mother, stealing hugs and the occasional kiss from her.
A couple of years ago, the couple decided to adopt a second child. So far, they haven’t found a match but Kim is adamant that she will not adopt another stateless child.
“I have no regrets adopting Alaani. People often say how lucky she is to end up with us but we feel that we’re the lucky ones because she chose us. Our lives have been enriched because of her. She brings endless joy, noise and laughter into our lives. She has abandonment issues … anytime I’m a little late picking her up from school, she starts getting afraid that I won’t be coming for her or when we go away she wonders if we have left her. But she’s a lot better now. But that’s not why we wouldn’t adopt another stateless child.
“There are just no clear guidelines about the process of adoption. Different people told us different things at the time and we made the mistake of not applying for adoption earlier. We were told that we could sort out her adoption and citizenship within six months, but it has been six years and she still hasn’t received her citizenship even though both her parents are citizens,” laments Kim who even wrote an open letter to prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak three years ago to express her frustration when Alaani’s citizenship was denied without any explanation.
“Granting citizenship is at the discretion of the Home Ministry and we hope Alaani gets hers this time. I wish the government would make it easier. There would be more couples willing to adopt stateless children if there was a clear process and this will in turn relieve the welfare system,” says Kim.
Earlier this year, Kim and her husband submitted a fresh application which they are hoping will be successful.
They continue to discover the joys of parenting one day at a time.
“I may not have carried her in me for nine months, but I don’t think I could love her any more,” says Kim, her arm protectively on Alaani.