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"Home Away from Home was Ros' own story," says Ps Ian Toh. "No wonder God has handpicked her to be a champion for this cause." Photo of Roslina and Ps Ian courtesy of Faith Out Loud.

She was 14 and at McDonald’s a lot.

But not to hang out with her friends, as other 14-year-olds might.

For young Roslina Toh, it wasn’t a choice. She was sleeping at McDonald’s because she was homeless.

When she tired of the fumes of greasy fries or was asked to leave, she moved to HDB void decks and staircases instead. Friends lent her money to buy food.

That this once-destitute young woman, now 24, was singled out and praised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at his National Day Rally speech last weekend (Aug 29) is nothing short of astounding. Even in her eyes.

In his speech, PM Lee thanked Roslina and others on the frontlines for their service during the pandemic.

Roslina Toh, 24, was praised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at his National Day Rally speech for helping homeless Malaysians stranded when the border was closed due to Covid-19. Screengrab of video courtesy of PMO.

When Malaysians working in Singapore were stranded after the Malaysian border was closed in March last year to manage rising Covid-19 numbers, Roslina had leapt into action.

“Every single time we met a Malaysian worker, it was knowing another person and knowing another story.”

She led a team of about 200 volunteers from various churches to help Malaysian workers who were sleeping rough.

Every night for more than a month, Roslina and the volunteers combed the streets to look for rough sleepers. For those looking for a refuge, The Home Away from Home initiative offered safe shelter at Transit [email protected] Drive, a shelter for the homeless run by New Hope Community Services. Those who preferred to stay on the streets were offered food and sleeping bags.

“I think the most difficult part was actually knowing where to find people,” Roslina tells Salt&Light.

She recalls that, when the media got wind of the stranded Malaysians, “more and more news people started to cram around Kranji MRT and all the workers just decided to not be in the spotlight”.

“So they all went into the more secluded areas, and it was harder to look for them.”

Every night for more than a month, Roslina and other volunteers combed the streets to look for rough sleepers, offering them food and shelter. Photo courtesy of Ps Ian Toh.

But, as a rough sleeper once herself, she had an idea where they would go. Eventually the volunteers found the rough sleepers at parks, MRT stations and void decks.

On Roslina’s mind was how scared they must have been to be unable to return home.

“Churches came together. It was a unity moment. And that was very powerful to me.”

“Every single Malaysian that we met was really very thankful,” said Roslina. “Of course, initially when we went up to them, they were a bit careful about who we were, why we were doing this. But when we started talking to them, we actually got to know them a lot more, like why they were stranded in Singapore, what they were working as, and why they couldn’t go back.

“That was the most fulfilling part for me, because every single time we met a Malaysian worker, it was knowing another person and knowing another story.”

Within hours of Roslina’s call for aid, donations started pouring in: Mattresses, daily necessities like soap, bottled water, hand sanitisers and toothbrushes. Willing Hearts provided meals.

“That was the power of Singaporeans coming together to help,” Roslina says.

In a short time, all the beds at the shelter were filled. The canvassing team also quickly went from a handful in numbers to over 200 volunteers.

“When we blasted out the Home Away from Home project to the Love Singapore network of churches, asking for volunteers, many Christians were very ready to come on board to join us in this whole movement,” recalls Roslina.

“So really this whole project was an effort of the church coming together. It was a unity moment. And that was very powerful to me.”

Homeless at 14

At 24, Roslina has seen more hardship than many her age.

Her parents divorced when she was a baby and, as she grew up, they remained strangers to her. She never lived with her mother. Her father was in jail for reasons unspoken.

It was left to her grandmother to raise her and her three older sisters.

When Roslina was 14, she had a fight with her mother who objected to her attending church. Returning to her grandmother’s home, she found herself locked out and her belongings dumped outside.

“I actually wasn’t shocked at all,” Roslina says. “I did have quite a bit of tension with my mum. So it’s kind of like a build-up. And when I saw that I was locked out, I just decided, ‘Okay, I get your message. I will just go.’”

Returning to her grandmother’s home, she found herself locked out and her belongings dumped outside.

For a few weeks, she slept at void decks, staircases and McDonald’s outlets. It was tiring.

“You don’t really have a proper place to rest. There were many things that went through my mind, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that long-term. It was only a short-term solution.”

She had only just begun to hear about God and the turn of events left her confused.

“I was really frustrated with God, and I couldn’t really understand what was happening. But, at the same time, back then I was a very garang (fierce) kid. I’m somebody who thinks, ‘I can survive on my own.’”

When her father heard of her plight from her sister, he took her in. Roslina had only met him once or twice in her life.

The arrangement turned out to be untenable. Four men lived in the one-room rental flat, drinking and playing mahjong till the wee hours of the morning.

“At 14, I was a very angry kid.”

Roslina ended up in a home for at-risk teenaged girls, where she remained from the age of 14 to 16.

“At 14, I was a very angry kid,” she says quietly. “I was angry at the world … it was like me against the world.”

But there was one man who saw her differently.

Pastor Ian Toh from 3:16 Church conducted chapel service at the girls’ home. From him, she learnt about the father-heart of God. And when Ps Ian and his wife, Lilis, invited her into their home, she learnt for the first time what it meant to be secure.

Ps Ian and Lilis, who have three biological children between nine and 16, became her spiritual parents, guiding her in her faith and gathering her into the warmth and welcome of their church community.

When, at 16, Roslina asked the Tohs if she could live with them, their “yes” was unhesitating.

Roslina (2nd from right) was unhesitatingly welcomed into the Toh family. “One human need is the need for a family and we are happy to be a family for others,” says Ps Ian. Photo courtesy of Ps Ian Toh.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Ps Ian said of his family’s decision: “One human need is the need for a family and we are happy to be a family for others.”

“I really learnt that I had so many trust issues, and so many insecurities that I did not know how to be a daughter.”

Ps Ian and Lilis are now “Daddy” and “Mummy” to Roslina, who has been living with the family for eight years.

“It really changed my life. I never knew … ,” she pauses to find the words, “I never knew how to be a daughter.

 “I didn’t realise that until I came into Ps Ian’s family and really became part of the family.

“They really took care of me like their own. And that’s when I really learnt that I had so many trust issues, and so many insecurities that I did not know how to be a daughter. And I also learned how to be a daughter to God.

“I didn’t realise there’s a relation between the two. But there is. Even as I learnt how to be a daughter to Daddy and Mummy, I also learnt more about God’s heart and that changed my life. It changed how I look at people, how I look at myself and how I perceive God as my father.”

Finding a family

Roslina is now in Year 1 at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), working towards a bachelor of social work.

“I took a really long route,” she says. “In secondary school, many things were happening in my life. I didn’t really do well, I was struggling with my studies. But at ITE, I did well enough to go to polytechnic. And that’s where I did applied drama and psychology, eventually getting into uni. I never expected myself to end up in uni.”

“To me, now, it’s always about giving back and seeing how I can stand up for the down and out.”

It was a journey that would not have been possible without fostering and without God, she says firmly.

Her troubled childhood did not afford her the vocabulary to describe the loss of community. Now she talks passionately about the rootedness of family.

“I’m somebody who really enjoys being alone. But my life now is very different, I am surrounded by community,” she says.

“Daddy and Mummy couldn’t have fostered and brought me up to where I am right now without the church community. I was part of the 3:16 family, I was part of Daddy and Mummy’s family, I was part of the church family, and everyone took me as their own. They have always watched out for me.

“I trust people a lot easier now. To me, now, it’s always about giving back and seeing how I can stand up for the down and out. Just as how other people fought for me, I want to be able to fight for other people as well.”

“I was part of the 3:16 family, I was part of Daddy and Mummy’s family, I was part of the church family, and everyone took me as their own,” says Roslina, whose life was transformed by their care. Photo courtesy of Ps Ian Toh.

The message she wants to spread is this: “Please foster and adopt. You never know what kind of change you’re going to make in that person’s life.

My life was changed by it.

“Through fostering, you get to invest in the child, and really catch God’s heart for them.”

“Before I was fostered, I was struggling with my studies and dealing with a lot of uncertainty in my life. All I could think about was: How am I going to survive the next day? I couldn’t think about long-term plans. I couldn’t dream big. It was all survival mode.

“Through fostering, you get to invest in the child, and really catch God’s heart for them. The impact that you have on the child lasts for a lifetime. Every single life is precious, every life matters. That’s something that I stand very strongly for.”

Ten years ago, would she have pictured the life she now has?

The reply is instant: “Never in my life. When I was 14? No. When I was 15? No. When I was in a home? No. I would never, ever have thought it.

“It’s a blessing. Not everybody gets to be in the safe family I have. There are many people out there who need it. And it is a reminder for myself to always remain thankful for what God has given me. And to always steward whatever God has given me well.”

God’s hand, God’s plan

That PM Lee mentioned her on a national stage is still surreal to her.

“I was really humbled and honoured by it,” says Roslina, who was shocked when she received a call from the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) before the televised speech. She was also invited as one of the guests at the live event.

“I see God’s hand in this whole project,” she says. “We really went out on the streets wanting the best for the workers. And we didn’t expect anything in return. We were just sharing God’s love, God’s heart for them.

“We heard stories of how some of them eventually came to know Christ at New Hope Community Services. And that was heartening. Every single time I look back on the project, I’m still really, really touched and amazed by all the donations and how God allowed us to reach so many workers. I can’t even put into words how powerful it was.”

“This whole Home Away from Home initiative was an effort of the church coming together. It was a unity moment. And that was very powerful to me,” says Roslina. Photo of the volunteers courtesy of Ps Ian Toh.

The Toh family, who has walked alongside Roslina for the past eight years, shared in her special moment.

“Home Away from Home was Ros’ own story,” says Ps Ian. “No wonder God has handpicked her to be a champion for this cause.”

“The project opened doors for me to have a glimpse into Roslina’s past and I also saw her potential for the future.”

Together with other volunteers, Ps Ian had also pounded the streets with Roslina last year to help stranded Malaysians.

“He was there to really give me the assurance that he was there to help me,” says Roslina. “And he was also there to help me process my thoughts, help me to sharpen my thinking. So it helped me to grow. I really enjoyed that with my dad.”

Added Ps Ian: “The Home Away from Home project opened doors for me to have a glimpse into Roslina’s past and I also saw her potential for the future. I saw the needs of the rough sleepers firsthand and Roslina’s heart for those who are needy. I am so blessed to witness this up close and personal.

“Her mention at the National Day Rally was a kiss from heaven and a divine affirmation from our Abba Father, the King of Kings.”

“I can see God’s heart for the down and out. And I think that is related to what I’m called to do with my life,” says Roslina, who is pursuing a bachelor degree in social work. Photo courtesy of Faith Out Loud.

Even after the Home Away from Home street outreach ended, Roslina continued volunteering at New Hope Community Services until she started an internship with MINDS (Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore), where she still runs programmes on English and drama.

In her simple desire to bless strangers, Roslina has received a blessing herself – a glimpse into the noble mystery of God’s plans for His people.

“God never goes back on his promises and He wouldn’t make us go through something without a reason.”

“It’s pretty funny, because I remember sharing with a friend that, sometimes in your life, you meet troubles and stuff, and you don’t really see God in it. And it is a natural human response to be upset. I mean, who on earth wouldn’t, right?” she says.

“In my own case, I was very upset. But now as I look back on my being homeless and – while I don’t think that God intended for me to go through that – I am thankful I went through it. Because now I can identify a lot more with people. I can see God’s heart for the down and out. And I think that is related to what I’m called to do with my life.

“I just want to encourage anyone who’s going through a very difficult time in their life that you may not see or understand why you have to go through a certain thing. But it is always for a greater purpose.

“And God, He is a good Father regardless. He never goes back on his promises and He wouldn’t make us go through something without a reason.

“I know that God takes care of me and he has never once in my lifetime failed me. That’s something that I’ve learnt about God’s plan for my life.”

A pause, then she adds this fullstop with quiet conviction: Ya. That’s God.


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“We wanted to be near those who are broken”: How one couple with kids became a foster family

“We will not choose”: Parents who adopted four babies, three with special needs

About the author

Juleen Shaw

Salt&Light Managing Editor Juleen hails from the newsrooms of Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp Publishing. She has had two encounters with baptismal pools. The first was at age four when her mother, who was holding her hand, tripped and fell into the church baptismal pool, taking Juleen with her. The second was when she actually chose to get baptised.

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