"I was a stranger and you welcomed me..."

By: ? ?? Jhoanna Resari

doorAfter years of doing volunteer work as a foreign lay missionary in Harmony Home, I have encountered and journeyed with so many people who came from different backgrounds, most of them struggling with HIV/AIDS. For the past years, Harmony Home has established its reputation both locally and internationally as a non-profit organization that provides shelter care and support for people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Not many people know that it has also been and still is, a shelter for foreigners i.e. migrant workers, immigrants, victims of human trafficking, etc., who found themselves in need of help as they faced difficulties in Taiwan. Throughout the 23 years that the shelter has been helping people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHA), people from different countries, including those from Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Africa, Russia, Vietnam, Tibet, China have also lived in Harmony Home.

Most are women who have very different stories to tell…

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Rose is a young mother of two from Uzbekistan, who married a Taiwanese man she met in her home country. They both decided to bring her two children and live in Taiwan. Soon after, she gave birth to their daughter. In their second year of marriage, her husband asked her to send her two older children back to Uzbekistan because he could not support their education. She understood and thought that after she brought her two children back to Uzbekistan, all would be better. But when she flew back to Taiwan, she was immediately stopped by the immigration saying that based on an HIV test she took, she was reported to have HIV. But that would be impossible since she didn’t take any HIV tests. The health department said that it would be better for her to have another test done. Eventually, she found out what had happened while she was away. It was all done by her husband to keep her from staying in Taiwan. He did not want her to come back and did not want to let her see their baby daughter. While she was away, he took a Russian woman he knew who had HIV to an HIV testing center in Kaohsiung and used Rose’s name on the form, so that when she returned, she would not be allowed to stay in Taiwan.

Rose filed a lawsuit against her husband with the help of her volunteer lawyer provided by a NGO that advocates human rights. It has been seven months since she has returned to Taiwan. Her daughter is now 1 year old and she can only see her through the internet once a week. All this time, her husband led her to believe that he brought their daughter to China. Only recently did she receive the news that her daughter was still in Taiwan.  Every day, she cries because she can’t even hold her baby. It’s been four months since she first came to Harmony Home. She has found part time work and is attending Mandarin class. She is willing to face whatever challenge or difficulty in the hopes that one day, she and her daughter can be together once again.

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Molly from Myanmar came to Taiwan ten years ago because of her husband. He is an overseas Chinese who decided to move and live in Taiwan for good. For years, their small family struggled and Molly worked hard to give them a more secure life. Her husband’s frequent gambling did not help their situation. Fortunately, Molly found a stable job that pays a high salary.

After living in Taiwan for several years, she went to apply for Taiwanese Identification Card and as part of the requirements she took a complete medical examination. It was through this particular examination that she found out the horrible news that she was HIV positive. She was utterly shocked that she was HIV positive. She was never unfaithful to her husband, never used drugs, how then could she be HIV positive? The only one she can think of, who could have infected her, was her husband. She told him to take the HIV test. It was his first and only HIV test and it confirmed that he was HIV positive. He was an injecting drug user (IDU) before they were married which might have been how he got infected.

For days, Molly couldn’t find the strength to move on and even thought of killing herself. But she remembered her children, and decided to pick herself up and face the hardest challenge she has ever faced. In the past, by law, a foreigner who was reported to be HIV positive would immediately be deported from Taiwan. She was forced to run away and hide from the police. A friend told her to go to Harmony Home and ask Nicole for help. Now, two years have passed since she first came. Day by day, she lives with the fear of people finding out, especially her family back home. She saw how PLHA are being discriminated and treated by the society. But she continues to remain strong for the future of her family. In one year’s time, after going through many procedures required by the amended law to prove that she was infected by her Taiwanese husband in Taiwan, she will finally receive her Taiwanese Identification Card. Only then will she be able to start rebuilding their lives together again. All that she wants is to provide well for her family so that her children may have a better life… a future free from HIV/AIDS.

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Tin was born in Indonesia. When she was seven years old, her mother brought her to Taiwan. She grew up to be a very beautiful girl, and when she was fourteen years old, her mother forced her to work at a KTV bar to help earn money. She was even told that if she wanted to continue to study, she had to work hard for her tuition. Tin, at a very young age was forced into sex labor by her own mother. Her work led her to prostitution and she coped by taking drugs, drinking herself hard so that she can face the men who treated her like an object, and used her body for their own pleasure. Whenever she tried to stop, her mother manipulated her with guilt and fear.  She threatened her that if she stopped, she will not help her apply for Taiwanese Identification Card and fly her back to Indonesia. For years, she felt hatred towards her mother and trusted no one. Until she met a man who slowly made her feel like a person once more. He taught her many things and gave her the courage to stand up for herself.  They both have two children. She began making plans for her future and a few of her friends told her that she can sue her mother. But even before she was able to leave her job, she was caught by the police and was arrested because they found out that she was an illegal. She was detained for six months, but because she was pregnant with her third child, she was transferred to Harmony Home to be sheltered until she gives birth.

She has filed a lawsuit against her mother. She was the reason why she still doesn’t have a Taiwanese Identification Card after living almost all her life in Taiwan. She has also decided to leave the baby in the care of Harmony Home and give the baby up for adoption.  She hoped that her children won’t have to experience the hard life her own mother has put her through. Now, she is 23 years old and she has plans of finding a new job after she gives birth.  Looking back, one thing she feels fortunate about was that, despite everything, she was not infected with HIV or any STD. Now, she is unafraid to face what the future holds for her.

 

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Meili is an Indonesian woman who came to Taiwan as a migrant worker to support her family back home.  She is a victim of human trafficking. Her broker tricked her into working as a prostitute. Soon after, she was arrested along with other migrants when the police raided the place where she was working. Unfortunately, getting arrested was the least of her problems. After being tested, she was brought to Harmony Home. The police asked one of our staff to tell her the bad news in her own language.  She then understood why she was brought to the shelter. She is HIV positive. She felt shocked and afraid. She is still trying to grasp the gravity of her situation, thinking of her loved ones in Indonesia and her boyfriend in Taiwan. She’s afraid that she might have infected him as well. She is still trying to build the courage to tell her boyfriend what has happened, fearing the worst. To add more to her problems, she found out that she also has STD and needs immediate treatment. At night, others hear her crying alone in her room, and during the day, she would be quietly sitting on one corner.  She seems to find joy in seeing the children and being with the other women in the shelter. Some of the women comfort her, telling her that they are also HIV positive like her. In their own ways, they are giving her support and to make her feel that she is not alone in facing the toughest ordeal of her young life.

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door 2Harmony Home has become a refuge for those whom society considers as strangers: Those who are, according to the dictionary definition “neither a friend nor an acquaintance”; “A foreigner, newcomer, or outsider”; “one who does not belong to or one not privy or party to an act, contract, or title”… the list goes on.

Society can be harshly indifferent to people like Rose, Molly,Tin and Meili. Often times dismissed as insignificant, looked at with fear, treated with cold judgment, or even worse, treated as nothing more than a stranger by their own family and friends. Those who live in Harmony Home would not have sought shelter if they have, at least, someone who considered and treated them as family, friend or neighbor when they were in their worst condition and when they needed help the most.

Over the years, Nicole continues to welcome these unwanted strangers in need. They are accepted into Harmony Home regardless of their status, illnesses, backgrounds or pasts. This simple act of being welcomed in Harmony Home, to be treated with compassion and kindness, can make a person feel a sense of belonging. Becoming part of a community has made them dare to believe in a better future, to think that it is possible for many of them to change, to grow, and most importantly, to have a second chance to start their lives anew.