Couple have been fostering children for 13 years
Her four children are grown up, but a play corner with baby rattles remains in the executive flat at Woodlands.
Madam Zawiyah Wee Abdullah, 53, is one of the 254 foster parents registered with the Ministry of Social and Family Development's (MSF) Fostering Scheme. These parents care for 310 children.
In renewing his call for more foster parents last month, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Singsaid that children who grow up in a home environment fare better in life.
Madam Zawiyah and her husband, Mr Ismail Atan, 57, were introduced to the idea of fostering in 2001.
"We used to wonder what happened to abandoned children," said the housewife.
Mr Ismail, a crane operator, added: "When we read about such children in the papers, we really feel sorry for them."
Their own children, then teenagers, supported the couple's decision to become foster parents.
Said Mr Ismail: "It had to be a joint decision, not just between me and my wife, but also my children.
"I'm very lucky to have this lot, they are very cooperative and helpful. My eldest daughter loves children. Even when she sees a kid outside, she will stop to look."
To date, at least 15 children have been looked after by them.
"There were a couple more who stayed with us for a few weeks. I have lost count," said Madam Zawiyah.
Some of the foster children may come with "behavioural problems" and are hard to reach out to, the housewife said.
Ms Fong Wai Mian, the senior assistant director of MSF's Fostering Service, explained: "Children who need out-of-home care often suffer deep anxiety, hurt, loss and grief at very young ages.
"Many are afraid and confused because they have to leave their families and live with strangers in a new environment."
Madam Zawiyah tries to make them feel they are a part of the family. For example, she takes them along on family trips.
Sometimes, jealousy becomes an issue when the foster children and their own children play together.
Mr Ismail cited the example of a group of three "very rebellious" siblings, who were about the same age as his second-youngest daughter and who simply would not listen.
"We finally found out they were acting this way because they were jealous. Whatever we bought for our daughter, they expected to get the same," he said.
He added: "It's like a learning process for us."
Whether it is a child they have looked after for two months or six years, each separation is painful.
Said Madam Zawiyah: "Even though you know that they will go back to their natural parents one day, you can never be prepared enough."
On one hand, they are happy when a child is reunited with his or her natural family. On the other, they have to cut off contact with the child unless the natural parents initiate it.
Mr Ismail chimed in: "There is no way you can tell yourself not to give so much love so it won't hurt so much. It's impossible.
"If everyone is at home, the whole house will be flooded with tears," he said.
The joy of "moulding children" and being around them is what keeps the couple going after 13 years.
Said Madam Zawiyah: "Some children can be trying because of the trauma they have been through and you really can't blame them. Being adults, we have to be patient and slowly mould the children by inculcating them with the right values.
"It is so gratifying when you see these children respond to you and, being kids, they always will."
She added that she had wanted to take a break last year so her youngest daughter, now 13, could concentrate on her PSLE. The girl had been fostered by them for five-and-a-half years before they adopted her in 2008.
But when a call from MSF came six months into their break, Madam Zawiyah immediately said "yes".
"Our home was just strangely quiet," she said with a laugh.
The couple now have a six-month-old boy and an 11-month-old girl in their care.
Said Mr Ismail: "I am turning 58 and can be a grandfather, but I still have a young kid calling me 'Papa'. It makes me feel young."
It is so gratifying when you see these children respond to you and, being kids, they always will.
- Madam Zawiyah, who, with her husband, has fostered at least 15 children in more than 10 years.
ABOUT THE FOSTERING SCHEME
The Fostering Scheme by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) serves as an alternative care arrangement for children in need of a conducive home environment.
"Foster families provide a stable and caring place where they can grow and see hope again," said Ms Fong Wai Mian, the senior assistant director of MSF's Fostering Service.
The criteria to be foster parents are as follows:
- Must be Singapore residents
- Preferably married
- At least 25 years old
- Medically fit to care for children
- Must not be recipients of the Public Assistance Scheme
- Must not depend on the fostering allowance of $936 a month as a main source of income
Those who are interested may call MSF's inquiry line at 6354 8799.