‘Social work is helping people help themselves’
Losing his father at 15, Mr Fareez Mohamed Fahmy's family went through a rough patch and had to live in a one-room rental flat.
But that did not stop him from winning the Promising Social Worker Award, becoming the poster boy for social workers and heading a family service centre.
The 34-year-old, who is married with a son, is head of Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre's (AMKFSC) Cheng San branch.
Growing up in rental flats around Toa Payoh Lorong 5, which Mr Fareez described as a "scary" neighbourhood, as fights would break out at the void decks.
During national service, seeing the problems of an army mate cemented his resolve to become a social worker.
The man was 19, but had a wife and sick father to support, all on his NS salary.
"If we were to lend him a listening ear (he would talk), but it didn't solve his problems. (It's) about how to go about getting assistance and where to go," he said.
"Social work isn't just about talk therapy but rather, about helping someone to help themselves," he added.
After graduating from the National University of Singapore in 2006, he joined AMKFSC Community Services.
But changing the world isn't just about pulling people out of bad situations, he learnt.
"When I wanted to become a social worker, (I thought I could) be like a superhero, but as I've progressed I've become an enabler," said Mr Fareez.
He won the Promising Social Worker Award in 2011 for his work in helping integrate former inmates back into society. The yearly awards are given out by the Singapore Association of Social Workers.
In 2012, he was among social workers highlighted in a campaign by the then Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports to promote social work as a career.
Mr Fareez recalled one of the first few cases he handled, where a man was about to be evicted from his home, and social workers were trying to find him a place to live.
They eventually managed to have a family member take him in, but it was so last minute that Mr Fareez was involved in helping him carry boxes as he moved out.
"I was thinking that this person needs total help and I came in trying to take over (doing everything) for him. But I realised that as social workers we need to take a step back, sit down with our clients and ask where they want to go," he said.
Much of what social workers do is not just helping people get back on their feet, but also assisting them to walk again.
"But we must remember to be respectful even when helping people instead of just telling them what to do," he said, using the example of a monkey who scooped a fish out of a flood thinking that it was going to drown.
When he first started, he would think that since he could overcome adversity, his clients should be able to as well.
"Those thoughts are dangerous, because they blind us to our clients' problems," he added.
Asked about how the profile of those who need help has changed over the years, Mr Fareez said cases are now more complex, and many are transnational.
He added that the public should also step forward whenever they hear cases of family violence, or are victims.
"Sometimes I also work with grassroot leaders who come in to engage the family, so at least (for the family), it's a familiar face," he said.
But these days as the Centre Head, much of his time is spent in meetings and running various courses, though he still works with junior staff on more difficult cases.
Social worker Nor Salha Mohamad, 32, is one of those he supervises. The social worker with six years' experience has been working with Mr Fareez since 2013.
She recalled a case where a child had landed in hospital because of alleged abuse, but the parents were upset with Ms Salha for intervening.
"Fortunately, (Mr Fareez) came in and managed to calm down the parents. He also calmed me down, which helped de-escalate the situation."
Told about the high regard his team has for him, Mr Fareez said: "My team is what keeps me going because we do our work on the shoulders of others."
But we must remember to be respectful even when helping people instead of just telling them what to do.
- Social worker Fareez Mohamed Fahmy.
CLIENT TURNED VOLUNTEER
As a new social worker, Mr Fareez handled a case involving a man who was rumoured to have mental issues because he would loiter around the neighbourhood begging for money, even going to the Residents' Committee and Community Clubs.
Most residents felt he should be institutionalised.
"I managed to engage this person, with some trepidation after being influenced by the stories I heard about him," Mr Fareez said.
Curious about his past, he dug deeper and found out that the man just wanted to be useful and wanted to safeguard and protect residents.
Social workers managed to get him on board as a volunteer for one of their programmes.
Then one day about two years in, he got upset with social workers, saying that they cheated him.
It turned out that he had found work as a security guard and was surprised at how much more he was being paid for his work.
"In a case like this, when clients get angry with us, it's for a good thing," said Mr Fareez with a smile.
When Mr Fareez was told about a woman living at a void deck, he searched around the neighbourhood for her.
After many searches, he found the 60-year-old and learnt that she was estranged from her family, with no one to turn to, and had been homeless for six months.
But it took some time to earn her trust before she was willing to tell him the full story.
Mr Fareez managed to secure a place for her in an elderly home.
To help her with moving into a new environment, he even visited nearly every other day until she was settled in.