Breaking out

Syaherah, 12, does well in school despite her family circumstances.

Syahera knows where drug addicts leave syringes in the stairwell at her block.

She also knows which tables between her block and the next are good for studying, and which to avoid because drinkers will later claim their spot.

Syahera is 12 and this is home.

Her family asked that her picture not be used to prevent embarrassment.

On one of the days The New Paper visited her, there were three empty vodka bottles left at the void-deck table where she usually studies.

"I can get distracted, because people throw things down when I'm doing work and I'm scared they will hit me. Sometimes I'm unhappy, sometimes I'm scared," she said.

She's the third generation of a family that has lived in the same one-room flat for the past six years. She lives with her grandparents, uncle and two younger cousins; as well as another uncle occasionally.

Her father lives elsewhere with her future stepmother.

While it's easy to feel sorry for themselves, Syahera's family are banking on her breaking through the poverty cycle.

"They want me to get an education, maybe because they are not educated. I feel proud they have that hope for me," she said.

FOURTH IN CLASS

The Fengshan Primary pupil took her Primary School Leaving Examination last month, and is aiming to qualify for Temasek Secondary School.

She was fourth in class during the preliminary exams, and received an award for perseverance from her school last year.

Mathematics and Malay, her mother tongue, have always been her strongest subjects - she scores As and Bs.

"I'm not stressed," Syahera said of the pressure on her. "My grandparents don't say I must do well for everything. They will say, 'at least you passed'."

She did receive help.

She joined Indian self-help group Sinda for science tuition briefly in February, but stopped as the sessions were in the evenings and returning home alone was unsafe.

She has been harassed by young men who loiter in the estate, some asking her for a lighter.

HOMEWORK, THEN DIAPERS

During the six times TNP visited her Chai Chee flat since September, we saw how her grandparents - cleaning supervisor Subas De Costa, 66, and Madam Surya, 54 - tended to Syahera's four-year-old and six-month-old cousins.

Syahera is also expected to look after her cousins.

"It's like my daily routine. When my grandma changed diapers, I learnt from her. Now I know how to do it, I change it at least once every day." She said she's used to the balancing act of studying and looking after the younger ones.

"Noise is always distracting. I plug in earphones and listen to music, if not I would go crazy trying to study."

When she is at home, the flat's only bed is her study space. At night, to let the others sleep, she goes to the kitchen and studies while standing by the washing machine, leaving a fluorescent bulb on.

On weekends or after school, she likes to head to the library with friends. In between homework, she draws posters she sees and sometimes for her friends' art assignments.

"They say I draw better than them, but my teacher can tell. She knows my style," she said.

Syahera hopes to be an artist, or a photographer. In 2011, she received a Nikon digital camera from the Salvation Army and uses it on special occasions.

DRAWING HOPE

Her hope is simple - she wants to be the first in her family to attend polytechnic.

Her parents were both educated up to Secondary Two; the same with her father's three brothers.

Her father and uncles are shipyard workers. She isn't sure what her birth mother is doing now as they meet only once or twice a year.

Her grandparents are her inspiration and it's for them that she wants to succeed.

"My grandfather is old but works hard, and my grandmother is my role model. She's been taking care of me since I was a baby," she said.

"I feel like I want to make things better for my family, maybe a better house for everyone. And I can be a role model for my cousins. Sometimes, my cousin says she wants to be like me."

Mr De Costa said he's proud of his granddaughter and would like her to study hard, at least up to Secondary Four.

"If she wants to go further, carry on. I can afford it with my CPF money.

"I hope she can go as high as she wants to go."

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