A Jakarta nun's need to help the needy

A Jakarta nun's need to help the needy
Ursuline Sister Irene Handayani (second left) often joins human rights abuse victims in silent protest every Thursday across from the presidential palace in Jakarta. (Photo supplied)

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For more than two decades Ursuline Sister Irene Handayani has remained resolute in her commitment to helping victims of injustice in Muslim majority Indonesia.

Her call to help them stems from her deep relationship with the people she meets, particularly the voiceless and the marginalized in society.

Born in Madiun, East Java, on May 28, 1955, Sister Handayani has made social injustice issues part of her journey as a professed religious woman. 

Even before she joined a religious congregation she had shown high regard for the poor — a trait she inherited from her parents who had taught their children to always reach out to neighbors in need.

The ninth of 12 children, she was later inspired by Ursuline nuns whom she witnessed caring for the marginalized and poor in her village.

She decided to join the congregation in 1980 as a novice and eight years later she professed her perpetual vows.

The nun became an educator and was appointed principal of St Theresia and St Vincent high schools in Jakarta. But the academic world did not keep her from her passion to help the needy.

“We must help the voiceless and people who face injustice in our society,” she says.

She left the academic world in the 1990s to fully devote herself to the marginalized. 

Now she heads the Jakarta chapter of Talitha Kum, an international group of Catholic women run by female religious congregations that helps anyone regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

Seeing the "suffering Jesus" 

When thousands of students took to the streets during anti-Suharto protests in Jakarta in 1998, Sister Handayani helped them by distributing food and medical supplies, together with young Catholics.

She says she was touched by their struggle against injustice in society and wanted to be part of it by opening a kitchen to provide food for them.

Sister Handayani says she sees a similarity between the goals of the students and those of Jesus during his time on earth.

“The students not only brought Suharto down but have transformed society like what Jesus did,” the nun says.

She knew the situation at that time was very dangerous because several students were shot dead by the military, but she conquered her fears to help them.

For her, the students were victims of an unjust regime and became the voice of the voiceless in fighting against massive corruption and nepotism that was harming the nation.

The nun still pays homage to the students killed during the uprising by occasionally joining their families in silent protest held every Thursday outside the presidential palace, together with victims of other human rights abuses.

She also participates in various protests with other activists to fight injustice and human trafficking.

Care for migrant workers

Sister Handayani says Pope Francis’ message is clear — to encourage all people to do something for migrant workers who endure injustice, human trafficking, and slavery. 

To her, human trafficking is a crime against humanity that must be eradicated.

“Humans are created in God's image, so they are not a commodity to be sold and abused,” Sister Handayani says.

She has called on the Church to be present and stand up against the trafficking of persons and to help the victims of such inhumane practice.

"Migrant workers are prone to being ill-treated and trafficked because they don’t have a good education, skills, language, and access to legal aid," says the nun who is also chairwoman of the Jakarta Archdiocese Migrant Care Network.

She says to crack down on trafficking networks it is essential for parents, government, NGOs, and religious leaders to cooperate.

Through Talitha Kum, the nun has organized awareness campaigns against human trafficking among young Catholics, parents, other nuns, pastoral workers and in schools.

She also provides spiritual accompaniment for migrant workers staying at a shelter in Jakarta run by the Social Affairs Ministry.

“Ministry officials always contact me to look after migrant workers who return from being trafficked overseas,” she says, adding that every month, more than 20 such victims are taken in by the center.

 Church support 

The nun’s commitment to serving people is well-recognized by the Indonesian Church, including Jakarta Archdiocese which asked her to join its justice and peace commission.

Despite obstacles in her work — limited time, too many victims, and financial constraints — she never tires of helping victims “particularly women and children subjected to violence.”

Gabriel Goa Sola, director of the Church-affiliated Advocacy Service for Justice and Peace in Indonesia (Padma), a group that often helps the nun, says he is proud of Sister Handayani, who is “always vocal against injustice.” 

“Despite her age, she remains very active. She goes from place to place by train or other forms of public transport. For her, it is not an issue as long as she can reach out to victims,” Sola told UCA News. 

The nun often contacts him whenever she needs legal assistance in dealing with people who are victims of injustice.

“With her getting older now, I hope one day another sister from her congregation will continue her work,” he says.

Jesuit Father Ignatius Ismartono, an adviser to the Jakarta-based Sahabat Insan, a charitable group dealing with issues faced by Indonesian migrant workers, says Sister Handayani is a shepherd who has the heart of abuse victims. 

“I am glad Sister Irene is present among us. She builds a caring community for victims of human trafficking, refugees, and migrant workers,” he told UCA News. 

He hopes the nun’s unrivaled commitment will inspire more people from all walks of life — particularly Catholics — to do the same for Indonesia’s forgotten ones.