HIV doesn’t define me, says ex-flight attendant

Tareq Nassri.

KUALA LUMPUR: You’ll be surprised to meet Tareq Nassri if you think everyone living with HIV/AIDS looks like the emaciated, raggedy and ghostly figures seen on posters warning of the ailment.

Tareq, who was diagnosed with the condition six years ago, looked like any other healthy person in his mid-thirties and seemed filled with a cheerful spirit when FMT interviewed him recently.

He is an assistant manager at a bar and is working towards setting up a facility to help people who need a support system but have no place to turn to. He said people with AIDS could live a full life if they had enough support.

But his own journey to self-actualisation has been long and it came with the heavy price of mental and emotional breakdowns, discrimination as well as rejection from those closest to him.

According to him, discrimination is still widespread. For example, he once witnessed the ritual ablution of a HIV-positive person who had died and noticed that bleach was used on the body. “I wondered: can Clorox kill the virus? Can we drink it as a cure?”

Because his employer was supportive, life was fine enough for some months after the diagnosis, except for an initial stressful period during which he took blood tests and began a medical regimen.

Tareq was a flight attendant with AirAsiaX. He chose to disclose his condition to the company and was surprised to find an understanding employer. He was told he could continue working with the company and he did resume his duties after the two months of lab tests.

His bosses assured him they would protect him, but he soon realised that the support did not extend across his co-workers.

“During an annual class for first aid, an instructor told us we should always use a mouth cover when doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in case the person has AIDS,” he said.

“The reactions from the other flight attendants were ‘eww, yuck’ and such.”

Not all of his colleagues knew of his condition, but the thought that they could be disgusted by it “made me go into a cave”, he said. “So I decided to resign.”

But the disappointment with his AirAsia colleagues was mild compared to his experience of working in the communications department of a hotel.

The management didn’t allow him to even step into the hotel building, although this condition was later changed to “allowed to come into the hotel but not allowed to eat at the cafeteria due to hygiene reasons”.

But he stuck to the job, determined to prove that “HIV does not define me, that I could still work hard, that I’m not a social discard”.

However, he finally had a breakdown after “seven months of mental torture” and that apparently gave his bosses the excuse to dismiss him on the spot. They could do it because he was a worker on contract.

He began to have suicidal thoughts and tried to numb the pain with drugs.

He recovered after two years, but sank back again into depression when his family reacted angrily to his decision to come out in public about his condition.

He said he was fortunate that he was aware of being on a self-destructive path. In his desperation for healing, he found the Positive Living Community Centre in Batu Arang, Rawang. It’s a private facility run by volunteers who take in male HIV-positive people with nowhere to go.

“There, I managed to regain a healthy state of mind,” he added.

Tareq said he wished the government would do more to provide mental health services for people with HIV/AIDS.

“This is severely lacking in this country,” he said.

“When I was diagnosed at the Sungai Buloh Hospital, they didn’t do much. They just gave me medication and sent me off. There wasn’t any effort to find out how I contracted HIV.

“I think more could be improved in this area.”

He told FMT he had made it his goal to show other HIV-positive people that life after diagnosis does not have to be gloomy. “That is all I’m focused on doing now. I just want tell everyone that they can live life to the fullest.”