Newsmaker Interview: Margaret S. Oehmke

The president of the American Women’s Association Indonesia on social outreach and helping newcomers acclimatize

By Tellisa Ramadhani
Monday, July 25, 2016

As a sister organization of AmCham Indonesia, the American Women’s Association (AWA) in Indonesia plays an important role for the expat community, and the organization, which was established in the mid-1950s, serves as a sanctuary for American women – especially accompanying spouses -- who are living in Indonesia. These women often need a way to give back to the people in Indonesia in various ways. Not only is AWA a platform for expatriates to get to know one another, members also do charity work and assist local foundations.

The newly appointed President of AWA Indonesia, Margaret S. Oehmke, understands the needs of its members. Following a brainstorming process, she is hoping to make the organization more visible during her presidency and the years to come.

AmCham Indonesia: Tell us about the American Women’s Association in Indonesia?

Margaret S. Oehmke: It is an organization that was started in the 1950s by American women who were living in Indonesia, and who wanted to provide social, educational and cultural opportunities for other expat women. In the old days, it was only Americans but now it has slowly moved to being more international. We still have some of our American roots just for welcoming, friendship and an open invitation to participate. It has expanded a bit more into the social welfare aspect, as the organization has always been involved in giving back to the community.

We have about 70 percent Americans. We are somewhat regulated due to our constitution on that, so every year in October we look at it. We are very welcoming to all nationalities. Membership is in its renewal process now, so we are looking for the current members to get back to us on their renewal and we are also seeking new members. We welcome people who would like to know more about us at the AWA Center in Kemang.

What keeps the organization busy?

Every Monday we have a coffee meeting and we are going to start having speakers. We have newcomer events for those who are new to Jakarta where we bring in relocation companies and personnel, guest speakers, to talk to newcomers about what it is really about living here, how to get around.

A lot of people coming from Western countries have not had the pleasure of having a pembantu [maid], driver, or any type of staff. It is a transition and how do we fit in them into our family? Things we take advantage of here, for newcomers, they are still uncertain on whether they should have a helper. We try to help, work with them and show them the way.

There is a lot going on in Jakarta, so we are trying to find more inroads to give opportunities for our members to see what is happening behind the scenes.

We would like to increase the number of activities that we offer, more opportunities for our members to be involved in our organization, rather than just coming to an event also help plan the event. Other activities are new events that are going to start this year, where our goal is to get something in the calendar pretty much every other week. Whatever the opportunity, one of my goals is to just increase the participation of the membership.

We have a pretty strong social welfare program. We work with some of the orphanages, contribute to education. We are getting ready to put up activity bags next month for children in one of the hospitals where the children just do not have everything. We have been doing this together for a couple of years now, where we give activity bags to the hospitals and distribute them to children in need.

Part of what we do in social welfare is one-off and part of it is regular. For an instance, we contribute regularly to a food program for one of the orphanages whereby members go to nearby grocery stores to buy things they need and take them out to them.

We also have some funding reserved for emergencies. If we have flooding, we usually get called upon to provide for them, so we usually reserve so that we have enough for them. We also call upon our members to go buy rice, diapers, whatever they need and contribute in that way.

AWA also releases publications specifically tailored to cater to the needs of expatriates living in Indonesia. These publications provide useful information on how to get accustomed to Indonesian culture and lifestyle and readers can also get some historical lessons from them.

As the new president, how do you see your organization going forward?

One aspect of the organization that I would like to see enhanced is that we become more visible in the American community in Jakarta – more activities with AmCham and closer ties with the embassy. We are trying to do more events this year at the American Club. If we can get more involved, especially with AmCham, we can spread our wings a little bit in the community. Right now, we depend on people trying to find and come to us. I am really hoping that we can do more joint events with AmCham.

One of my goals this year is to really go out and find people, to get out to the community and bring people in. That is why we are doing a little rebranding, updating our logo and trying to get a little bit more recognition of our organization in the community.

The oil and gas business decline really has impacted, and we need to find our way around that. As do, I am sure, most of the organizations in Jakarta. It has affected the expat community in Jakarta in general, and we have to find a way around it, and that is what we are doing.

I would not want to make commitments because I have not talked to the people in charge of social welfare, but one of the things I am interested in is that I would like to see us do some mentoring. We are an organization of well-educated and intelligent women – most of us do not have the opportunity to work here in Jakarta. I would really like to see us to be able to share some of that with students in Indonesia who would be going to the US or any western English-speaking countries for university.

Have you laid out any plans or expectations for increasing engagement with AmCham Indonesia and the US Embassy in Jakarta?

We are in very preliminary talks about some items. We are going to team up with AmCham on September 8 for a networking and wine event.

With the embassy, I am hoping to be able to do something together with them as the [US Presidential] election is coming up. When we do a welcome back to members, we hope to invite the embassy so that they can register themselves, and we can understand what sort of services the embassy offers. You might not need it everyday, but when you need it it is good to know that it is there.

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