Buildings For A Better Future

A refugee camp in Mae Sot district in northern Thailand.

S-Heltering is a Singapore-based social enterprise that provides sustainable housing solutions to communities displaced by disasters or conflicts, while giving the youth in the Republic a chance to extend the hand of friendship and make a positive difference overseas. BY LOW SHI PING



According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than six million of the world’s refugees spend an average of 17 years in refugee camps in what it calls “protracted refugee situations”. While the camps are meant to be temporary solutions, the actual duration of a refugee’s stay makes them somewhat permanent, even as living conditions are often less than ideal. In addition, displaced people not only have to contend with inadequate housing, they also have to endure severe weather and poor sanitation, as well as human trafficking and violence.

These were some of the issues Alexander Soellei identified when he visited refugee camps in Sudan, Lebanon, northern Thailand and Myanmar while he was working for and volunteering with the international youth movement Scouts between 2002 and 2012. Motivated by these experiences to make a difference, he co-founded S-Heltering with two friends in January last year.


The Singapore-based social enterprise, S-Heltering, helps to rebuild communities and improve the lives of those in need, especially refugees and victims of natural disasters, by providing sustainable housing solutions. It partners local organisations in the communities it works in to do so. Working with local architects and engineers, S-Heltering offers customised modular solutions that can be used for a variety of purposes, from housing and sanitation to community structures, such as schools.

These are pre-manufactured and transported by truck to the site where they are easily assembled (or taken apart). For instance, a family of three can put together their shelter in a day.

The best part is that 95 per cent of each module is made of engineered bamboo sourced from South-east Asia and is 100 per cent recyclable. The remaining five per cent comprises solar panels for the roof.

The structures are designed in accordance with the minimum standards set out by the Sphere Project, a voluntary initiative that brings humanitarian agencies together to improve the quality of humanitarian aid and to enhance the accountability of the humanitarian response. It published a set of humanitarian operation standards that is recognised by the United Nations.


Founded by three likeminded friends: Soellei (above, left) from Austria, Loreta Senkute (right) from Lithuania and Singaporean Muhammad Khair.

The trio met in 2013 through World Scouting, a global organisation that focuses on engaging young people from around the world, and hopes to effect positive change and create a better world in which selffulfilled individuals play a constructive role in society.

“Shelter is a necessity. We are building communities and we are helping Singapore to be a part of the global community. It is really about helping people get back on their feet and start their life again after a disaster.”
S-Heltering co-founder Muhammad Khair




Although only a year old, S-Heltering has begun projects in the Philippines and Cambodia.

The Philippines: It is active in Leyte province, which was hit by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, teaming up with the Leyte Scout council and the City of Palo to start the first stage of a community development project for 15 families.

Cambodia: S-Heltering plans to construct schools for children in villages in the Kandal, Kep and Takeo provinces in the south, following a recommendation from its partner organisation Aide et Action Cambodia, an international nongovernmental organisation. Last September, Soellei and his team visited the capital, Phnom Penh, with three volunteers to test the prototype of S-Heltering’s building solutions. The process helped to ensure that the modules can be assembled and can accommodate people in the environment they are intended for.


Apart from rebuilding communities, attracting and engaging with the youth is another significant part of S-Heltering’s business model.

More specifically, it offers a training programme called Community Service Learning for young people below 35. “The majority of the youth in Singapore don’t have the opportunity to go out in the world and get their hands dirty while making an impactful and meaningful change in the world. That is where we come in,” says Muhammad.

Its Community Service Learning programme covers everything from fundraising and presentation skills to using social media in a meaningful way, as well as disaster management. There is also an expedition phase where participants visit a host community overseas to put into action what they have learnt.

“The programme is about the importance of working together and learning from each other. It is a fun way to learn leadership skills, find out about volunteerism and understand the needs of community development. It allows Singaporeans to extend the hand of friendship, and make a positive difference in overseas communities,” explains Senkute.

Soellei says they are already working with four schools in Singapore to run the programme.

One of the schools visited Cambodia in May to participate in an early childhood care and education project. Partnering with Aide et Action Cambodia, the students from Singapore supported the building of a school and interacted with local schoolchildren by teaching them English and playing games.

S-Heltering hopes to have 120 participants successfully go through its Community Service Learning programme this year. It aims to grow that number by 50 per cent every year, with the aim of sending more than 500 Singaporean youth overseas by 2017.


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