Changing the World, One Friendship at a Time
Getting Singaporean youth to interview, befriend and write stories of migrant workers for a book project is just one in an array of relationship-building activities by social enterprise Air Amber to build a better world.
PHOTOS WONG SHER MAINE
ILLUSTRATION SPH LIBRARY
an Shi Ying is 17 and Khoi Khoi is 19. Like most teenagers, they keep in regular Whatsapp contact, taking selfies and sending them to each other. They confide in each other about their dreams and the challenges they face in life.
Tan is a junior college student at Hwa Chong Institution (an independent school for secondary and pre-university students) in Singapore, and Khoi is a foreign domestic worker who was abused by her employer and is now back in Myanmar. The pair first met in April through a book project which features the stories of migrant workers in Singapore. At the time, Khoi was under the care of non-governmental organisation Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) while waiting for the resolution of her case.
Singapore-based social enterprise Air Amber, the book’spublisher, wanted to use the project to build friendships between Singaporean youth and migrant workers. Air Amber was formed in 2008 to involve youth in community projects. Its founders were inspired to fight human trafficking after a visit to slum brothels in India’s Kolkata that year.
In the years since, Air Amber has evolved into a range of projects, local and abroad, which are linked by the aim of building meaningful relationships, not just with foreign domestic workers. Its founders believe that this will reduce apathy and empower marginalised communities around the world.
“To me, she is not a foreign worker. She is a friend. There is a voice and a story behind every worker, and I have learnt to see past the labels that society places on them.”
Tan Shi Ying, Air Amber volunteer
Tan, who became aware of and decided to champion the plight of migrant workers after she worked on a school project at the age of 15, signed up to interview the workers and write their stories. Two of her stories, one on Khoi and the other on another foreign domestic worker, will appear in the book titled The Invisible Visible – Conversations Inspiring Hope. All sales proceeds will be donated to groups helping migrant workers here.
“To me, she is not a foreign worker. She is a friend. There is a voice and a story behind every worker, and I have learnt to see past the labels that society places on them,” says Tan, who got to know Khoi better during Air Amber’s weekly networking sessions between migrant workers and local youth, called Bumbong Sunsets. The two even made plans to go cycling together and for Khoi to visit Tan at home. Unfortunately, the plans did not materialise owing to concerns about Khoi’s safety.
Tan remembers the initial awkwardness of meeting someone new as well as the sense of cultural disconnect.
“The wrap around the arms, the little squeeze, the hugs – they all felt too close for comfort the first time we met,” says Tan. “But I later realised these are marks of solidarity, a reassurance of support.” She adds that the friendship was slowly built up, as shyness gave way to familiarity and curiosity after a week or two. Tan adds that she was struck by Khoi’s strength, despite suffering abuse from her employer. “Despite the mistreatment, her capacity to let go and let be stirred in me emotions I couldn’t really make sense of. She remained joyful and full of gratitude for the opportunities she had been given. She taught me what it means to seize moments and to laugh,” says Tan.
The Bumbong Sunsets sessions are held on Saturday afternoons at the home of Air Amber cofounder Suraj Upadiah. In the cosy semi-detached house in Jalan Bumbong in Woodlands, music plays from a boom box as the migrant workers – mostly foreign domestic workers clad in the red T-shirts of HOME – and young Singaporeans participate in games. There is much laughter as they try to assemble towers from marshmallows and satay sticks, or just dance to music.
During breaks, they sip drinks and enjoy nibbles while chatting on the outdoor patio, or they head off to the nearby park for sports in the last light of the evening sun.
Some of the youth there are regulars like Tan and her school mate, Yap Kai Xing. Yap, 17, wanted to get to know migrant workers personally as she realised in the course of a school project that some Singaporeans had negative perceptions of them. In the course of her interaction with the migrant workers, Yap was surprised by how warm and open they are in sharing their life stories, compared to Singaporeans who tend to be more reserved.
One of the migrant workers Yap has befriended is Filipina Fe Angela Callueng, who loves dancing and has put up hip-hop performances during Bumbong Sunsets sessions. Says Callueng, 26: “My notion of Singaporeans was that they are cold and unfriendly. But through Bumbong Sunsets, I realise that they are very friendly, and they help us to de-stress and have some fun. They also provide a listening ear. It helps us a lot.”
The book and the Bumbong Sunsets sessions are part of Air Amber’s programmes to build relationships sustainably over time. “When you regard someone as a friend rather than someone who is needy, the call is different. There is a sense of ownership and that is when people will contribute actively,” says Air Amber co-founder and chief operations officer Shahril Hassan.
For instance, when the group organised an event at Raffles Place in downtown Singapore to get the public to donate ez-link cards (contactless stored value cards used on public transport in Singapore) to foreign domestic workers, one of the Bumbong Sunsets regulars managed to persuade 40 of his rugby teammates from St Andrew’s Secondary School to help out in the donation drive.
Outside of Singapore, the group is currently working with a home in Nepal, which rescues children born to women in jail. The Air Amber team had come across a documentary called Waiting for Mamu, which featured Nepalese social worker Pushpa Basnet and highlighted the plight of children growing up in prison alongside their incarcerated mothers. The team then took the initiative to link up with her. The children will come up with the content for a book about their life experiences, which Air Amber will market, with a large part of the proceeds going back to the home. When asked to describe Air Amber’s driving mission, Nawaljeet Rayar, its project manager, says succinctly: “Bigger hearts, smaller world.”
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