Migrant Feature

In light of the recent stories Jia Qi and I wrote, we wanted to work on something more light-hearted. These stories/captions focus on our migrant brothers' everyday lives and deviate a little from the heavier topics we usually shed light on.

In line with our objective, we designed pictures of 5 migrant workers that draw some inspiration from pop-art to carry a quirky and light-hearted tone. We hope the short and simple sharings paired with the pictures will bring another dimension - one that is jovial - to our understanding of migrants’ lives, and we see them as more than only dull or sombre people.

Li Yin Bing

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If you could learn something now, what would you like to learn?

I want to learn how to produce blueprints for buildings. I did that from scratch to build my own home back in China, but it was an amateur one. I also want to learn more about healthy living so I can a live long, simple comfortable and happy life with my wife when I go back home.

What sets you apart?

I’m a 15-time DouDiZhu (Chinese card game with some resemblance to “Big 2”) champion! I’ve emerged champion amongst 450 people. (We laughed with him afterwards, realising that he was “champion” inside a DouDiZhu mobile game, not one in real life as we were led to believe.)


Zhang Sheng Xian

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What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I used to be active in sports. I like playing basketball and I even ran for many sport events and it made me happy to win with my team. I also love it when the migrant brothers are together in a room, it makes things lively, like a family. I’m happy simply being around people.

If there was one thing you can change about life back home, what would that be?

Poverty is something prevalent where I live, especially when I was young. I wish there was something that can be done to bring these people better lives and not struggle to survive each day.


Li Hui Xin

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What were you like as a kid? Did you have any aspirations?

I was the most mischievous kid ever! (We can still see a little bit of that now!) I stopped studying in Primary 3 - it’s something I regret. I wasn’t a very forward-looking boy, so I didn’t really have an aspiration but I remember wanting to be a dad,  to have a happy family.

What were some odd or special encounters you had in Singapore?

Odd encounters? My work injury. (The reason he came to HealthServe.) Isn’t it? How odd that I got injured after 20 years of being absolutely fine working here, haha. Jokes aside, I think it is interesting how there are so many religious institutions in Singapore! So many Churches and temples, and they even be found side by side. It’s amazing to me.


Liu Kun

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What were your aspirations as a kid?

When I was a kid, I  wanted to open a departmental stall. You know, those that sell everything? I always imagined being the big boss there.

What are some of your favourite foods?

When I first came to Singapore, I didn’t think much of the food in here. But when I really tried it, wow. It’s really not bad! My favourite would be Wu Ji Popiah. Next up is noodle salad and curry chicken! Wow curry chicken is so good, especially when you dip the soft prata in the tasty curry. I really do enjoy Singaporean delicacies, laksa and all. We don’t really have food like this in China.


Zhang Jian Chuan

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Share something special about you with us.

I was an aspiring entrepreneur in primary school. I went out selling red dates on a stick to people at the movies. My mum saw it and said, “You mean you can earn money with this?” Primary school me basically got the whole family on the bandwagon, slotting dates into sticks. Besides dates, I picked leaves (His equivalent of pandan leaves) whenever I saw them, and sold it to people.

What do you do in your free time?

I play cards. (I’ve watched him play. With a mandatory ferocity, Chinese style, slamming the cards onto the table with each poker hand.)

What about the drama series you like to watch on your phone?

Oh yes I do that too, haha. (Once we saw him at episode of his drama and were bewildered to see him at a much later episode on the day right after!)

By: Kaitlyn and Jia Qi, Volunteer Development Interns

Home Away from Home

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If I had to nominate somebody as testament to how many Bangladeshis live more exciting lives than Singaporeans, that somebody would be M. His stories -that are best left undisclosed- are sometimes so absurd that the only way I know to react is to laugh, and then feel bad for laughing. He tells me about his second-hand BMW he had to sell, and the apparel business that he had to shut down because his brother got into serious debt. He then claims that he will go back to set it up again. He also tells me about how his chicken farm at home has no more chickens because of the weather, and then tells me that they will be rearing other animals instead. He may have lost it all, but in his recounts, I also see how he still has enough hope, ambition and desire to build things up once more.

Beyond his tendency to make light of his situations, I could tell he has been and is going through a lot. M fell from a ladder at work in 2017 and hurt his back; he was then rushed into a 12-hour operation within 2 days. I can still conjure up the image of the X-ray scan of his back with a few screws in place. Besides his work injury, he also has salary owed to him by a runaway boss. M’s case has been particularly difficult, and he has spent the last six months just waiting to begin his case proceedings. “Waiting” is a word that characterises many of the injured workers’ experiences. In that word lies uncertainty, frustration, and agony- emotional stressors that we hope to relieve when they come to Healthserve. For personal reasons, M is unable to return to Bangladesh and he barely contacts his family back home now. It angers him that his family takes for granted his hard work to earn the money he sends back and that they do not consider his wishes when decisions back home are made for him. Yet even for things like these, there is a happy-go-lucky quality to his tone that makes these slightly easier to take in.

At Healthserve, M is more like staff than beneficiary. He cooks for the Desker Food Project on Wednesdays (his chicken curry is heavenly), offers to call up a migrant brother when we need help and even directs them to the office or explains in Bengali to a brother whatever it is that they do not understand in English. The first few times I was tasked to facilitate the Food Project alone at Desker, M would be the one who followed me down to the food vendors. It relieves me because he is like a pillar of support. Whenever I am with the migrant brothers, I expect myself to be of help (in what little or indirect ways I can) for them. Yet I often find myself being caught in the irony of being helped instead. Likewise, this is how M makes me feel; odd that how it is the foreigner who makes me feel at home.

Home away from home – I would like to think that this is what HealthServe is to M. Staying at the shelter lifts much of the weight off M’s shoulders as he does not have to worry about rent, especially since he is unable to draw a salary in this period of time. I believe that relieves a lot of his emotional distress. M receives some social assistance for his parents, wife and daughter he has to provide for.

More than that, I’ve witnessed how the shelter is more than a place of mere residence for M. His cheeky disposition has become part of the dynamic at the Little India office, so much so that sometimes my day just doesn’t feel as right when I don’t see him peer into the office area. M has great rapport with the staff, interns and volunteers and I believe we all find him endearing. The relationships he has in Healthserve have built him up, bringing joy and hope to his discouraging situation. Being able to contribute and help out at the shelter and office gives M a role and a sense of belonging. He is valued as a part of Healthserve. I hope this is enough to make him feel his waiting time is not wasted time.

By: Kaitlyn Tay, HealthServe Volunteer Development Intern

The Calm After the Storm

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Y is a migrant worker in Singapore and also a university graduate who tried to start his own enterprise in the last year of his university back home. He came to Singapore at the age of 21 and in fact, he is more alike than different from us. It heightened my awareness that migrant workers really come from all walks of life, and he knows that too. He told us about the different people who have resided in the shelter and their different traits. It stressed how migrants are humans and humans are different. There isn’t a protocol as to how we can help them, but only by knowing them on a relational and personal level, meeting their needs there.

Y injured his back at work 2 years ago. He has been through different doctors, check-ups, MRI scans, X-Rays, physiotherapy sessions and an operation. An injury is never just an injury. Y recounted his feelings of distress, anxiety, and depression. Simple tasks, like a bus ride, would shroud him with anxiety as each jerk of the transport can send radiating waves of pain up his injured spine. The injury immobilised him with fear. When he lived in his shared apartment, seeing his flatmates go to work made him feel dejected. Y came to Singapore with the intention of working, and his injury obstructed him from fulfilling such a purpose in Singapore. Purpose gives life and the lack of it retracts life from us. “When I saw others go to work, it felt as if they were normal and I wasn’t”.

To think that when we go through something like this, the first thing we want to do is run to someone for support, but Y had none of that. Whilst he was in Singapore, Y found out that his mother was ill, with kidney and heart failures. Even until today, he has kept his injury from his mother at home. Being at HeathServe alleviates much of that loneliness as he finds a common language with the brothers there: injury. Sometimes empathy simply demands experience.  “It is way different from when I used to live in my apartment where they may not understand your situation and give insensitive remarks. The shelter is an encouraging place; we understand and help each other because we are going through the same thing”.  The brothers there offer him little acts of service with huge impact, they helped him buy food and pour him a glass of water when his back hurt too much to do so. Hearing all these, I realised that “shelter” isn’t just a synonym for “residence” but it has truly lived up to its definition for Y. It is his Safehouse.

When Y was feeling tangled and in a rut, coming to HealthServe not only offered him emotional relief but practical help too. “I don’t know where I would be without HealthServe”. Y was not able to pay for his operation so he decided to go back to work despite his excruciating back pain. He even considered not going for the operation at all. Offering Y a place to stay was to give him a peace of mind in an area of uncertainty. Y stated how trapped he felt as he would have had to return to China if it wasn’t for the shelter, yet he could not return home because he could not afford to be an additional burden with his mother ill at home. HealthServe also provided him with connections that allowed him to have his operation for free and an additional $22 000 funding from church members. It showed me how HealthServe has done what it set out to do- meeting the needs down to the individual level.

Y’s story is not just one of struggle but one of uplift. The calm after the storm.  “How do you feel now?” “At peace, everything happens for a reason.” To be able to let go is a victory in itself. He gleefully added, “If I can, I would even like to be a volunteer here”. I saw how he emerged through his experience not defeated, but empowered enough to want to help others.

By: Kaitlyn Tay, HealthServe Volunteer Development Intern


Lost and Found

Our longest staying Chinese migrant worker, T, has finally gone home after staying in Singapore for the past 5 years. I was privileged to be part of his last few days in Singapore as he shared his story with me.

T came to Singapore to work back in 2013. However, due to a workplace injury which caused him to be blind in one eye, he was unable to work since October 2014. Because T was not insured, his employer was unable to pay up when the Ministry of Manpower issued a labour court order of $93,000 in September 2015, and the amount subsequently accumulated to $122,836.48. Although his employer could be fined up to $10,000 or jailed up to a year, or both, the consequence that T’s employer could face will hardly improve T’s situation as he still would not be paid for the amount owed to him. Outside of his workplace injury, he has also met with two car accidents, which caused him to be crippled for the rest of his life. Because of his injuries, he had not been working and was unable to bear the medical expenses for future treatments.

While conversing with T, I understood the distress that he was in because he was unable to share the financial burden with his son due to his injury. His son not only has to provide for T, T’s mother and wife, but also provide for his family of three as well. As I listened to him, I felt indignant that he has to go through such a difficult phase in life, because it never occurred to me that such a situation could happen to someone, and the emotional distress that he experienced was something that I would probably be unable to comprehend. His family was also facing a crisis from 2015 as he recounted that his house was destroyed during a flash flood in his hometown. He told us that his family has since then been staying with his sister, and I could sense that he would not want to rely on his sister if not for his injury and his inability to earn money. While staying in Singapore for the past 5 years, T has not met his granddaughter, who is now 5 years old. And what made me more emotional is that he has kept his situation a secret from his aged mother because he did not want her to worry about him. At that point, I could feel his love for his mother and that he was a really filial son despite the difficult situation he was in. Things took a turn for the worse when his mother became critically ill and T not only has to worry about his mother’s health, but also the procedures he has to go through in the event of her possible death.

From what T has explained, the funerals for both parents are done very differently; a father’s funeral would only require the presence of his immediate family and relatives, but a mother’s funeral has to go through a whole new different procedure where all her family members, be it immediate or distant, as well as her friends and acquittances have to be invited to her funeral. As funerals will take place in the course of 4 days, his expenses not only have to include food and beverages that are to be prepared for the visitors, but also their accommodations as they will be coming from different parts of China to see his mother for one last time. All these pose as huge problems to T as he not only has to find a venue to hold the funeral, but also to spend a lump sum of money for the visitors. It hit me how this would not be something Singaporeans have to worry about and I could feel the weight on his shoulders as he spoke with much distress as these problems would hit him when he returns back to China. I sincerely hope that things will eventually work out for him.

Throughout the conversations with T, I saw how resilient he is as a person because despite the numerous setbacks that he faced, he did not complain about life nor did he give up on life, which I think I would have if I were in his shoes. His situation made me realise how lucky we are to be living in Singapore, an island almost free from such natural catastrophes which spares us the possibility of such hurt. Unlike him, I also never really worried about not being paid by my employer for a workplace injury or being unable to afford the medical treatment. His situation made me understand the value of the things that I have as the things I take for granted are much harder to come by for them.

By: Tan Jia Qi, HealthServe Volunteer Development Intern


Some Things are Taught, Most Things are Caught

Ask any staff or intern at HealthServe, and they'd agree that it's very hard to catch J for an interview. Though he's one of our Desker residents, he's always out and about. So when I saw J walk in gingerly, I was both surprised and worried. He looked like he was in pain and it did not sit right with the fit-guy impression I had of him.

I learnt that his work injury was acting up again and his back was in pain. But what hit me was the way he said it- like it did not hurt that much. Yet the way he winced was bad enough that I felt a bit of that pain too. One thing I’ve learned from my internship at HealthServe is that some things are taught, but most things are caught. He did not say it but his movements made it clear that it hurt (probably a lot). I saw how he was not one who whined, or complained. Even before we sat down to talk properly, he was washing the dishes quietly. And for anyone who has had a back injury, it takes grit to complete tasks which are more difficult for one with a stiff and weakened torso. The first thing I caught about J was that there was barely any self-pity for his situation; indeed, he goes around in his life without using his situation as an excuse.

J hurt his back in 2017 when he fell off the stairs; his legs caved in from carrying a 20 kg weight up and down 7 floors thrice. He has been living in our Desker shelter ever since. Because of his injury, he is not able to draw a proper salary- and that worries him because it means his 3 children’s education might have to take a back seat. “School starting soon” he says, but he does not have money to send home.

When I first sat down with J, I expected to hear a flat recount of how he injured his back at work. These expectations were drastically revised when he opened with “last time, first wife, die”. I think after hearing that, any feeling person would at least straighten up from their seats. It turned out that J had grown up near the sea back in India, and also eked out a living there as a fisherman. But if his early days there were idyllic, these halcyon days did little to prepare him for the day when the sea receded far from the shore. The unexpected tsunami wiped out his home, and caused him to lose his wife and baby daughter. That revelation was enough to leave me speechless- but when I probed further, I learnt that there was a list of other family members and relatives that did not survive the catastrophe. Knowing his inclination toward understatements, I had to use my imagination for whatever he did not elaborate on to do justice to what he must have gone through. Yet I could not even fathom how terrible it must have felt to come together with the remnants of one’s family to mourn the mass of departed relatives.

Throughout this sharing, J was somber but collected. In his tone, I could not find the bitterness or anger I expected him to harbour at life or God (if he believed in one).  When something like this happens, how do you get over the disbelief, denial and anger? It was then I realised many of us feel entitled to a good life. Getting peeved and impatient at inconveniences such as glitches in our transport system, or challenges with difficult people at work or in school- all these seemed so inconsequential in comparison to J's ordeals. His quiet resilience moved me; he neither complained nor expected to be given credit for pulling through.

By: Kaitlyn Tay, HealthServe Volunteer Development Intern