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

An Unlikely Friendship


Li Zheng Yuan

“Thank you for hosting us,” Paul says, his eyes sparkling expectantly. It was a sentence taught to him by a teacher from the United World College, during a joint outreach program between the school and HealthServe. He says that to everyone now, at every opportunity he gets. Paul, or Li Zheng Yuan, is the first and only PRC migrant worker I know here who has adopted an English name. Amiable and chatty, Paul takes immense pride in his pursuit of learning the English language while he patiently waits for his work injury compensation case to be resolved. He has been stuck in this limbo for over 7 months now. In these long and turbulent months, Paul has been pinballed around many different agencies, tirelessly navigating the complex foreign labour legal system in Singapore in an attempt to get the injury compensation and owed salary he rightfully deserves.


“I have come to terms with the fact that I may not get the full amount (that he is legally entitled to). But seeing all the things that HealthServe has done for me, and all the little kinds acts that strangers on the street have offered, I cannot ask for more.”

Although he is in the process of learning English, our conversations are primarily in Mandarin, a language we both share. Today, Paul is a veneer of optimism. He talks to us endlessly about his many stories of kind strangers he meets on the street, and everything else under the sun. These tales are often supplemented by photos he took, ranging from the fireworks on New Year’s Eve to a hotpot dinner with his friends. He is a social butterfly. Occasionally, when the conversation leads back to the worksite accident that crushed his fingers, he grows wistful. His injury, likely to be a permanent one, has put him out of work, rendering him unable to draw an income for his family back home. The medical leave wages he claims under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) may be sufficient for now, but in the long term, his injury is likely to impede him in employment. Yet, with what little he has, he gives back to the  people who have helped him.

“Don’t spend your money on all these things!” – something we often hear in our Geylang Centre. Once, it was pots of red flowers adorning the corridor. Another time, an entire decorated Christmas tree for the office. With what little Paul can afford to splurge, it is never for himself. We tell him to save the money for himself, not to spend it on unnecessary things for us at the office. But a part of me understands where he is coming from. When someone throws us a lifeline while we are drowning, we would want to show our gratitude in whatever way we can.


Amidst the hubbub of the kitchen during our Desker Centre Christmas party, an Indian national, quietly hard at work, helps to dish out and serve the meal portions to his fellow compatriots. At first glance, one might think that he is a staff of the restaurant. However, Karuna had voluntarily taken up the role, eager to give back to the organization that had helped him at his lowest point in life. On June 2017, Karuna’s life took a downward spiral when a panel from the water tank he was constructing fell on his leg, fracturing it. Ever since then, it has been a whirlwind of hospital trips, disputes with his employer, and a short bout of homelessness before he came to HealthServe. Now residing in our Desker shelter, Karuna mills around the Centre in the day, helping out with daily chores and cooking for the Desker food project every week, while he waits for his case to be resolved.


Often at the office, Karuna is all smiles and loves chatting with the caseworkers. Sometimes the conversation revolves around his case and worries, sometimes it’s about the mundane. He has an easy-going air to him, maintaining his affability despite the pressure that he faces.

“你是来之哪一个国家?(which country are you from?)”Karuna enquires, to every Chinese migrant worker or HealthServe staff as he goes about during the day. This, along with “你有几个孩子?(how many kids do you have?)” and “我来之印度 (I am from India)”are some of his favourite phrases, as he diligently learns the Chinese language. Why? One might ask. It is for the simple reason of bringing joy to people. When he speaks in Mandarin to the people around him, it never fails to bring a smile to their faces. And that is what keeps him going.

Joel, a fellow intern of mine, once shared a story of when he accompanied Karuna to an appointment at the Ministry of Manpower. Waiting outside the consultation rooms, quiet introspection had replaced Karuna’s usual cheerful outlook. Perhaps past bad experiences here had aroused feelings of anxiety and desolation. But as he encountered another Chinese migrant worker at the waiting room, he struck up a conversation with him. A few simple exchanges in Mandarin later, the Chinese migrant worker left. But Karuna’s mood had lifted considerably. A simple connection can be powerful. Just a little human touch.

An Unlikely Friendship

A PRC migrant worker with a passion for learning English. An Indian construction worker looking to add the Chinese language to his repertoire. It only seemed to be a matter of time before their paths would cross. It did.

At the Geylang food program, Paul and I were settling the registrations. He receives a video call. It is Karuna. He rejects the call, wary of the mobile data charges that will be incurred.

“Later”, he tells me. “Back when there’s WiFi”

He tells me about their rather unique and unusual friendship. They met during one of the free Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) sessions run by volunteer practitioners at our Geylang Centre. Karuna, eager to practice his Mandarin, exchanged some simple lines of conversation with Paul. They would later continue bumping into each other occasionally, either at the church they both attend, or at the weekly TCM sessions. Each encounter would be one with beaming smiles and excited ‘hellos’ from both parties, a picture of a pure and simple friendship. They would then eagerly practice what they have learnt in English and Mandarin, respectively, on each other, and their pride at each other’s progress is always palpable.

“I love your wife,” Paul cheekily says to Karuna over the phone. This inside joke shared by the two buddies stems from a failed attempt to teach each other how to say “I love you, my wife” to their own spouses over the phone.

And thus, Paul and Karuna’s story is one that redefines friendship for me – how two migrant workers; an Indian national and a PRC, are able to become such good friends in spite of their differences. Friendship doesn’t have to be about long conversations over coffee, or exchanging deep meaningful insights with each other. Simple shared experiences (being a fish out of water in a strange land) and common goals (providing for family, piety, life in limbo) are enough to bring us together. People don’t have to be similar to be friends. Bonds forged from our incongruities are often the strongest, and best.

Story and photos by XiZhe Sim