While the pandemic has brought about struggles and discomfort, it has also brought out the best sides of people as we witnessed how Singaporeans showed their support for frontline workers, regardless of background.
One such initiative was the Welcome In My Backyard campaign which rallied people in Singapore to write welcome notes for migrant workers who were moved temporarily into residential estates when there was a serious outbreak in the dormitories, to separate them from the ones who were infected with the virus.
“Welcome in My Backyard” initiative
A play on the term “Not In My Backyard”, volunteers of Welcome In My Backyard, or WIMBY in short, continued their conscientious efforts in caring for migrant workers and integrating them into the community to this day.
One year on, WIMBY has created a variety of initiatives to bridge residents in Singapore with migrant workers such as distributing sponsored bakes for workers to celebrate their birthdays as well as virtual jamming and karaoke sessions.
Celebrating birthdays and singing karaoke together, just like what we typically do with and for our friends right?
Befriending is at the core of WIMBY’s advocacy work. The team provides opportunities for people to interact with migrant workers personally in casual settings - ones which the workers are comfortable with.
With greater awareness raised about migrant workers’ plight, the surge in curiosity and concern can be overwhelming for them.
“I think it's something that a lot of people do see when they do advocacy or when people start getting “woke” about certain things like migrant worker issues, or even racism,” the current campaign lead of WIMBY, Nicole Ooi, said.
“Asking somebody who has constantly faced a lot of negative things to constantly explain why these things bother them can be a very draining experience,” she added, and this is something that WIMBY wants to avoid. “If anything, we prepare our participants and volunteers to hold space if the brothers want to share during our activities. But what’s important is making sure that we are approaching the brothers as equals, and ensuring our activities are a safe space for all.”
Ooi also shared with Mothership, over a Zoom video call, more about WIMBY’s befriending approach and her personal experience as a WIMBY volunteer.
Friendships with “brothers”
Like any new friendship, the getting-to-know-each-other process can be rather awkward at the start.
When Ooi recalled how she first started talking to migrant workers, or “brothers” as she calls them, she admitted that she was glad to have a convenient reason to do so.
“Being part of WIMBY, I had “excuses” to text them about activities, like how you were making a new friend in school, your excuses are like ‘you know this group project ah…’ but that’s just the way we make friends right?”
While liaising with the migrant workers for WIMBY initiatives, volunteers like herself also have casual conversations with them, eventually adding them as friends on social media. They then discover other common interests which keep the friendships going.
“Now, our core team and even our other volunteers have become good friends with different migrant workers so they are really just our friends. We don't even necessarily hang out in a group, we just hang out one on one, or we just text them,” Ooi said.
One of the brothers, Tasrif, whom Ooi is particularly close to enjoys volunteering and drinking bubble tea just like her.
Ooi also showed us a Facebook post written by the founder of a volunteer group called 24asia which consists of migrant workers in Singapore.
Replete with emojis, the Facebook post read: “Let me tell you a secret but don't tell anyone, if I ever get angry or upset with you or someone, just buy this brown sugar bubble tea for me…”
Ooi hopes that through WIMBY’s initiatives, such friendships between Singaporeans and migrant workers can be more prevalent and normalised in the future.
Sense of fulfilment in lending her voice to migrant workers
Besides the friendships forged, being able to take suggestions from brothers and representing them in the way that they want makes the volunteering experience a rewarding one for Ooi.
Ooi shared that when she asked her migrant worker friends for feedback about the discrimination that they faced, they were very considerate in sharing their views.
For example, she once received an impassioned 1000-word long message on WhatsApp from a brother who shared his views about the transport situation that migrant workers face.
When discussing the transport issue, she also heard from some migrant workers that they did not want to take public transport because they felt that they were making other riders uncomfortable as their clothes were dirty after a day of work.
“We've seen cases in the news where you have brothers on the train and then they don't really sit down or they are worried that there will be some problem for them,” said Ooi.
“ I don't think that fear comes from nowhere. There must have been instances where these things have gotten out of hand.”
It was “very upsetting” for Ooi to know that migrant workers were concerned about not causing additional trouble for Singaporeans after a long day of work.
Their long working hours and current movement restrictions also makes it hard for them to meet up, which is why Ooi prioritises her meetings with her brothers to catch up, offering them a listening ear and amplifying their concerns.
When migrant workers are unable to attend panel discussions due to work, Ooi will check in about the relevant issues and help to share their views.
“I think that's the most rewarding thing — knowing that I'm using my voice now as really a way to amplify what they want to say, in a situation where they are not necessarily being heard directly.”
The day when we spoke to Ooi was packed with community engagement and meetings as a representative of WIMBY and she took a day off from work to do so. #respect
Singaporeans contributing to the cause
As Covid-19 threw the spotlight on the welfare of migrant workers, the heightened awareness also empowered more people to do their part in supporting them.
In fact, the support for migrant workers has become a mainstream effort in the past year, Ooi observed.
Ooi was pleasantly surprised when a group of Primary 4 students approached her for advice on conducting an interview with migrant workers at construction sites as they wanted to create a product that could better shield them from the sun.
“They are so adorable,” Ooi said, laughing.
There were also kindergarteners who contributed hand paintings and wrote thank you notes for migrant workers.
More recently, WIMBY also delivered over 2,000 sponsored bakes to migrant workers in dormitories from Singaporeans and bakery partners like Bakery Brera.She also saw a noticeable growth in participation in WIMBY’s initiatives, with bakes sponsored by Singaporeans increasing from 511 to over 2,000. Each baked item also came with a handwritten note, Ooi added.
Ooi also mentioned that the biggest milestone for WIMBY was the first round of “Afternoon Out” where participants interacted with one another in-person and she hopes to be able to do more of such things when Covid-19 situation improves.
Just a smile will make a difference
Besides taking part in WIMBY’s initiatives, Ooi said that making migrant workers feel more welcomed in Singapore can be done through simple acts such as saying “Hello” or offering a smile.
She learnt from migrant workers that it is actually a lot easier for strangers to strike up a conversation back in their home countries.
But that’s not really a thing in Singapore, Ooi mused.
As a result, such cultural differences could have exacerbated the sense of loneliness and isolation that migrant workers feel while working so far from home.
“Even though I know that we also don't do that for each other, that’s something that we can all work on changing together,” Ooi urged.
Top image via WIMBY’s Facebook and courtesy of Nicole Ooi. The writer hopes to be friends with a brother who is interested in wildlife and nature. This article is in support of #SGTogether and is brought to you by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).