Updated: Jun 11
It started with a challenge. “Go to Bangla square and strike up a conversation with a migrant worker and have a conversation with them for 10 minutes, have fun!”
I’m a (borderline) extrovert, but talking to a stranger with all sorts of language barriers with no context of approaching them is pretty uncomfortable. We proceeded anyway and approached two Bangladeshi men. The conversation must have gone well since both S and R wanted to add me on Facebook to stay in touch. I agreed since their sincerity in our random conversation disarmed me.
We continued to stay in touch. One time, we spotted R pushing some construction materials in our estate as he was renovating my neighbour’s apartment in our block! I would often tell them, “Remember, you now have a friend in Singapore. We are your friends. You need help, we come.”
When COVID-19 broke out, we checked on each other more often. One day S told me he was facing difficulties. “No work, no money,” he said. At that time, reports about the increasing number of cases in the migrant worker community were front and centre in the news. S expressed fear of going out and shared about his anxieties. I also learned that while many NGOs were actively supporting the tremendous needs in the dorms, S and R along with many others staying in rental apartments were not aware of the support available.
We felt an urgency to help and to show support. To help ease our friend’s fears, we did a contactless drop-off of grocery items and some cash. They were hesitant to take the cash but agreed when we told them it was for emergencies. We later found out that they had given half of it away to other friends who needed it more urgently than themselves. Over the phone, I linked them up with the (amazing) NGOs who were providing support to all the workers in this plight. A group of my friends and family also entrusted me with their money to support these brothers. Soon we had enough to give some support to the eight brothers staying in the rental apartment.
The more we talked, the more we realised they faced many worries. Not having enough money and provisions for themselves was only the tip of the iceberg. Salaries were unpaid, their families back home were getting behind on paying their rent, and some of their friends were infected too.
“I feeling [physically] ok, but my heart is everyday pain because so many thousands of people are sick.” - S, Migrant Worker in Singapore
We read about terrible things happening all around us. We see it in our backyard, on documentaries, and the issues seem overwhelming. I often feel that as an average person, anything I do seems to barely make a dent in the issue. Looking back, I often remained inactive. Even if I were to help, it would be at an arm’s length. However, with S and R, I realised something in me was reacting differently. What would I do for a friend going through hardship? How would I respond? Would I investigate deeper? Would I offer help in a heartbeat? What is the least I could do to let them know that I am there for them?
Migrant Workers (MWs) have faced many difficulties and injustices while living and working in Singapore even before COVID-19. Various small committed groups of Singaporeans have been working amongst them to better their lives, but for most of us, the public, MWs are at an arms-length. The proverbial “out of sight, out of mind” rings true.
Beyond MWs, many others are usually kept out of sight and out of mind - the elderly, those living in one-room flats, the homeless. We can see that with the MWs, there has been an amazing outpouring of sympathy and generosity toward the MWs at this time. As a whole, Singaporeans have been giving more to charity and volunteering more than before, but can the public be even more involved, and more meaningfully involved.
A run-down area in Bangkok set against a backdrop of a modern building reminds me how people in different communities co-exist in the same geographical space.
(Photo by Karl Groendal on Unsplash )
Beyond advocacy and philanthropy, what roles can members of the public play? I submit that building authentic relationships with people in underprivileged communities will fundamentally shift our perspective and our ability to act. If each of us made one friend, an MW or any other underprivileged person, and cared for them the way we cared for any friend we valued, something fundamental would change. We would better understand their lives and the many layers of challenges that they face. We would have a more nuanced understanding of how to support them – that in some cases, financial support may be necessary, but in other cases, it may end up having unforeseen negative effects. Most of all, perhaps we would no longer see a group separate from ourselves. Instead, we may be more in touch with our common humanity as we begin to see each other as friends.
The nature of our volunteering would change. It would not simply revolve around activities (especially one-off activities), but it would revolve around the cultivation of friendship, and the desire to see a friend flourish and succeed. We don’t want to throw out the need for running activities within communities, but in building relationships we would get to know the deeper needs faced by the communities and be more targeted in our approach.
In these relationships, we will also desire to speak up and defend the interests of our friends. Advocacy would not be the burden of a vocal minority, but the privilege of the public at large. The public would be able to speak meaningfully about policy decisions, government support programs, business ethics, and other blind spots of society as we start to understand the gaps in the system in place.
With relationships, we would be able to offer more meaningful support. A friendship can meet the deepest needs of the human soul – to be known and understood. We would have eyes for those in unique situations that slip through the cracks of any system. We would have a society that truly cares - not at arms-length, but with a human touch.
Friendship allows us to understand and empathize and direct our efforts to help, but friendship itself satisfies a deep need of the human soul (Photo by HarliMarten on Unsplash)
Would you consider
Reaching out to befriend someone at your next volunteering activity or in your neighbourhood?
Planning and committing to follow up with the friendship
Doing it with your friends or family so that there can be accountability and community support in the whole process