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Migrant workers express their feelings and thoughts through art

Volunteers and Tzu Chi youths (known as Tzu Ching) had visited a temporary foreign worker dormitory for an art session with migrant workers. The interaction between the migrant workers and volunteers have brought them closer to each other.


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Madhu Sudan Ghosh from Bangladesh happily displays his patchwork. (Photo by Wong Twee Hee)

"It's nice chatting with you. You make us happy by letting us learn new things, at least we have something to do and we have learned something new and different! I enjoy this session very much!" said Madhu Sudan Ghosh from Bangladesh.

"On this side, you can see the clothing necklines and necklaces; when you flip it over, you see nature with green trees, sun and rainbow... although I can't make the rainbow colourful,” said Madhu with a laugh as he carefully presented the finished product he had sewn for nearly 2 hours.  

On 9 July 2020, 25 healthy migrant workers staying at a temporary dormitory had participated in an art activity which is unfamiliar to them. That was their first encounter with patchwork after being quarantined for 3 months. Some of these workers have recovered from COVID-19 while some are healthy workers who are regularly tested and relocated after COVID-19 started spreading in their dormitory. 

Three weeks ago, more than 400 migrant workers have moved into this seven-story dormitory transformed from a factory. To avoid social interactions between different dormitory groups, these workers must stay within the dormitory area and they can only buy their daily necessities from a small grocery shop located at the first floor.

Although Singapore has slowly lifted its restrictions and resumed most of its economic activities, the day these migrant workers can return to work is still uncertain. Besides daily routines, they can only relieve their boredom and communicate with the outside world using the free Wi-Fi network.

Tzu Chi is no stranger to these migrant workers

Tzu Chi is not new to these migrant workers as Tzu Chi Singapore volunteers had been to this dormitory to pack living supplies and put up Jing Si Aphorism posters at this dormitory when it was still in its final stage of reconstruction.  

On 13 June 2020, 70 volunteers had helped to pack the living supplies provided by the government into around 1,400 living kits for the migrant workers who were about to check in to the dormitory. A letter printed in Chinese, English, Bengali and Tamil was also inserted to each bag as 80% of these migrant workers are made up of Bangladesh and Indian nationalities and a small number of Chinese nationalities.

Jing Si Aphorism posters in four languages were also pasted in the bedrooms. Therefore, Tzu Chi is a familiar name to them because they can scan the QR code on the poster at any time to learn about Tzu Chi.

Although Tzu Chi’s care programme for migrant workers with mild symptoms was launched as early as the end of April this year, our volunteers had not had any direct contact with migrant workers until the “Stay Home Quilt” art project was launched. 

Senior lady volunteers sign up to volunteer in this project  

The “Stay Home Quilt” art project (note) was jointly launched by Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre, community art organization 3 Pumpkins, and local artist Jimmy Ong on 5 June, hoping to invite 550 migrant workers in the dormitory to express their emotions and ease their anxiety through sewing.

After the official launching of the project, Lim Choon Choon, one of the project coordinators, started inviting the public to donate second-hand clothes and called on volunteers to make sewing kits. She had also actively communicated with different temporary dormitory operators with the hope of meeting the migrant workers as soon as possible. However, the process did not come smooth as it involved a lot of liaising with dormitory operators and government agencies due to the need to comply with epidemic prevention measures and migrant workers COVID-19 testing policies. After much communication, Tzu Chi was finally allowed to enter the temporary dormitory one month after the project was initiated.

To make sure that the activity would carry on smoothly on the event day, Lim had gathered the volunteers at Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre the day before the event for a briefing. These volunteers were all ladies over 60 years of age who had not left their house during the Circuit Breaker period. During the circuit breaker period, most Tzu Chi activities were cancelled and elderly belonging to the high-risk group were discouraged to step out of their house during the partial lockdown, therefore, most of these seniors could only stay home and participate in the fabric mask making project.

As preventive measures are slowly lifted, senior citizens aged below 70 immediately seized the opportunity to serve as volunteers. Many have signed up for the project before realizing that it was an art project that isn’t the kind of volunteering activity they are familiar with, because the focus was not on teaching others how to sew but accompanying and listening to migrant workers during an art session.

To help bring them closer to such mode of companionship, Lim had invited an artist to help lead these volunteers to do some of the patchwork for a start.

"We only know that migrant workers have built our HDB flats. We know too little about them. We have never worked with them, so we have to interact and chat with them," said Wang Wen Qing as she did the sewing together with other volunteers while explaining to them the purpose of the project.

SG20200708 GNA WSX 005One of the persons in charge of the “Stay Home Quilt” Art Project, Lim Choon Choon (lady in white top) is explaining the concept of the art project to volunteers. (Photo by Wong Twee Hee)

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On 8 July, local artist, Jimmy Ong guides volunteers to sew while explaining to them the purpose of having the art project. (Photo by Wong Twee Hee)

Sew with love

At noon on the day of the event, 7 volunteers and 3 Tzu Qings who were meeting the migrant workers for the first time were seen wearing face shield, masks and gloves. When the migrant workers slowly arrived at the site, the volunteers began explaining the purpose of the activity to the workers and what they had to do, using a manual printed in four languages.

Although 90% of the participants are South Asian workers who are not very fluent in English, the ice breaking session went well with the help of an interpreter and each person’s body language. After gaining some understanding of each other's ingenuity in sewing, the group carried on discussing about their work as they sew.

In view of the attentiveness displayed by the group of workers in completing their patchwork, the preparation team decided to cancel the session for the second batch of migrant workers to give more time to the current group to complete their work in hand and deepen mutual interaction between them and volunteers.

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Migrant workers learn about the purpose of the art project through the help of an interpreter and a manual. (Photo by Wong Twee Hee)

SG20200709 GNA WSX 070A Chinese national is interacting happily with Tzu Chi volunteers. (Photo by Wong Twee Hee)

Grateful and filled with positivity 

Mahu, a Bangladeshi, who has been working in Singapore for nearly 14 years can speak English with a slight Singaporean accent. During the isolation period, he not only seized the time to exercise, but also invited his roommates to exercise with him.

"If we don't take care of our health, we will not be able to support ourselves,” said Mahu, whom is grateful to the Singapore government for its epidemic prevention efforts. He further said, "A single thank you is not enough to express my gratitude."

Some migrant workers had also expressed their gratitude to the Singapore government through their patchwork. One of them is Karmaker Indrogit who also hails from Bangladesh. Karmaker has been working in Singapore for 12 years and said that he is grateful to the Singapore government for bearing all his expenses during this period of time.

"I like Singapore very much, thanks to the Singapore government for taking care of me," said Karmaker.  

He also thanked the volunteers for chatting with him, "You are very good and sincere, thank you!"

SG20200709 GNA WSX 059The words Karmaker Indrogit is sewing on his fabric are “I love SG”. (Photo by Wong Twee Hee) 

Because we are a family

After two hours of sewing, the workers displayed their finished products neatly on the table. The session that followed the presentation of a heart-warming Tzu Chi sign language song, “One Family”. Some migrant workers were seen swaying and recording the performance as they sat on the chair to listen to the performance. They may not understand the meaning of the lyrics but through each other’s body language, everyone could feel each other’s sincerity.  

After the sewing kits were handed over to the migrant workers, the workers were given the option to keep their patchwork or donate them to the “Stay Home Quilt” Art Project. Most of the migrant eventually decided to donate their patchwork to Tzu Chi to allow artists to sew them into a final patchwork that incorporates the patchwork of local residents. When it came to the time to part with each other, the workers took selfie with their own patchwork and asked for Tzu Chi's contact. Some migrant workers had even expressed their gratitude for Tzu Chi on their Facebook page and assisted the volunteers in cleaning up the site.

SG20200709 GNA WJH 037The heart-warming sign language performance has driven the migrant workers to join in despite not knowing the meaning of the lyrics. (Photo by Bernard Ng Jia Han)  

Relieved to receive positive feedbacks from the migrant workers, Lim said, "I'm really grateful. I was very touched when I saw the migrant workers sew attentively.”   

Lim who was worried that the migrant workers might not be familiar with sewing or art, was surprised to discover that they are all very creative. Although some had said that it was their first time sewing, they appeared to be very proficient in the sewing technique.

Lim who hails from Malaysia, has been living in Singapore for 23 years. However, she had rarely encountered any migrant worker. She said, "Perhaps many a times, we are not in the same corner. Despite knowing about each other's existence, there was never a connection between us."

Moved by the sign language song, Lim choked and said, "It doesn't matter which country you are from; we are all one family. We will overcome and survive this pandemic together!”

The success of this first interactive session has given everyone a boost of confidence. Many volunteers have commented that although adjustments were made at the beginning, it had given everybody more time to know more about this group of migrant workers through this activity. The volunteers found that these migrant workers are actually very creative and motivated, and they look forward to the next interactive session with them.

Note:

The lead artist of this project is Jimmy Ong. The project is organized by Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre and 3Pumpkins, sponsored by Maybank Singapore, and supported by Singapore International Foundation, The Majurity Trust, PAssionArts in Nee Soon GRC, Chong Pang Community Arts & Culture Club, and Nee Soon East Community Arts & Culture Club.


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