Bridging the Gap

Final Year Project campaign Familiar Strangers gives an intimate look at the lives of migrant workers.

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On a recent February afternoon, 31-year-old domestic helper Ariani Banani took to the stage at a downtown restaurant to perform a soulful rendition of popular Indonesian pop song, “Sakintya Tuh Disni” (“The Pain is Here”)".

With her stage presence and laid-back attitude, one cannot tell that she first picked up the guitar six months ago. “I started out playing the basic A, B, C, D chords on my guitar and have started writing my own songs as I am very interested,” said Banani, who has been working in Singapore for the past five years.

Banani, who hails from Java, Indonesia, was the star performer at “Share A Meal” — an event organised by Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information final-year students Amos Chen, Andrea Lim, Kenji Kwok and Shahrin Izhar (all CS’16), as part of their Final Year Project campaign “Familiar Strangers.” The event brought together over 40 migrant workers and Singaporeans for an afternoon of bonding over a meal. Banani was one of the many individuals the team met during their campaign.

“Familiar Strangers” documents the perspectives of low-wage migrant workers in Singapore through social media platforms. The group’s first campaign video, which showcases a series of migrant stories, has gone viral and gained international recognition – being featured on The Washington Post and Huffington Post. To date, the video has garnered over 160,000 views on Facebook.

 

Migrant workers respond to comments made by Singaporeans

We often hear passing remarks being made about migrant workers, from the most unwelcoming ones to those of gratitude and appreciation. Some of which have even made its way online, sparking conversations and debates on social media and the Internet. But have we ever wondered how the workers would react to these comments when they see them?Special thanks: HealthServeEditor's Note: We would like to sincerely apologise for a mistake in the subtitles of the video, where Mr Xu Yi Wen's name was spelled incorrectly as Mr Xu Wen.

Posted by Familiar Strangers on Sunday, January 17, 2016

VIDEO COURTESY OF FAMILIAR STRANGERS TEAM

“It was surprising and overwhelming – we did not set out with an international audience in mind,” said Chen, 25. “This shows how relevant this issue is, beyond the Singapore context.”

In a country where migrant workers make up over a fifth of the population, the team felt that integration of migrant workers with locals is a critical issue that cannot be downplayed.

While there have been many WKWSCI final-year projects on advocacy of social issues, “Familiar Strangers” distinguishes itself as one that champions self-advocacy.

“We want these individuals to speak out for themselves, rather than depend on someone to tell their stories,” said Kwok, 24.

Raw and unedited, all stories on the campaign’s Facebook page are told from a first-person narrative, with handwritten notes, poems and videos.

“We decided that it would be the most genuine and accurate form of representation. The migrant workers are empowered through storytelling,” said Lim, 23.

Additionally, the team stressed that the campaign’s focus is not to highlight that migrant workers lack a voice. Rather, it serves to represent them so that they are presented with dignity.

“We want these individuals to speak out for themselves, rather than depend on someone to tell their stories.”

Kenji Kwok

“I am used to hearing the same stories of migrant workers using the same tone – that they don’t have proper sanitation or meals. These sob stories come from a third person who would never be able to experience how migrant workers feel,” said Kwok, who majors in journalism.

On the campaign’s website and social media pages, migrant workers are instead portrayed as multi-dimensional individuals whose identities are not merely defined by the jobs they hold.

“It is to show that they are just like us. They have their own passion, dreams, hobbies and express themselves in various ways too,” said Chen.

For instance, one of their videos feature a married couple – both whom are Chinese migrant workers – out on a date during Chinese New Year eve. They go about their day merrily sightseeing and eating, despite having not returned to their hometown for Chinese New Year for several years.

Besides humanising migrant workers, the team also hopes to address pre-conceived notions that the public has towards them.

For Izhar, 24, months of speaking to migrant workers has given him a broader understanding of who they are as individuals.

“Before this campaign, I would not expect a foreign domestic worker to have studied computer engineering or to be capable of coding,” he said.

When scouting for individuals, around one-third of workers approached were initially wary of the team, mistaking them for the authorities who were undercover.

This was a signal to the team that migrant workers were not used to Singaporeans interacting with them, which corroborated with their pre-campaign findings.

In their survey of 300 youths, aged between 21 and 35, over two-thirds have negative sentiments towards migrant workers, but at the same time acknowledge not knowing them enough, said Chen.

FEATURED WKWSCI FYP PROJECTS OVER THE LAST FIVE YEARS
INFOGRAPHICS: TAN HUI ER (View Fullscreen)

For some workers who declined sharing, their reason for not doing so strikes a poignant note. “They feel their own story is too sad for sharing, if they think about it they will start crying,” Kwok said.

However, for majority of workers they approached, communicating with them became effortless once they overcame the unfamiliarity of talking to a stranger.

“When they realise you want to know them better, you see their faces light up, and they start becoming chatty,” said Lim.

Despite minor language barriers, the team forged friendships with many workers during outings and photography lessons organised by the team. Upon seeing one another in person, both parties greet each other with fist bumps, pats on the back and exchange pleasantries.

The public’s response to their campaign has given them a greater sense of conviction.

“It is very encouraging to see messages coming in through our Facebook inbox, people expressing their thanks and wanting to hear more stories,” said Kwok.

Ultimately, the team hopes more locals will take the first step in reaching out to these workers.

“We are the hosts and they are the guests of the country. We believe that through interaction, we'd be able to discover what we have in common,” said Izhar.

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