Instead of celebrating her 21st birthday in May with a party and presents, Esna Ong decided to have a birthday fundraiser for a school in Jordan.
“I believe we all carry a special burden for a certain issue. For me, it happens to be refugees,” said the second-year student at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.
She first held a fundraising event during a gathering of family, friends and mentors, where she raised more than $500. Feeling hopeful, Ong then took the idea to Facebook, where she garnered a total of $2,000. Her mother’s friends donated an additional $6,000.
“I fight for them because many of them have a mouth but no voice, a pen but no education, time but no future.”
In June, Ong travelled to Jordan with three of her friends. All the donations were used for food packages and scholarships for Syrian refugee students. During the month-long stay, Ong and her friends personally delivered the food packages to the students’ households.
Ong and her friends took at least a week to adapt to the dry desert climate in Jordan. As the trip occurred during the Ramadan period, they were prohibited from eating or drinking in public, making this trip a “challenge physically,” she said.
“You'll wake up with dry mouths and headaches every day while acclimatising because of dehydration,” she recalled.
This was not the first time Ong had travelled to Jordan. In 2014, she embarked on a solo seven-month stint after her A-Level examinations, working as a volunteer helping Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Ong, then 19, was studying about the Syrian crisis for her A-Level examinations when she stumbled upon an article detailing a Syrian refugee camp. The image of the refugees’ living conditions left a deep impression on her.
“I fight for them because many of them have a mouth but no voice, a pen but no education, time but no future,” she said.
Determined to help, Ong embarked on her trip to Jordan. While her parents were shocked by her decision, they eventually supported her because they believed that it was a “good cause.”
Over there, she volunteered as an English teacher and videographer under a nongovernmental organisation named Hope & Trust.
“Even though I'm there to give in terms of money or lessons, I have learned so much from them, such as how to be generous and how to love.”
Her journey, however, was not all smooth-sailing.
She faced sexual and racial harassment on an almost daily basis. Some men would call out to her from across the street or follow her. Occasionally, she even had fruits or water bombs hurled at her too.
“I felt like I was reduced to a helpless animal every time I had to be on the streets while commuting,” she recalled.
Instead of retaliating, however, Ong remained optimistic as she felt that their perception of women may have been the only worldview that they had.
“Focus on the positive. When you serve, don’t expect anything in return – be a candle that consumes itself for the benefit of others,” she said.
When asked about her fondest memories of Jordan, Ong remembered the generosity of the refugees who would cook up feasts for guests despite not having much.
“Even though I'm there to give in terms of money or lessons, I have learned so much from them, such as how to be generous and how to love,” she said.
While such overseas volunteer trips might seem like a one-sided affair, Ong said that volunteers should not think of themselves as “saviours,” as both sides are giving and receiving from each other.
“In many ways, they’re wealthier in terms of the intangible essences of life, and they’ve given me so much. So I think we really have to watch how we view charity and humanitarian work.”