From Foreign to Friend: Creating Inclusion with Migrant Workers Through Stories

In 2021 – 2022 A Good Space Co-operative organized the Listening Living Labs with Migrant Communities (MWL3) to gather  multi-sector stakeholders to work collectively on ideas that create change for some of the complex issues that migrant workers face.  This 1.5 year long engagement culminated in a pitching session, where the three work-groups that were formed shared their ideas and plans to prototype them over 6 months to test out their feasibility.  

One of these work-groups was Team Cool Pot, led by Chua Ningpei, Ashokan Ramakrishnan (Ash) and Gokul Jeyaram. Their idea was to develop a national integration competition to invite students to connect with migrant workers and produce digital content showcasing migrant worker stories, so as to reduce negative stereotypes and change mindsets amongst their friends.

On 12th March, they ran their first experiential workshop, where they gathered 21 Singaporean youths with 6 migrant workers for an afternoon of empathy, connection and storytelling. Using the theme “Towards an Inclusive SG”, they envisioned that the workshop would encourage these youths to be more welcoming to our migrant brothers and sisters. Here’s what happened:

Participant holding up the ‘spider web’

What’s your favorite story?

Hailing from all walks of life, participants were initially greeted by many unfamiliar faces sharing awkward smiles and silence. Ash got the ball rolling – or shall I say yarn rolling – through a fun ice-breaking activity. Ashokan, while holding a ball of yarn, shared his favorite story and why.

He then tied a piece of the yarn around his finger before inviting a participant to do the same by throwing the yarn to them. Soon the room was filled with laughter as participants imitated professional basketball players while throwing the yarn from one end of the room to the other. 

Participants made the activity even more meaningful by sharing the values behind  the story they most resonated with. Two participants even shared different perspectives about the same story, Interstellar – one talked about the movie’s underlying theme of how love transcends time, while the other saw the movie as a reflection of human willpower to overcome insurmountable obstacles.

Each participant’s unique stories and perspectives allowed other people in the room to get a glimpse of the values they cherish and in doing so, built a deeper sense of connection.

At the end of the activity, the participants were entangled by a ‘spider web’ formed by the yarn. Ashokan then explained that the web represents the fact that we are all connected by our shared passions and values, interconnected as humans. Inclusivity was cultivated from the very beginning of the workshop.

Participants drawing self-portraits of themselves

Who Am I?

After unraveling themselves from the ‘spider web’ the team invited participants to sit down and make themselves comfortable before moving on. The team had made the small yet cozy place more serene by adding scented candles and decorative pebbles. Now, it was a time of reflection.

“What were the ups and downs of your lives”, “What are the roles that I play – a brother? A friend? A partner?”, “Reach deep down and think Who Am I?” were the prompts given by Ningpei, as participants closed their eyes and reflected on their life to date and their proudest achievements. Participants,myself included , could not resist but smile as we relieved our happiest moments and trembled at our darkest memories.

Next, participants got to  draw a self portrait of themselves! Creativity ran wild as participants chose to represent themselves through various forms, some as happy versions of themselves and some as emojis such as upside down smiley faces. Following that, they wrote one word they associate themselves with.

Jen sharing her story

Sharing our stories

Now that each participant had drawn a self-portrait and wrote one word they associated themselves with, there was a chance to share their stories with others in the room. Ningpei started the conversation by sharing the word ‘possible’ which she associates herself with and explained that she saw herself as someone that makes social change possible. 

The participants presented themselves as ‘brave’, ‘resilient’, ‘kind’ and much more. Participants trusted the space to share their most  vulnerable moments, with some sharing the  hardest times they faced.  

Jen, one of the migrant sisters, had chosen to represent herself as hello kitty! She shared that hello kitty, her favorite cartoon as a child, represents her childhood that was filled with dreams and many desires. Despite discontinuing from university due to financial constraints, and coming to Singapore, Jen hoped to preserve the child in her that is ignorant to social pressure and instead, seeks new passions.

In an attempt to uncover her passion, she shared that she has gone for cooking classes, baking, sewing and much more, and invited others to recognise her many talents.

The sharing ended with Nazmul Khan, Founder of 24Asia, a non-profit group that supports both migrant and domestic workers, who shared his story that led him to be a volunteer and eventually starting 24Asia. His word was ‘magician’. 

“I believe that we are all Magicians. We all have different talents and it is important to show our magic to others and I hope that everyone here will use their magic to help and empower others”

It was a moving moment for many of us in the room. The sharings of the different migrant brothers and sisters in the room helped us to realize that migrants are so much more than their work here. They are humans with a big heart to help others and have different talents and strengths. 

In concluding the session, Ningpei shared a report by the International Labour Organisation, which found that 52% of Singaporean respondents perceived that crime rates had increased due to migrant workers, and 53% perceived that migrant workers threaten Singapore’s culture and heritage.

Through the workshop, Ningpei and Ashokan hoped that the youths would realize the similarities they shared with migrant workers; that our migrant brothers and sisters are not just ‘construction Workers’, ‘cleaners’ or ‘maids’ but human beings with dreams, hopes and aspirations, just like youths do. 

Hands-on experience with creative tension... by trying to topple each other over!

Spreading awareness through Impact Storytelling

Now that participants had experienced the benefits of storytelling first hand, Ningpei introduced participants to the term ‘Impact Storytelling’, which helps to shift mindsets that people have towards social issues or communities through evoking emotions and fresh insights using relatable stories. 

To illustrate, she screened a few impact storytelling videos which used relatable, everyday scenarios to put across powerful messages. Using these exemplary videos, she introduced the youths to 7 fundamental elements of a well told story:

  1. Having a clear target audience
  2. Having a clearly defined objective
  3. Being aware of the audience’s needs
  4. Identifying why audiences will care for the cause
  5. Emphasizing the most important idea
  6. Conveying urgency
  7. Specific actions that the audience can take after watching the story.
Rating the current caregiving landscape in Singapore, on a 10-point scale

Now that the youths were equipped with the knowledge to craft their own impact stories, Ash and Ning invited participants to sign up for a digital content creation competition.

Ash shared that youths could form groups of four to create a video around the theme of ‘an inclusive Singapore’ to promote greater inclusion of our migrant brothers and sisters in society. These videos will then be disseminated through social media platforms such as facebook and instagram, with the aim of countering negative stereotypes towards migrant workers. 

We were glad to see many participants come up to Ning and Ash to state their interests in taking part in the competition. (The links to their videos can be found at the end of this article. Don’t forget to watch them!)

Meal with our migrant friends

Soon after the sharing, the room was filled with the rich aroma of Briyani, Curry and Naan – Indian cuisine that our migrant friends enjoy.  As you have guessed, it was lunchtime!

Without being prompted to, the youths naturally moved out of their small cliques. The room that was once segregated was now a homogeneous mix of youths and migrant friends!

New friendships were forged among them as they continued sharing their stories. Many appreciated this informal setting to get to know each other, and the work that migrant workers have done to support their fellow countrymen and women in times of crisis during the pandemic.  

From ‘Foreign’ to ‘Friend’

Once everyone had a good meal, it was time to wrap up the event with a post-event survey. The team was heartened to see the youths show a significant increase in positive attitudes towards migrant workers. 

Before the workshop, 82.4% of students indicated that they seldom / never interacted with migrant workers. The team was thrilled to see that 91.6% rated > 8 on a 10-point scale when asked how likely they would interact with migrant workers after the workshop.

Before the workshop, participants were asked to provide a word that came to mind when they heard the term ‘migrant worker’. Words such as ‘foreign’, ‘transient’ and ‘hardworking’ were used. After the workshop, the team asked the same question again and was delighted to see words such as ‘friend’, ‘inspirational’, ‘approachable’ and ‘caring’ emerge.

75% of participants rated > 8 on a 10-point scale when asked how likely they were to recommend the workshop to their friends and family.

As the session came to an end the key takeaway of our youth participants was this:

The migrant community is no different from us. We all relate to the same values

Do you feel the same way?

Participants at the awards ceremony for the best digital impact stories that happened later on

After this workshop, 10 groups, both locals and migrants, had submitted their digital impact story to showcase their learning from the workshop, and ebb away at negative stereotypes surrounding the migrant worker space. Their moving entries have been posted on youtube, Instagram, Facebook and Tiktok. The links to their videos are:

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/@iaminvisible9411/videos?view=0&sort=dd&shelf_id=0

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/iaminvisiblestoriesuntold/


Tiktok: https://www.tiktok.com/@iaminvisiblestoryuntold

Picture of Vaishnavi Kannan
Vaishnavi Kannan

Vaishnavi was a research apprentice at A a Good Space. She is a history enthusiast and especially loves to read about the role women played in history. Her favourite historical novel is the book thief!

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