They share our lives and homes, but have you ever wondered what life is likefor a migrant domestic worker in Singapore?
Our Homes, Our Stories offers a look through their eyes as they share real-life stories, from childhoods in mountain villages to rogue agents and difficult employers, and that one thing they all suffer from the most: homesickness, and the pain of leaving their families behind – in Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and India.
The women write frankly about sacrifice, broken trust, exploitation, lack of food, and salary deductions. But there are also tales to lift the heart, of supportive employers, the love they have for the families they take care of, and how they use their time in Singapore to realise their dreams for the future.
The stories explore different facets of the theme ‘home.’ All proceeds of this book go to HOME, to support their important work. All the writers in Our Homes, Our Stories are part of the HOME community, either as volunteers on their one day off, or as residents at
HOME shelter for domestic workers.
And mark your calendar: on March 11th you can pick up your copy at our launch event, at the Hollandse Club.
The book will be available at the HOME offices and select bookstores in Singapore. Watch this site for further details on how to order or purchase your copy after Match 11th. An ebook version will be published in March 2018 as well, available with all major international retailers.
My name is Jo Ann Dumlao, and I have been a Migrant Domestic Worker (MDW) from August 2007 up to the present. Being far away from home in this festive season pinches my heart. I long ache to be with my children, with my mom and my siblings. Working thousands of miles away from home is hard; and it is even lonelier when the festive season comes every year. I am a Filipina and a Christian; Christmas is a very important part of my year. However, being a MDW, most of us committed to spending the festive season working – unless we are one of the lucky ones whose employer lets us go home to spend this festive season with our own loved ones; our family.
Wanting to understand what my fellow MDW’s are experiencing during this festive season, I set out to gather some of my fellow MDW’s and hear their stories about Christmas away from home. When was the last time they spent Christmas holidays with their family? How do they spend their holidays?
Hearing some of their responses went straight to my heart and made me speechless. I am away from my own beloved family for the festive season, but I am still one of the lucky ones. The following are their stories:
Aida Leste Ocampo
My first chat was with Aida Leste Ocampo, 36 years old and single from Cagayan Valley, Philippines. Aida has been working in Singapore for 16 long years as an MDW and in all that time, not once has she been home for Christmas. Unbelievable but true.
For 16 years, she always dreamed of being home for Christmas, but it has never happened. I felt her pain when she said: “it really breaks my heart every time it crosses my mind that my Mother passed away in 2010 and then my Brother passed away in 2013 without me spending Christmas with them.” She is teary eyed and I am too. Does she have a choice? Sorry, but, “No she doesn’t.”
I asked her why she is not able to spend Christmas with her loved ones. Yes, she has tried asking her boss’s if she can go home on Christmas holidays, but her employers are businesspeople and during the holidays is their busiest time. If Aida goes home, there is no one to look after the children and to take charge of the household. So a big “NO” answer is what she always gets.
Now that it’s Christmas time again, it’s still a wish for her to be home and be with her loved ones for one more Christmas holiday. Aida is wishing good health for her family and she wants them to know that she misses them so much. And to her employers: may their business grow more abundantly.
Diwata started our conversation by saying, “I am very blessed having this family I am working with. I think they are the coolest employer.” Let’s find out why she is so happy!
Diwata Prepose Jaravata, is a 42 years old mother of 2 from Baler, Quezon Philippines:. She has a 23 year old son, (Mechanical graduate and has a good job) and a 20 year old daughter (Bachelor in Secondary Education; student).
Diwata has been working as MDW in Singapore for 17+ years and hasn’t spent Christmas back home in all of those years. Diwata’s first employers were Chinese and she worked for them for 4 years. After her 2nd employment contract with them, she decided to find a new family to work with. Diwata is blessed in finding her current employers: a Eurasian family (Chinese Ma’am and Portuguese Sir) with a Lawyer daughter and 2 sons still in University and studying abroad. Diwata has now been with this family for 13 years and counting.
Diwata goes home every 4 years but not during the Christmas holidays. Her employers are in the party mode in this season especially as they are Catholic in religion. Diwata spends her Christmas working long hours. Diwata’s schedule gets busy from the 1st week of December – putting up Christmas decorations, checking food warmers and crockeries, menu planning for the Christmas party. For the 2nd and 3rd week, she is busy baking; everything from cookies to fruit cakes and pineapple tarts. Here comes December 24! A whole day cooking for Christmas Eve. Noche Buena for the family and guests. Christmas day itself, more guests are coming,. The cooking continues with more food to prepare. Diwata only get the chance to rest on the 2 days after Christmas.
“Did you ever complain?”, I asked. I was expecting a yes answer, but “NO” is the answer I get. Diwata is happy and contented with this Eurasian family. Every year without fail, she gets 13th month pay and jewellery. In 2012, Diwata needed to undergo surgery for her Thyroid and her employers were there for her: they supported her all the way. Just recently, they got her a pair of eyeglasses. And her lady boss is a gift-giver with or without occasion. In her 13+ years with them, Diwata has never been scolded. She said that if her boss gets upset or didn’t like something that Diwata did: she simply gets an emoji on her phone of upset or angry look. How cool is that? Diwata is one heck of a lucky MDW, she doesn’t even do car washing as her Sir does it. Every time they have a party, her Sir helps her in the dishwashing and her Ma’am in cleaning and vacuuming. On top of this, Diwata’s employers help her in her children’s schooling and tuition fees. They know that Diwata alone can’t sufficiently support the University expenses.
In your opinion, my fellow MDW’s, if you were in Diwata’s shoes, would there still be room for complaints? But wait, let’s see how far Diwatas patience is…In her 12 years working with the family, guess how much her salary is: $550’ Yes, it’s true! Only in January this year did she finally get the salary increase she has been waiting for (and may I say: “Long overdue”). Patience is a virtue, indeed.
I asked Diwata how did she manage her salary in that long years. “I am receiving other ways of blessings from them and I am treated very well and with respect. Sometimes we need to see how good and kind our employers are: its not just about money. With their help in the University tuition fees, I won’t ask for more, but I still received more. That’s why I am trying my best to reciprocate all I have received by working hard; working with dedication especially when there’s occasion that they need my help.
Don’t ask for more if you are blessed with more than what you asked for.
Myself, I am a single mother far away from home working hard and not being able to spend Christmas holidays with my children, mother or family. I feel in my heart what these fellow MDW’s has gone through: I am teary eyed .
But come on guys, let’s not lose hope that someday, somehow we’ll be able to spend Christmas holidays with our family and our love ones. Let the spirit of Christmas be with us.
Jane Andote has been working hard in Singapore for 20 years. Because of her hard life dedicated to supporting her 2 children, she has experienced the pain of not going home for 20 years. She said, she has had to hold on to prayers and thoughts of giving her children a good future.
Her husband passed away when her children were still very young (her daughter, the youngest, was just a baby at the time). One month after her husband died, she decided to work overseas and chose Singapore. Many were against in her plan. The people around her told her that the pain of losing her husband was still very fresh, her children were still very young. But she was determined and came to Singapore to start working as an MDW. Jane told me that she doesn’t regret her decision at all.
Jane says she has been very lucky with her employer because she is still with the same family she started working with 20 years ago. Needless to say, they love and care and treat Jane as part of the family. “Needless to say”? Unfortunately, this is not the reality for so many of our MDW friends.
All Janes sacrifices for her children have paid-off. Her son is a Marine Engineer already and is working on a ship. Her daughter is a BS Hotel and Restaurant Management graduate and is also working already.
In Jane’s own words, said with a mix of sadness and happiness: “I have experienced all kinds of hardships. I get drowned in debts that till now am still paying. Being a single mother away from her children is not easy. There are nights that I am not able to get to sleep thinking about them especially if they are sick or unwell. I know that they are well being taken care-off but the mother feelings of me most of the time make me feel guilty. But on the other hand, I’ll feel more guilty if I won’t do anything for their future.”
No one can be happier than a mother seeing her children become successful in their lives.
One of the hardworking HOME volunteers, the friendly and jolly Jojie Maravilla is here to share her story as well. Jojie is Single, 41 years old and the youngest of the 13 siblings, from Calapan City, Oriental Mindoro Philippines.
She is the youngest but the toughest of the 13. She sacrifices herself to work abroad in Singapore to support her family. She is the guardian angel of her parents and her siblings, nephews and nieces. Jojie said, she loves her family so much that she will do anything for them to make life a little bit easier. Name all kinds of sacrifices for the family, Jojie has gone through them already. She is single but she is working like she has her own family to support already. I consider one heroic act in what Jojie has done to her siblings—paying their debts so not just to put them in trouble. Bunso (youngest) to the rescue! Salute for you Jojie!
Working here in Singapore, it’s known that struggles are there on the way and for Jojie’s struggle has been in finding the right employer. She has had more employers than she has spent years in Singapore. 13 employers in 11 years! It’s either that the employer goes back home for good or else the employer is not a good match for Jojie. Just recently, Jojie joined her latest employer and she is crossing her fingers, hopes and pray that finally she found the right one.
Like any other MDW, she wished to go home on Christmas holidays too. With a deep sigh and sad look, Jojie said: “I am looking forward that my wish to be home on Christmas holidays will eventually happen in God’s perfect timing. For now, it’s like a puzzle that some pieces are missing.”
It’s been 11 long years away from home. No Christmas at home: no visits back home at all. Overflowing love for the family. This year Christmas holiday for Jojie is much better or let’s say she feel the spirit of Christmas within her. She wishes her love one’s and her employees “A Joyful Christmas and a Bountiful New Year!”
Inhale, exhale for few minutes. And here we go writing the next story.
Introducing Evangeline Canognog Pulpulaan, 42 years old from Bala Makabunsod Magsaysay, Davao del Sur . A single mom of a son, 18 years of age this coming January 2020. She was 26 years old when she started working in Singapore
To count, 17 years working in Singapore and never been home for Christmas. Her reason: it’s better to send ticket money to her family so they can buy what they need for Christmas. “Yes, it’s true, it is sad not being together with them but knowing that they are happy with the Christmas gift I give is all that matters.”
But this year it’s different: a difficult and heart-breaking period, all she can do is pray and tells herself and her family: “anytime soon in God’s good hands. everything will be back to normal.” Earthquakes devastated her home town and Vangie’s house didn’t escaped undamaged. Her house has cracks in the walls making the house unsafe. Not to take risks, her family moved-out and now live in a tent. “The house is still standing but with the cracks and the unpredictable earthquakes that may strike again, they better to be safe than sorry” Vangie said. She is really worried for her family safety.
In spite of this, Vangie never loses hope and she is thankful she works with very understanding and supportive bosses.
Vangie will be going to church with her friends for Christmas Eve Mass and after that, they will be strolling around Orchard to Marina Bay to enjoy the night.
Next we meet Jona Baranit from Sigma, Capiz. 38 years old, “still single and available”. After 16 years of working as an MDW in Singapore, Jona still hasn’t been home for Christmas.
The colourful ambience of Christmas holiday is all around and it’s the time that we all wait for, to be with our families back home. But for Jona, nothing has changed: the same as the past years, Jona is not going home.
She has mixed emotions for this season, happy and sad. Happy that her family will enjoy the Christmas season with the presents she gives them. Her family will experience the things that they never could if she had’t made her sacrifice. All she thinks about is her family that depends on her to make life a bit easier for them. There’s a pain in her heart too that she’s not home for Christmas but work doesn’t give her the chance to. The family she’s working for needs her services during the holidays. All she can do is to video call her family on Christmas Day and that makes her happy.
I was curious if this year she asked her boss if she can go home for Christmas. “For a change, I did. I had hoped that maybe I can and will give a big surprise to my family so I asked my boss but a shake of the head for NO is what I got.” Jona said sadly.
So much sacrifices for the sake of family because the love for the family is what makes Jona keep going.
Christmas, it is a time to relax, to spread love, to laugh with our love ones, to forgive and forget, to eat great food and most of all, always remember, God is love.
It’s celebration time! This December HOME celebrated both International Migrants Day and their 15th year Anniversary. Every year, HOME celebrates these 2 remarkable events, which are important to us, and give us the opportunity to show unity and oneness instilled in us Migrant Workers.
And this day was special in another way: the new Executive Director of HOME was introduced. The entire HOME team was there to wholeheartedly welcome Ms Catherine James.
We were thankful that our very own “ Sister Big B” made it to the celebrations. Sister Bridget Tan, the founder of HOME, had a stroke in February 2015 and has been unable to walk since, but is still the jolly one in spite of her condition and she always joins us in these celebrations. Her presence helped make the celebration such a wonderful event. Everyone was beaming with happy faces to see her, listening to her inspirational message and singing with her. We love you, sister Bridget!
All the HOME Family leaders made a speech that linked to the Migrant Workers situation and well-being. I myself represent the My Voice group.
•HOME Roses—Re- Integrate with Innovation by Zoe Menez
•HOME Nightingale—Depression is a Silent Killer by Marina
•HOME Academy—Don’t Stop Learning by Cristina
•HOME Helpdesk Lucky Plaza—Domestic Workers Right by Bhing
•HOME Suara Kita—Decent Work by Novia
•HOME Kartini—Overworked and Underpaid by Yanti
•HOME My Voice—Employer Employee Relationship by yours truly, Jo Ann
•HOME Myanmar Helpdesk—Effective Communication by Khin Lay
I can say, all were very well delivered campaigns!
As the celebrations continue, we make a toast to HOME’s Anniversary: wishing for more years to celebrate abundantly. May HOME prosper and continue to be the shelter of the abused, the defender of the hopeless and giver of strength of the less fortunate migrant workers.
Singing and dancing followed to keep the celebrations exciting and lively, and gift packs were distributed to the migrant workers. Amazing prizes for the lucky draw winners and the best-dressed from the migrant workers were handed out also. Each one of the winners received a prize. Today, abundant prizes and gift packs were given away – every migrant workers was a winner today! It was a fun filled, enjoyable day of celebrations with lots of splendid prizes and splendorous lunch. HOME staff, HOME Family leaders and volunteers were all amazing. Once again, they proved that the spirit of team work sprinkled with love is within them. So much dedication.
Not even in my wildest dreams did I ever think that one day I would be one of the Sister Guides at the National Gallery Singapore. But in a blink of an eye, it happened.
The National Gallery Singapore (NGS) is a modern art museum in Singapore that has the largest public collection of Southeast Asian Art in the world. The Sister Guides program is a collaboration between the NGS and HOME (the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics). In the program several volunteers are trained as mentors to lead gallery tours for our fellow migrant workers – in our home language. For me, that is in Filipino (Philippines), other languages in the program are Burmese ( Myanmar) and Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesia). There are 2 HOME volunteer mentors in each team. The great thing about this program is: there is free admission for migrant workers, and it includes refreshments after the tour!
There are several objectives for NGS and HOME to collaborate in this program, and with these, they hope to develop meaningful engagement of migrant domestic workers in their community.
Develop a deeper understanding of the migrant domestic worker community In Singapore and their connection with the Gallery.
Reduce access barriers for the migrant domestic worker community – become an inclusive museum.
Pilot a self-empowerment/self advocacy model of engagement with a community of need.
Pilot a strategy to reduce the linguistic barrier faced.
Explore meaningful programmatic connections between the Gallery Children’s Biennale and the Gallery permanent exhibitions.
The tours took place on 2 Sundays in November, with different time slots for each language. To make the program successful, we invited participants by giving-out Sister Guides flyers and posting on social media.
Each group made a journey to six different artworks from the Children’s Biennale and UOB Southeast Asian Gallery. In line with the theme of the tour “Embracing Hidden Stories,” we explored hidden and untold stories through looking at artworks from Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar.
Under the guidance of the Sister Guides, participants thoroughly studied the artworks. The participants then willingly and excitedly shared their thoughts and opinions at the Q&A part of the tour. It was a delight to see how focused and interested they were! The selected artworks are connected to our lives as migrant workers, and they also speak about women, other minorities or indigenous people, about democracy and history. For me, yes, I definitely have this emotional connection to the artworks.
The feedback of the participants was great: they had fun, they gained knowledge about art and generally found the experience heart-warming and overwhelming. The most asked question afterwards was: “when is the next tour program of NGS? I will come again!” Everyone had an enjoyable experience – very different from what they thought was going to be “a boring art gallery experience.”
To us mentors, what challenged and excited us was that we did not know most of the participants, we met them only during the day of the tour. But gladly we were able to mingle and get to know the participants. Afterwards, all of the Sister Guides happily and willingly signed the volunteer form to make us officially part of the “Best Friends of Gallery “ team.
I want to say a big Thank You to the NGS for giving us – my fellow tour guides and myself this amazing opportunity. My heart is full; to see the Artworks of Juan Luna was a dream come true. He is not just an artist but also a National Hero in the Philippines. We are both from the province of Ilocos Norte.
There is no Right or Wrong in Arts, just enjoy what you are seeing and experiencing!
What is stealing? For me, the word stealing has a lot of definitions. Of course, I understand the most common is, when you take something, an item, that does not belong to you. That is simply stealing.
But what should we call it when people take away someone else’s rights?
Being a domestic helper, we have the right to know what our rights are. The employer should be responsible to let their helper know for instance, that if you are not allowed to take a day off, they must pay you in lieu. Also, they should let them know how much the minimum salary of a domestic helper is, or that the employer is not allowed to ask the domestic helper to clean another house, office, condo – or ask them to do a job that is not part of your everyday task. For me that is stealing too. It is stealing to deny people their rights.
Why do many employers so easily accuse a domestic helper of doing wrong? Is it because to them, we are poor only, and cannot afford to buy anything? Do these employers try to ask themselves if they are not stealing too?
Not allowing a domestic worker to know the truth about her rights and not following the government rules that is STEALING.
YOU ARE STEALING WHAT IS RIGHTFULLY THAT OF YOUR DOMESTIC HELPER!
Jofel was accused of stealing by her former employer and has been staying in the HOME shelter for a year and eight months now, whilst her case is being investigated by the authorities. Jofel denies the accusations against her. She has not been convicted, yet she has not been free to leave the country, nor hold a job – and thus has had no means of income for the past years. Jofel volunteers at the shelter by helping her peers, and developing her skills in crafts and writing. Read her life story here.
It all started with a dream,
A dream that was taken away,
Away from the expectations that it will fail,
Failure that I now want to break away,
Thinkin’ that justice is not easy, there is a cost to pay
So, at this time, hope is not a good place to stay,
I just want to run away
Leaving my homeland behind
To a country that I was blind
The place that I have known for possibilities
Turned out to be my land of turmoil
How unfortunate I am to be trapped in a misery
of a foreign land
Justice, where are you?
Are you still yet to be found?
Just like the dusk, nearing
the night where the darkness
Starts swallowing my heart and
my dreams shattered,
broken pieces scattered around
Like a flower that blossoms at spring season,
fragrant, thriving in beauty
But when the violent monsoon comes,
They languish, it falls off and the beauty is
Life is full of surprises and uncertainties
As much as I wanted to go
through the streams of possibilities
Pain and suffering are toppling me down,
They are the inevitable tidal waves
of after quakes
I am intimidated
Causing me not to swim around
Because my life is like a boat
That is directed by a rudder
that when it breaks and it snaps,
Life will be lost, I don’t know where to go,
Nowhere else to be found
For all I wanted to be is to fulfill
my dreams and change my destiny
Leaving oppression behind, give a
good life to my family,
And kiss goodbye to poverty
But seems like lady luck
is not smiling at me,
For the justice that I simply wanna see,
To triumph over an instance
of mistaken identity is far beyond reach,
I am now in the state of apathy
So, help me God,
You are the Only Reason I see,
To hold on to this land,
To be the justice in every plea,
The Hope to every misery,
My Freedom and My Victory
By Emmy Flores
Emmy has been staying at HOME shelter for some time whilst her case is being investigated. She volunteers at the shelter and showcases her many talents in different ways. Recently she was part of an art exhibition for migrant workers.
HOME shelter volunteer Puja shares her experience of teaching English at our shelter for domestic workers. We have a team of volunteers running these lessons at different levels, managed by long time volunteer Stefania.
I started volunteering with HOME six months back, joining a few other motivated ladies in teaching English language to HOME residents (all migrant domestic workers in Singapore). When I started, I had no idea how challenging the classes could be. After a few classes I realized that my well thought out lesson plan had no place here, I had to think on my feet every single class! Our lessons have to be as dynamic and fast evolving as the students of the class – some days we have over 30 enthusiastic students, other days just a handful. Some residents attend lessons for weeks and need structured teaching while others leave after one class. Some residents are confident English speakers and write prose and poetry, while others cannot communicate in English beyond their name.
Despite the challenges, what keeps me and my fellow teachers going is the fact that we are empowering women in the true spirit of the word – little by little, utilizing the limited time they have with us to upgrade their skills and hone their confidence. Our classes are also an opportunity for residents to share stories of struggle, joy and hope. Some classes have emotionally charged moments, like on International Women’s Day when we asked residents to write about a woman in their life who has inspired them; one resident broke down as she described her beautiful relationship with her stepmother, who was in her eyes a “wonder woman.”
Finally, at the end of the day, I hope and pray that we have in some way kindled the joy of learning through our classes, even in those who don’t stay with us for long. For as they say, “A teacher affects eternity; she can never know where her influence stops.”
HOME is grateful to all our amazing volunteers, and we want to extend a big thank you to all in our team of tireless English teachers. Learning the language is very important when living in a foreign country, not only to improve communication with employers, but also express their feelings and ensure these women know their rights and how to ask for assistance when needed.
Are you inspired by Puja’s story and interested to volunteer at HOME? Look here for more information.
Every time you hear the word “hero” or “superhero”, who comes to your mind first?
Can you picture what they look like?
Heroes are persons admired for their brave and noble deeds. Usually, we hear about heroes wearing capes in fairy tales or legends and increasingly we see them in the movies. These days however, there are other heroes and they wear aprons; these are truly the modern heroes.
These superheroes sweat their guts out to provide for two families with grim determination. They are heroes not only to their own family but also to their employer’s family. Yes, they are heroes because they are willing to execute the duties which they should be doing for their own family, for another family. Without these heroes in their homes, their employers would be having a more difficult time in their daily lives. They may have the means and the money, but this money can’t do the chores. They can’t send their money to do errands or to look after their loved ones: It’ these heroes that do those chores diligently. An employer’s wealth can’t help them the way their heroes do.
And even in their home country, these women are superheroes – because of the money they are sending home from the foreign country they work in. They are helping their government and are significant contributors to the improvement of their nation’s economy.
Most importantly, they are heroes to their own families. Unwavering, they do everything to give to their families a firmly supported way of life. They are sacrificing a great deal to support the needs and wants of their loved ones, especially the schooling of their children.
It’s undeniable that it’s a great sacrifice to leave your own family, it is heart-breaking to be serving others, particularly when they are taking care of children not their own.
The daily tasks that these superheroes are doing for other people are not easy, not only physically but emotionally as well. The longing to be with their own family, the desire to hug, kiss and embrace their own children makes their heart feel heavy. While they love and care for the children in their care, they often think: “I wish I was doing this for my own children.” At night, instead of being happy with their children, exchanging stories and opinions, watching their favorite tv shows, playing games and laughing together -these superheroes are ALONE in their own room. They are battling unwanted emotions, wiping their tears away as homesickness is attacking them, flooding and swamping their whole being, as they fall into countless sleepless nights.
Migrant Domestic Workers are the modern day superheroes. They are the superheroes in their own life story, superheroes in their own “true-life” movie of which they are also the director. They are the artists who are indefatigably playing their roles to give their story, their movie a happy and meaningful ending.
Am I one of those superheroes?
Without hesitation, I am proud to say “Yes,I am!”
By Jo Ann Dumlao
The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) is an anti-human trafficking organisation advocating empowerment and justice for all migrant workers in Singapore