Helping Those Who Help Us At Home

By Debbie Reyes-Coloma

There are about 214,500 foreign domestic workers employed in Singapore.

They are mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, but all share a similar desire: to escape poverty in their home towns, and give their families a chance at a better future. They’ll do whatever it takes to make it work. The money they remit home gets their children through school. It builds a modest house. It helps pay off debts. There’s usually very little left over, if anything at all.

Emi Lester (left) and Nilushika

Aidha Alumni, Emi Lestari (left) and Nilushika Silva, who have already made a successful start on their business plans

“Their remittances provide much-needed financial help to families. But often, these women find themselves without any savings at the end of their contracts,” says Karen Fernandez, CEO of Aidha.

“We’ve seen many migrant women getting caught in a vicious cycle where families become financially dependent on them, leaving little or nothing for the foreign domestic workers,” Karen says. “They face the same poverty and uncertain future when they return home.”

A Singapore-registered charity set up in July 2006, Aidha (a Sanskrit word meaning ‘that to which we aspire’) believes every woman should have the opportunity and choice to determine her own future.

Aidha reaches out to foreign domestic helpers to break the cycle of poverty and empower them for a sustainable future. Their education programme includes money management, computer literacy, communication, leadership and entrepreneurial skills, and the training sessions are on Sundays (when most of the workers have a day off) at the Dover campus of United World College Southeast Asia.

The results are far-reaching. Eight in 10 Aidha students begin to save every month, a big change from having no savings at all. Seven in 10 succeed in either opening their own businesses or investing in productive assets – like livestock and land – once they’re back in their home countries.

But the biggest impact of all, says Karen, is the multiplier effect that takes place when students share their knowledge and skills with family and friends back home. Brighter futures are created, not just for the women themselves but also for their communities as a whole.

From cash cow to raising cows

A tearful Emi Lestari left her only child in Kranggan, Indonesia to board a plane bound for Singapore in 2001. It was the first time she had ever left her rural community. Emi was going to work as a maid on foreign land, and the farm girl had no idea how the whole thing would unfold.

Emi’s husband had lost his job but didn’t want her to work. She worked in the farm anyway, planting vegetables and corn to tide them over. Her husband still persisted her to stop working.

Every time they ask for more money I cannot say no…I just want to save.” – Emi Lestari

Fed up with poverty and compounded by a controlling husband, the only thing she was certain of was her strong desire to give her only child a better future. She knew she had to make it work.

After completing her first two-year contract, Emi returned home only to find out that her husband had divorced her. She wasn’t even aware he had filed for divorce. The papers were allegedly sent to her home address in Indonesia, but she claims she never received them. Oddly, the same man who divorced her asked her to remarry him. She did, if only for the sake of their son.

She returned to Singapore to continue working. But it was déjà vu when she went home to visit her family. “He divorced me two times. He asked me again to remarry for the second time, but I said I had enough,” says Emi, without a tinge of regret.

In 2012, she attended a seminar given by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower.

“For 10 years I never have any savings. I always give to my family. Every time they ask for more money I cannot say no,” she says. But after listening to an Aidha rep at the seminar, she walked away with one fervent wish: “I want to save.”

A key element of Aidha’s educational programme is learning how to do this. Each student is asked to keep a record of literally every penny they spend and save. The students must monitor each other in class, as one of Aidha’s principles is using the power of the group to motivate each other.

In the first months, Emi felt like giving up. The hardest part was saying “no” when her family asked for more money.

“I feel guilty when I don’t give them, even if I have some money. I have to say no. [It’s] very hard, very painful,” she says. “But I know I won’t have any savings if I always keep giving them.”

After completing her 9-month Aidha course, Emi proudly says that their class of 15 met their goal of saving S$50,000 collectively. That’s when she knew she could do it.

Emi Lestari in her own dress design and her cow business

Emi Lestari, (in a dress she designed herself) highlighting her growing cow business

Armed with her savings and a new set of knowledge and skills, Emi is now in the process of her making her dream come true: setting up her own dressmaking shop.

She learned dressmaking from a friend, and has drawn up her business plan to open the shop in Kranggan in 2017 – Emi’s target date to permanently leave Singapore.

“I also have placed my savings into cows,” she says. “We just had two baby cows in 2012. Now I have 5 cows,”

Her ex-husband and father help take care of the cows while she’s away. When she sells the cows, they will get a share of the profit. Inspired by this move, her father is now raising lambs he intends to sell once they’ve grown.

In the meantime, Emi still does house work six days a week and volunteers for community service activities on Sundays, including mentoring other migrant women.

When the time comes for her to leave Singapore, Emi will be ready to face the challenges of her new role as a micro-business entrepreneur.

She hopes that her story will encourage them to plan for a more sustainable future.

From tears to tea

Nilu has been a domestic helper for 14 years. She arrived in Singapore when she was 20, not by her choosing but driven by the need to take care of three younger siblings in Sri Lanka.

“When I was 14 my mother died. When I was 16 my father and brother died,” says the oldest of five children. “I stayed in the convent until I was 18 years old. Then I worked for three years in a garment factory.”

She managed to finish her O levels and wanted to pursue further studies, but no one could provide financial support for four orphaned children.

“My parents did not save for us so there was nothing. I came to Singapore in 2001 as a domestic helper because that was the only option I had. It’s the only place where I can do something to help my younger brothers and sisters,” she says through tears.

After 10 years on the job, her French employer encouraged Nilu to attend courses offered by Aidha. She wasn’t keen at first.

“I found myself in Aidha,” she recalls, trying to fight back the tears. Now, she says, “I still have a hope and a chance to live for my dream.”

She finished her courses, got married and realized her vision of owning her own small business: an online store specialising in Sri Lankan tea.

“I selected the best [business model] that is suitable for me. I don’t have to be in Sri Lanka to operate. I can continue working in Singapore as domestic helper and work on my business at the same time,” she says.

Now 34, Nilu runs ‘Natural Products by Nilu’ with her husband, who introduced her to different types of tea.

Nilushika continues to support Aidha

Nilushika continues to support Aidha

“I really wish I found Aidha a long time ago. I still have a hope and a chance to live for my dream.” – Nilu

“I plan to leave my domestic helper job in Singapore this year,” she happily declares. “I really wish I found Aidha a long time ago.”

Multiplier effect

There are only seven Aidha staff members, working alongside 200 volunteers and mentors.

Since it began in 2006, Aidha has taken in some 2,700 students. On average, there are 35-40 classes every Sunday. They require 45-60 mentors each time, who run the classes unpaid.

“Last year we had 600 new students, about a 40 per cent increase. This year we’re aiming for 751 new students, a 25 per cent increase. It’s growing all the time,” says Karen.

About 40 per cent of Aidha students open small businesses, while about 70 per cent go on to make investments. And some 80 per cent save regularly. That’s a big change.

“We found almost all of them transfer their knowledge to their families. So whether they teach their children how to save, or teach their families or community about planning and budgeting, the multiplier effect is huge,” says Karen.

Several of the graduates volunteer outside of Aidha, in places like old folks’ homes, as soon as they complete their courses.

“It’s amazing how people who have the least do the most,” says Karen. “You can’t help but feel inspired.”

Source: ‘Born to Protect’ Yahoo News Feature’ © Yahoo! Singapore Digital Marketing Pte. Ltd. Reproduced with kind permission

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