Many of us in Singapore have full access to education options regardless of what stage of life we are at. There are many institutes to tutor us and programmes to support us if we want to upgrade ourselves on the path of continuous learning .
However, this accessibility isn’t enjoyed by everyone on our shores. In particular, Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW) in Singapore have limited options to learn new skills, especially for life after working here.
Thankfully, there are VWOs that help FDWs looking to improve themselves. One such organisation is Aidha. It provides FDWs with entrepreneurial courses to equip them with skills needed to manage their finances and start their business.
For two women, Aidha helped them pursue their dreams and ambitions, which has inspired them to give back some of what they have learned for other FDWs.
Different origins, same goal
Nurul Adim, 42, came to Singapore to work after her family lost their income in her hometown in East Java, Indonesia.
She tells The Pride: “In Indonesia, I ran a business with my husband and we were told by the government to relocate. But we couldn’t afford to move.”
After discussing it with her husband, Nurul decided to come to Singapore to work.
She explains: “ I chose Singapore because it’s near (Java). Bahasa Melayu isn’t very different from Bahasa Indonesia and I could also speak a little English. I also thought that Singapore is a lot more orderly and more transparent about the law, especially for helpers.”
That was nine years ago. Today, Nurul is more fluent in English, thanks to the courses she took at Aidha as well as the interactions she has had working here.
Despite her resolve, coming to Singapore wasn’t easy for Nurul. She had to deal with being away from her family – something she never done before.
Nurul shares: “It was very tough for me because at that time my son was only three and a half and my daughter was 13. I had to leave my family behind.”
Arcelyn Siloy, 30, from Baguio, Philippines, came to Singapore in 2013 to secure a better future for her children.
She tells The Pride: “[I chose Singapore] because I wanted to earn money for my kids’ future and to build a home for my family.”
Unlike Nurul, Singapore wasn’t her only choice. She also applied to work in Hong Kong and Canada. She says: “(The agency in) Singapore was the first to respond! So I went with it.”
Singapore also suited her better, says Arcelyn.
“The country is nice, and I like the weather – it’s just like the Philippines,” she laughs.
Stepping into a new country for the first time was also nerve-wrecking for Arcelyn. She had no idea what was in store for her. She missed her husband and two children – they were only two and three when she came to Singapore – who stayed in the Philippines.
She shares: “I was scared because I didn’t know what kind of life was waiting for me here. And I was alone. I didn’t have any friends yet.”
Arcelyn’s uneasiness was also caused by being away from her family.
She says: “ I started thinking about my kids back home. How are they? Are they okay? It was really tough. I missed them and I had to adjust.”
Having to adapt
For both women, living and working in Singapore was new to them.
Nurul, who has been working for nine years with the same employers, had to first get used to the routine of her duties, which involved looking after the children in different homes.
She says: “It was challenging at first because during the week, from morning till night, I would take care of the kids in their grandmas’ homes (both her employers had to work). And it alternated between Sir’s side and Ma’am’s side so it was tiring.”
Arcelyn, having worked here for seven years, faced a huge culture shock as well.
She explains: “I had to adapt to seeing so many different races in Singapore. The food here is very different. Language is another thing. We speak English in the Philippines but in Singapore there is Singlish. I had to learn how to understand it!”
Despite their challenges, both Nurul and Arcelyn were able to adapt quickly and it’s largely due to their employers.
Nurul beams: “I don’t need to do housework. My duty is to take care of the children and the grandmas never ask me to do housework. When my friends ask me about what I do in the house, I just say I’m playing and reading books to the children.”
“My Ma’am also knows I love photography so she gave me a camera as a present. On my days off, I can go to Gardens By The Bay to take photos. I really have the best employers.”
Aidha contributed to their growth
Nurul and Arcelyn share something else in common. Both their employers played a huge part in their decision to enrol at Aidha.
Nurul elaborates: “At first, I didn’t want to join Aidha because the courses were about business and management. I felt that they were too hard for me. But my Ma’am explained that it’s time for me to know about how to manage a business. She said that I already have the baking and cooking skills so when I go home, I can re-open and manage my own business better.”
It was the encouragement of her employer that pushed her.
Says Nurul: “After thinking about it, I decided why not? I don’t want to end up like the last time, having to close my business and being left with nothing.”
Arcelyn’s interest in Aidha was also sparked by her employers.
She shares: “My employers were the ones who suggested that I study at Aidha.”
Arcelyn says that when she found out about how Aidha could teach her how to be a businesswoman, she signed up without hesitation.
Nurul and Arcelyn went for their classes on their days off. Nurul’s employer paid for all of her course fees. Arcelyn’s employer paid for half of her fees and she paid for the rest.
Aidha offers six-month courses with lessons on two Sundays per month. Each module costs $200 and self-paying students get a subsidy. Aidha also offers classes for lower-income women from all backgrounds in Singapore.
More than just an education
Nurul and Arcelyn have benefited tremendously from their experience, both professionally and personally.
Nurul says: “Thanks to Aidha, I’ve become more open. I was able to learn from other ‘sisters’ from many countries. I made lots of friends and we had fun together after class. Sometimes, we would plan a potluck with our mentor and invite the people in the (Aidha) office to join us.”
Arcelyn also shares that sentiment: “I gained more confidence, learned a lot and made friends. I was also able to start my own online business selling kitchen utensils. Aidha made me realise that the future is really important. So if we don’t save money or upgrade ourselves here, we will go back to our home countries without anything.”
Graduation wasn’t the end, it was another beginning
Nurul and Arcelyn were so impacted by what they have gained from Aidha, they stayed on after graduating to volunteer as “Big Sisters” to mentor newer students (“Little Sisters”) both inside and outside the classroom.
Nurul’s choice to stay on as a volunteer was fueled by her desire to give back to other FDWs. Having gone through it herself, she was aware of the struggles they face, alone in a new country and searching for some way to improve themselves.
She says: “After I graduated, my Ma’am asked me if I wanted to enroll into another class but I decided to volunteer instead. I want to keep interacting with others. I’m not going home yet and I want to apply the knowledge that I got from Aidha.”
“Many helpers don’t know what to do or where to go. Even if they want to learn something, they don’t know which place can teach them. Some also don’t know their rights and how to talk to their employers. So I want to help them.”
Arcelyn chose to stay on as a volunteer because she saw many FDWs who wanted to learn but were held back by various obstacles. She wanted to be a guide with whom they could relate.
She shares: “I wanted to let them know that yes, we are here working in Singapore, but we still have the opportunity to learn and to grow. That’s why I volunteer because I can see that there are a lot of people who want to learn but they’re scared.”
“Volunteering also makes me happy because I can spend my day off productively. Through my own sharing I can also learn from their experiences and they can learn from mine. We create a bond by sharing our problems. They make me laugh, they make me smile then I make them laugh and I make them smile. It helps to relieve my stress.”
Due to Covid, classes at Aidha are being conducted online via Zoom. Their employers continue to give them time off for their activities. Thanks to this, Arcelyn still volunteers for the online classes while Nurul has stopped for the time being as she prefers offline classes.
Always wanting to help other FDWs in Singapore
Nurul and Arcelyn play an important role as Big Sisters to help new students settle into Aidha and their lives in Singapore better, says Aidha communications manager Amirah Ali.
“When new students join us, some might not feel brave enough to ask questions during class. It’s very heartwarming to see how our Big Sisters pass on their experiences and knowledge to the newer students to inspire and motivate them.”
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Inspired to dream big
And it is this desire to motivate other FDWs in Singapore that keep Nurul and Arcelyn going.
Nurul hopes to inspire other FDWs to never lose sight of their life goals even while they are working here to make ends meet.
Nurul says: “Learning is a life-long journey. Just take the courses, make yourself useful. Do you want to be a helper forever? Even if you don’t think you have the confidence to pursue what you want to do now, find hobbies and take courses on them.”
And for FDWs who are having a hard time, Arcelyn has this piece of advice: Use the challenge to your advantage.
She says: “Look at yourself and think about what you want to be in the future. Use your hardship as a challenge because it gives you an opportunity to learn lots of things. If you are in the dark, there will always be a small ray of light waiting for you and it will make your life brighter.”