On her days off for the past six years, Robina ‘Bhing’ Navato has been manning the phones at migrant workers advocacy group Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME).

A foreign domestic worker herself, she patiently listens to the stories of the FDWs’ sometimes desperate, often painful tales of loneliness and abuse.

Bhing, 48, tells The Pride, “As a helpdesk volunteer, I listen to domestic workers’ woes. I wanted to let people know what’s happening to these workers, so it motivated me to write something about it.”

At first, she started writing stories to raise awareness of the plight of domestic workers and to remind employers not to treat them harshly.

Her main form of writing nowadays, however, is poetry.

“It’s more interesting to write poetry because it is more lyrical. I write in simple words because I want to send a message that can be understood easily,” says Bhing.

Migrant Writers of Singapore

Poet at National Museum of Singapore
Caption: Bhing at a poetry competition at the National Museum of Singapore in 2019. Image source: Bhing Navato

Her passion for writing led her to join migrant writing competitions and she submitted an entry titled “Me… A Migrant” to her first poetry competition in 2016.

That led her to join a Facebook group called Migrant Writers of Singapore (MWS).

Set up in 2015, MWS brings together migrant workers – from countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia – who are working in Singapore. It originally started out as a poetry writing group but it has since branched out to other types of writing and content creation.

Most of the works are written in English but there are events such as ‘National Language Month’ where participants write and recite their work in their native languages before translating them.

Bhing is one of the group administrators.

Meetings are mostly ad hoc allowing people more flexibility in joining workshops and events. Now due to Covid, these sessions are recorded and posted on Facebook, which allows members to watch them at their own time.

Carnival of Poetry online session
Caption: Carnival of Poetry online session on 29 March. Image source: Migrant Writers of Singapore

One of the group’s main events is the monthly Carnival of Poetry, where migrant and local poets share their work in a poetry reading. The event is not limited to migrant writers in Singapore, but includes those from other countries as well.

Says Bhing: “Carnival of Poetry is a showcase of different talents from different countries. For example, we’ll have two poets from here in Singapore and two (migrant) poets from other countries like Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh, India or Hong Kong.”

This allows the members to share their various experiences with one another, despite being in different countries.

Open Borders Session
Caption: Bhing presenting during an Open Borders session in 2019. Image source Bhing Navato

It also has other events, such as Open Borders, which focuses more on storytelling, Arts in Me, where participants mix sketching and poetry, and Bhing’s favourite, Voice through Words.

That event is different from just reading the poems, she says, because you get to see the person behind the poetry.

“I really like it because that is how you get to know the poets, you can ask anything and everything about (the poems). It’s nice to see them and hear them,” explains Bhing.

MWS also conducts writing workshops by professional coaches such as Rahul Shah. These free sessions help Bhing and her fellow MWS members improve their writing skills.

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Finding her voice as a migrant worker

Bhing shares that as a domestic worker, there is a limit on what she can say, but writing helps her to express her thoughts and feelings and is a way to communicate with other people.

She says she has been blessed to have very supportive employers.

“If I tell them that I have interviews, or that I have been invited to give a talk, then yes, even on weekdays, they will allow me (to take time off) because they know that I’m doing it for a good cause – to help migrant workers,” she shares.

In 2016, Bhing was one of the speakers at ‘The Invisible Help: Migrant Domestic Workers around you’, taking a place alongside social workers and professors at Singapore Management University (SMU).

Prior to Covid, her employers of four years even allowed her to take vacations of up to two weeks, three times a year.

Somber surroundings embraced me
Gusts of wind whispers in my ears
Unlocking trepidation in my senses.
Loneliness curved me into my knees.
Weakened my desire to breathe in peace

When you sheltered me from the rain
Rescued me from the storm
Showed me the sun behind the dark clouds
I felt the warmth of my tears
Flowing down my cheeks
Now I’m on my own
– “Rain”, Bhing Navato

Challenges faced

When Bhing left the Philippines to work here in 1995, she left her three children, then 4, 3 and 1 behind to give them a better life. She initially thought she would only be working here for two years, but stayed to continue to send money back to them.

More than 25 years later, her children are adults now, each with their own families, making her a proud grandmother of seven.

But Bhing remembers how difficult it was at first when she first started. She would constantly be with her former employers’ children, yet when her youngest son had surgery, she was not able to be by his side.

When she finally returned to the Philippines on her first holiday, six years after coming to Singapore, her second child, Airra Beatrixie, then 9, couldn’t recognise her.

“‘Are you my mum?’ she asked me,” Bhing recalls.

She recounts the interaction in a poem, Second:

…“Yes, I am.” I tried it with a smile.
“You’re beautiful.” She said with a smile,
with excitement on her face
having me beside her on the couch.
It was an unforgettable conversation with her 18 years ago.
She is now 26 yet I’m still working in Singapore,
I have three children. Airra is my second child
and my only daughter.
One night during my vacation, I was lying on my bed,
she came to me and lay on my lap.
“Ma, can you help me find an employer in Singapore?”
I was stunned. “NO!” My answer was firm.
“Why?” She asked.
“Seriously? Don’t be a second Me! Look at your children.
They are almost the same age as when
I left you and your brothers.
Because your father didn’t do his responsibility.
Your life is different from me.”…

Supporting Migrant writers

Poems by Migrant Worker
Caption: The second edition of Call and Response. Image source: Bhing Navato

Aside from conducting in-person and online events, MWS has also published several books.

One, titled Call And Response, now in its second edition, includes more than 30 migrant workers’ poems, with a corresponding ‘response’ from a local poet. The books can be found at Kinokuniya, BooksActually and Epigram Bookshop. Bhing is one of the editors and a contributor to the second edition.

MWS is also running a Migrant Workers Photography Festival for migrant workers and foreign domestic workers to contribute by May 16. This year’s theme: ‘Moving’.

It also plans to hold a call and response event and a slam poetry session in June. The events are open to all. Join the Facebook group if you are interested to find out more.

Poems by Migrant Worker
Caption: MWS has published several books of works from its migrant writers.

Another way to support the group is by buying its books:

  • Migrant Tales: Contains 26 poems by migrant Bengali poets written in Bengali alongside an English translation. This book can be found on Kinokuniya and City Book Room
  • Our Homes, Our Stories: Shares the stories of 28 domestic workers in Singapore, their struggles and the support they receive from their employers, family and friends. It can be found on Amazon and Kinokuniya.
  • Translating migration: Multilingual Poems of Movement: A collection of poems from migrant workers, asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. Bhing and other MWS members are contributors.This e-book can be found on Amazon.
  • No Cinderella?: By MWS member Rolinda Onates Española. It shares her poems detailing the experiences of domestic workers who work in a first-world city. The book can be found on BooksActually, Kinokuniya, City Book Room and The Moon.
Poem at National Gallery
Caption: Bhing’s poem at the National Gallery. Image source: Bhing Navato

Bhing is also a ‘Gallery Sister Guide’ for other domestic workers at the National Gallery, where she was invited to write a poem for the gallery’s fifth anniversary. It is on display at the South-East Asian gallery, next to a painting of renowned Filipino artist Fernando Amorsolo.

Bhing also shares that she is working on a book of poetry about her time in Singapore as a domestic worker, with illustrations by a famous Filipino artist, Robert Alejandro.

“When I was writing, I was emotional because it reminded me of my first year here. Especially when I started writing about my first flight here, it’s a mix of emotions, I’m excited, but I’m sad.”

Bhing hopes that her writing will be able to help bring awareness to the lives of migrant workers here.

Says Bhing: “From there they will know our different stories, where we came from, how our situation is here, because we are our writings. When we write, it is what we feel.”

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Top Image: Bhing Navato