by Marilyn Peh on

When Suraj Upadhiah first travelled to Kolkata in 2008, he made a beeline for the red-light district of Sonagachi. And no, it’s not what you think.

Then fresh out of junior college, he had felt compelled to learn more about the lives of children born to prostitute mothers, after watching the documentary Born into Brothels. There was little to prepare him for the sight of row upon row of prepubescent girls lined up against the narrow corridors waiting for clients. The air was heavy with a putrid smell, and he was shocked to see a dead body left to decompose in the open alleyway.

Despite these living conditions, many of the children he met were optimistic and alive with hopes and dreams. One boy eagerly told Suraj that he was going to become a Bollywood star when he grew up, while another girl said she would become a journalist that reported only good news because there was too much bad news going around the world.

Their outlook was a “slap of hope” to him at a time when he was grieving from losing his mother and feeling down and out. This sense of dignity and resilience inspired the founding of Air Amber, which saw Suraj and his close friend Shahril Hassan throw themselves into raising awareness about human trafficking around the region.

With a guiding principle of “Bigger hearts, smaller world”, Air Amber’s work has since evolved to include various social enterprise projects, both local and abroad, with the insight that building meaningful relationships reduces apathy and empowers marginalised communities.

Mindful that the needy don’t break out of the poverty cycle when they remain passive receivers of aid, the Air Amber team constantly tries to level the connection and bring the beneficiaries to an equal footing.

2
On a visit to Kathmandu, the team created Butterfly Books, a project to publish books illustrated and written by children rescued from life in Nepalese prisons. Image Source: Air Amber

Citing Singapore as an example, Suraj said, “Here, we have a lot of resources, but now we’re seeing the consequence of too much financial resources and what it does to the individual dignity and spirit. They’re stuck in the beneficiary mindset where they’re always receiving, and there’s nothing else.”

To overcome this learned helplessness, Air Amber tries to turn skills into viable and sustainable business models. Just recently, they embarked on a project with The Butterfly Home in Nepal, which rescues children born to women in jail. Many of the children were good illustrators and writers, and they were putting together a book about their life’s experiences to be shared with children who were still growing up within prison walls. Recognising this asset, the Air Amber team plans to market the book to a global audience, with a significant part of the revenue to go back to the centre.

Tiziana Tan, who heads Air Amber’s enterprise work, said, “The kids see that they aren’t just taking handouts, they’re actually working to create something to help their home. This process of co-creation and co-development helps to build dignity among the youths and with the people we work with.”

Closer to home, the group organises a weekly gathering for transient workers at Suraj’s home at Jalan Bumbong in Woodlands. Called Bumbong Sunsets, the gatherings welcome dozens of transient workers each Saturday for a get-together where they can let their hair down and make friends with locals, bridging the invisible divide between both communities in the process.

1
The Air Amber team hosting transient workers at Bumbong Sunsets. Image Source: Air Amber

To most Singaporeans, taking public transport is just a means to an end. But the experience means much more to the workers, treasured as a rare opportunity to experience the island. Yet, many don’t own EZ link cards and an unfortunate few were even scolded by a bus driver once for holding up other passengers.

So between 20 – 22 July, Air Amber will hold a ‘Pass it on’ EZ-link card donation drive at the Raffles Place Park where the public can donate their spare cards to transient workers. Not losing an opportunity to practise their mantra of building relationships, the cards will come with a plain sticker where the donors can write a message for the recipients, and the recipients can add on with their own before passing it on to another worker when they leave Singapore.

“For the working professionals, this is an opportunity to build a relationship with the marginalised migrant workers, a group that they wouldn’t have access to under normal circumstances,” said Shahril.

Air Amber is a social enterprise that works with local and foreign partners to create a positive impact on the community. In addition to enterprise projects, the team also conducts value-based workshops and experiential tours for students in a bid to widen their world views and encourage self-discovery on social issues.

For more information, please visit their website.