Revathi Priya is no stranger to volunteering with migrant worker groups, frequently joining non-profits to distribute gift packets and food during festive seasons. However, she felt that her previous interactions with migrant workers were one-sided and unfulfilling.
"I realised that most of these volunteering efforts were about giving the migrant workers something. The volunteers usually give the workers what they need and leave. There was no real interaction there," shared the 27-year-old clinical researcher.
All that changed a year ago when she saw an Instagram post by an old secondary school friend, Hema Kalamogan, calling for volunteers for her new initiative, Vaangae Anna. Since then, Revathi has been volunteering with Vaangae Anna for the past year.
Together with co-founder Shobana Sreetharan, Revarthi Priya (pictured) handles all the operations in Singapore.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/TARINI TILVE
Vaangae Anna (Vaa-nga-Un-neh), which means "Come, Brother" in Tamil, aims to create a safe space for migrant workers, also known as 'brothers', to interact with Singaporeans.
Vaangae Anna is founded by teacher Shobana Sreetharan, 26, and social enterprise member Hema Kalamogan, 27, who is currently studying overseas. The youth-led initiative is now supported by a team of 11 dedicated volunteers.
The initiative started out with simple social events, where they met the brothers for monthly cricket sessions. They usually organise activities based on what the brothers like, so that both the participants and brothers can learn about each other.
They found that cricket worked best because of how popular it was among the brothers.
Revathi recalled fondly: "When the brothers teach the sport to the locals, they feel empowered. We wanted to create a scenario where the migrant workers could teach Singaporeans instead of always having them on the receiving end."
Every last Sunday of every month, the brothers teach Singaporeans how to play cricket.
PHOTO CREDIT: REVATHI PRIYA
Despite the team's keen interest in befriending the brothers, Revathi shared that their first few encounters were still awkward.
"The brothers were apprehensive at first because most Singaporeans don't talk to them. In fact, most of the migrant workers I met were surprised there were local Singaporeans that spoke Tamil, which spoke volumes to me," said Revathi, who also visited their dormitories and distributed snacks.
Revathi was also worried about not being able to find common ground with them. After a few face-to-face conversations in Tamil and over Whatsapp, Revathi and her team found a breakthrough.
They realised how much the brothers enjoyed talking about their favourite actors or politics back home.
"There was so little we knew about their interests. It showed me how restricted our current ways of interaction really were," added Revathi.
Since then, Vaangae Anna has moved on to sharing the brothers' stories at advocacy events, to spread awareness about the reality of migrant workers in Singapore.
In September 2019, they organised their first human library event, giving participants first-hand accounts about the hardships of being a migrant worker in Singapore.
Revathi shared a particularly memorable story about Rubel, a 30-year-old Bangladeshi who has worked in Singapore for a decade. An avid reader, Rubel found it challenging to find books in his language here. He initiated a migrant library where books in different languages could be found.
"Rubel found different ways for [migrant workers] to do what they like. He created a migrant cultural show to give them a space to express themselves. It is very much tied to what Vaangae Anna wants to achieve too," said Revathi.
Rubel's journey is described on a post about the human library event.
PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK.COM/VAANGAE ANNA
"Some people don't realise that these brothers are just like us. We want people to know that migrant workers are more than their jobs, just like you and me. All of that stems from having interactions," she said.
One of their key events include celebrating major festive occasions, like Deepavali, with the brothers.
"We want to give the brothers time to lay back and relax. Our festive events help to create a friendly atmosphere where the brothers can have a sense of family," shared Revathi, adding that such occasions are challenging for the brothers as most have been away from family and friends for years.
During last year's Deepavali celebration, the participants and brother taught each other childhood games.
PHOTO CREDIT: REVATHI PRIYA
"Our events are unique because of how flexible they are. It helps us create more meaningful interactions because we can change things up based on what the brothers and volunteers want to do in that moment."
Together with another youth-led initiative Migrant x Me, Vaangae Anna is throwing a Deepavali party at the Indian Heritage Centre this weekend.
Vaangae Anna hopes that migrant workers (pictured) can feel at home in Singapore.
PHOTO CREDIT: REVATHI PRIYA
Ultimately, Revathi hopes that such social events will offer fulfilling interactions with the brothers, allowing them a chance to see beyond stereotypes.
"The brothers will be performing skits and dances that they came up with at the party. It will be a place for free interaction and we hope that people will see the brothers as humans with skills and talents first, workers second."
Find out more about Vaangae Anna here.
BANNER AND TEASER PHOTO CREDIT: REVATHI PRIYA