Dutch expat, twice published author and general do-gooder Karien Van Ditzhuijzen is deeply involved in the daily operations of HOME, the registered charity that offers shelter and support for runaway domestic workers in Singapore. Her latest project is a book of non-fiction stories by some of the many women that the organisation has helped.
Domestic workers can be seen everywhere in Singapore’s streetscape, Karien points out – in our parks, in shopping centres, and most importantly in our homes. But who are they really? Although these women form an integral part of our society, their voices are not often heard in Singapore literature.
The idea of Our Homes, Our Stories is to give a voice and a face to migrant domestic workers in Singapore, she says. At the same time, it aims to create awareness of the heart-breaking issues that confront them, both here and in their home countries. It’s to be launched this month in celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March.
How are you involved with HOME?
I’ve been part of HOME since 2012, in several capacities, including managing the shelter and its volunteers. At the shelter, I have run empowerment workshops and classes in creative writing. In 2014, I founded the HOME MyVoice blog (myvoiceathome.org) as a platform for migrant workers to share their stories. This book publication project is a culmination of all the work that we’ve been doing with our domestic worker writers over the years.
What are the stories about?
The 28 stories by 26 writers explore different facets of the theme “home”: “Home is Where the Heart Is”, “At Home with My Employer”, “My Home My Country”, “Making a Home away from Home”, “At Home in the Shelter”, “Returning Home”, and so on. They cover a variety of subjects relating to the lives of migrant domestic workers, positive as well as negative experiences. Their stories are compelling, insightful, and at times horrifying. They are important and need to be read!
Many stories also offer glimpses into their lives back home, from growing up in a beautiful mountain village, to struggling to find work and to make ends meet. They also address some of the difficulties migrant workers experience: broken families, children growing up without their parents, husbands who cheat and more.
Who are the writers?
They’re either residents of the shelter, or they’re part of HOME’s network of domestic worker volunteers. Each has been coached by an experienced volunteer, so as to guarantee a consistent quality of writing throughout the book while maintaining the writer’s original voice.
I tried to get a good selection of stories by women from different nationalities, and made sure that next to sad stories from HOME shelter residents there are ones from our HOME volunteers who have been lucky to have found good employers that treat them well.
I think this book offers a very good and balanced insight into what life is like for a domestic worker in Singapore. As one of them says, they have to move into a new family as a stranger every time, which is stressful enough even with a good employer. It’s important for an employer to realise this.
Tell us about your team for this project.
So many people have helped! Apart from our regular staff and volunteers, I had a couple of volunteers who had already done creative writing workshops at the HOME shelter. My friend Pleun Brevet has been our invaluable project manager, and Kim Scheepers did all the design work.
I also advertised through Singapore Writers Group for experienced writers to coach the women in their writing – not just to fix their grammar, but also to help them improve their style and learn how to build a strong narrative.
Most important to me in this project was the working together of the domestic worker writers with our volunteers. Some were good writers already and just needed a little editing. Others had fascinating stories to tell, but no experience in writing, and therefore needed more coaching.
Those who had little or no English would work with a volunteer who spoke their own language. Our volunteer group included Bahasa Indonesia and Burmese speakers, plus several writing enthusiasts from the IWA (Indian Women’s Association).
How was the book funded?
As all the other work was done by volunteers, printing was our only cost. I’d originally planned to foot that bill myself, but one of our volunteers suggested crowdfunding. Not only was that a great way to raise awareness early on in the project, but we also sold a lot of copies even before they’d been printed!
How much did you raise through crowdfunding?
Our goal was $4,000, and that went really well. In the end, the printing cost was lower than expected, so we were left with some money to spare. That will of course go straight to HOME, as will every cent raised through sales of the book.
Where can our readers get hold of the book?
Visit my blogsite (myvoiceathome.org/our-homes-our-stories) for up-to-date information on where to find a copy. It’s also available in e-book form from all major international retailers.
From the authors…
“ Being part of this project has given me the opportunity to share my story with people. The project also helped me a lot with my writing, thanks to our very patient and hardworking volunteers who made every part of the process easier for us. I will treasure this book for the rest of my life.” – Juliet Ugay, author of “Coming Home
” “The most important message of my story is that there is always hope. As a domestic worker, it’s very important that we know our basic rights – like, we should not allow our employers to abuse us in any way. When I mentioned to my employer that I was going to be a part of this book, she was very happy and excited. She said she was very proud of me.” – Robina Navato, author of “I Love My Job”
“The importance of writing down your story is knowing that it will be read by others and that someone might be inspired by it. Sharing what you’ve been through can lessen the burden and pain it inflicted on you. I hope these stories will not only inspire my fellow OFWs (overseas foreign workers), but also help employers understand the pain and sacrifice of leaving our kids behind and becoming a stranger to them. We can always earn money, but we can never earn back the time we have lost.” – Miriam Empil Escander, author of “Sacrifice”
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