There are not many places in Singapore where migrant workers can find shelter. At the homes run by Bridget Lew, they will always find safety, love and hope.
Right, Bridget Lew embraces a resident whom she had previously been harsh with and asks her for forgiveness. Such acts teach the community about forgiveness and reconciliation.
SINGAPORE - As the blanket-covered gate of the Madonna Grotto opens to reveal a cozy garden with numerous chairs and tables, a German Shepherd bounds up to inspect the visitors. The dog is held back by one of the residents of the Madonna Grotto.
Her small frame seems too frail to control the large animal should it decide to suddenly charge. Fortunately, after a little sniffing inspection, it returns to the house, satisfied.
Madonna Grotto is one of three shelters operated by the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (Home). Making their home in this shelter, a single-storey semi detached house in Serangoon Gardens, are 30 women, most of whom are or were foreign domestic workers. Several of the residents were rescued from a life of prostitution, a situation into which they had been tricked into, or forced by circumstances, for some.
A few minutes in the house is enough for me to observe that there are many cats running around. Eleven in all, I was later told. "It's part of my pet therapy," revealed Bridget Lew. "Some of these women, especially those who have been trafficked into sex services, are so traumatized that they cannot relate to people, but they can relate to animals."
Above, Joey and Rico are the two German Shepherds that guard the two women's shelters. They also form part of Home's pet therapy. The pets provide all residents an unconditional acceptance of their personhood.
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Ms Lew is the president of Home, which was set up in September 2004 in response to the growing concern over the plight of some foreign workers in Singapore. In February 2005, it was registered as a charity organization.
Believing that migrant workers play a vital role in contributing to the Singapore community, with roles that are integral to the economic and social fabric of Singapore, Home intends to build a "culture of welcome" for the global family in Singapore.
Home manages two shelters for women (Madonna Grottoes), and one for men (St. Joseph's Grotto). Free lodging and food are provided for destitute migrants who either approach them directly or are referred by the authorities and civic groups. The residents of these shelters stay for periods from a month to a year. This period is dependent on the investigation process by enforcement agencies. However, the "Grottoes" are more than mere shelters.
During their long stay at the Madonna Grotto, residents participate in a holistic care therapy programme developed to facilitate the healing of mind, body and soul.
"We try to involve the girls in dance and song," explained Ms Lew, who often gives presentations at schools and other organizations. Some of the women from the shelter are asked to perform their song and dance at these presentations, and to share their own stories. This helps to reach out to people, and let them know of their plight.
Right, Ica Paryati, a Muslim, dances as her friends sing the Magnificat. The Magnificat, prayed by the Virgin Mary, is the theme song for the Madonna Grotto. Every woman who passes through the shelter is taught that song of praise to God.
This care therapy is supported by volunteers who host the re-learning of life skills and values that would enhance the employability and well-being of the participants.
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"It is very different here," said Ika Dariyati, who had previously stayed at the Indonesian embassy after being physically abused by her family employer. "Here I can show my talent. I can make cards, teddy bears, can sing and dance."
Recognizing that spiritual and emotional healing is critical to the wellness of traumatized persons, the residents are encouraged both to worship, and to engage in leisure arts. Celebration parties are organized for festive and special occasions. Pets provide all residents an unconditional acceptance of their personhood. Residents experience the power of "family" love, in prayer, work and play.
As in every family and community, disagreements are bound to occur. The women in the shelter do have their quarrels and fights, but these incidents provide opportunities for Ms Lew to impart her Christian values. When a case of theft was brought up to her, Ms Lew sought not to judge the accused immediately, but to hear all sides of the story, always emphasizing the importance of honesty and objectivity. The women openly tell their story, trusting their "Big Sister Bridget" to give a fair hearing.
At the celebration of the fourth anniversary since the first Madonna Grotto was set up in 2002 on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, all 60 women, including a past resident, Ethel, and her current employers, Stuart and Sue Crafts, joined in for the session held at the Madonna Grotto located in Siglap.
During the session, Ms Lew apologized to the women for the times when she got angry with them, and asked for their forgiveness, personally embracing each one of those whom she had been harsh with in previous weeks. Tears flowed freely as these women experienced, perhaps for their first time, a Singaporean asking forgiveness from them.
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It is evident that the Madonna Grotto is more than just a shelter to many of these women. Cecilia Famat, 26, was a past resident at the Madonna Grotto. Her current employer is away on holidays, and when given the option of staying with the employment agency or at the shelter, she immediately chose the shelter. "There are just so many things to do here," she said excitedly. "It's fun to get to know other fellow Filipinos, and I am curious about their cases."
During the celebration held on Aug 15, Ms Lew taught the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian women to be honest, loving, and forgiving to one another, values which are universal in all religions, and to worship the same God.
"All the girls who pass through this shelter learn the Magnificat," smiled Ms Lew. It is a song of praise and thanks to God, first sung by Mary, to whom the shelter is dedicated. She also teaches the women that "the most important thing is that when you leave [the shelter], you do a good job that your employers will be happy with."
In fact, Stuart and Sue Crafts were "exceptionally happy" with Ethel, who was once a resident at the Madonna Grotto. They had been in Singapore for two months and went through what Sue called "a horrible, horrible experience" with several employment agencies, who she said she felt that they seemed "more interested in us signing the papers and getting the money."
Chancing across an article on StarHome Personnel, an employment agency initiated by Home as a social enterprise to generate funds for needy migrants in Singapore, Sue decided to give it a try, and was completely satisfied with Ethel, one of the six "excellent" foreign domestic workers she had to choose from.
"I trust her with my boys," said Sue happily. "We give her every Sunday off, because she's a Catholic and it's important for her to go to church. She gets a rest day, and I get to be a mother."
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In addition to StarHome Personnel, Home also initiated the Thrift Shoppe and Home Cyber CafÃ©, which generates some funds to maintain the three shelters. These shelters cost about at least $10,000 a month to operate, given that there are about 80 people staying in them at any one time.
Although Home was registered as a secular society, and not under the umbrella of the Archdiocese of Singapore, it has since gained the support of a global Catholic movement concerned with the pastoral care of migrants - the Lay Scalabrinian Missionary Movement of the Congregation of the Sister of St. Charles Borromeo Scalabrini.
It is a secular institute which is part of the family of the Scalabrinian Missionaries founded on Nov 28, 1887 by Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini, for religious, moral, social and legal care of migrants. He was beatified Nov 9, 1997 by Pope John Paul II who declared him the church's main "Patron of migrants".
Members of the lay movement are called to live their consecration to God in a secular form of life, which makes them encounter Christ and recognize him in the most uprooted and poorest of migrants.
Home is also dedicated to the enhancement of skills of migrant workers through its courses, as well as supporting the work of law enforcement agencies. It also aims to communicate to the world that, as a people, Singapore is law-abiding and welcomes guest workers to contribute to nation-building.