Redemptorist Br Karl M. Gaspar giving the keynote address at the Humanitarian Forum & Fair organised by CHARIS.

By Christopher Khoo

More than 800 people listened raptly as people who have served the needy in the region shared their experiences at the recent Humanitarian Forum & Fair.

The two-yearly event, organised by CHARIS (Caritas Humanitarian Aid & Relief Initiatives, Singapore), was held at Catholic Junior College on June 10.

It aims to provide the Catholic community with opportunities to listen, learn and engage with organisations involved in humanitarian aid and disaster response initiatives in the region.

In her welcome address, CHARIS chairman Jenny Teng said she hoped that the event, which had the theme, Impact, would “bring forth a greater and deeper consciousness for each of us to exercise a preferential option for the poor”.

She noted that many in the audience have been on mission trips building houses for the poor, providing education and journeying with the marginalised.

“Perhaps we should be asking ourselves these questions,” she said. “Are we building communities or building houses? Are we giving education or are we patronising the poor? Are we listening to the cries of the voiceless or just responding to those with loud voices. Are we working with our partners for the good of the poor or are we just searching for our own gratification?”

Challenges in Asia 

In his presentation entitled Encountering the Asian Face of Poverty, keynote speaker Redemptorist Br Karl M. Gaspar gave statistics on poverty in the world. Br Gaspar, who is academic dean of St Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute in Davao City, Philippines, noted that:
– More than 795 million people in the world suffer from chronic hunger.
– 62.4 percent come from Asia and the South Pacific.
– 75 percent live in rural areas in Asia.

Br Gaspar, who has spent the last 30 years serving the poor in the Philippines, including the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, said that children are the most visible victims of hunger. He shared that:
– 17 million babies are born underweight annually due to poor nutrition.
– 146 million children continue to be underweight due to acute or chronic hunger.

The reasons for poverty and hunger in Asia include social inequality, conflict, natural disasters, climate change and exponential population growth.

People can help by engaging in advocacy to stop hunger, pledging to help the poor, getting involved with soup kitchens, minimising food wastage and praying for the poor and hungry, he suggested.

Participants at the event held at Catholic Junior College.

Impact speakers

Four speakers then shared their varied experiences in mission work.

Mr Christopher James, founder of Fishing Rod, an organisation which serves refugees in Kuala Lumpur, said his former experience as a volunteer teacher in a refugee learning centre in the city led to him taking on a bigger role in this area.

In 2016, Fishing Rod adopted the Zotung Refugee Catholic Learning Centre, which was at the brink of closure. 

“I put in best practices from the corporate world,” he said, such as providing school books, uniforms and paying the teachers better wages.

Fishing Rod later adopted a Malaysian orphanage, a refugee camp, and a convalescence home. One memorable experience was of the beneficiaries taking part in a carolling activity to raise funds, he shared.

Ms Clare Westwood, from Malaysia, said her life changed when she joined an NGO in Penang in 2005 serving the less fortunate in the region.

The researcher with Third World Network, an international network involved in issues relating to development, shared how she gained experience helping poor farmers, and working for women and children’s rights

Now she does workshops on Laudato Si’, the pope’s encyclical on the environment.

Mr Joshua De Souza, a volunteer with Barre, a Singapore group serving underprivileged children in Southeast Asia, spoke about his experience doing outreach work in Kontum, in the central highlands of Vietnam.

He taught English to students there whose families are mainly subsistence farmers, some of whom have had their land taken by the government.

The hope is that these students will then teach English in their own communities to improve their opportunities in life.

The last speaker, Redemptorist Fr Simon Pereira, told the crowd: “Don’t think you can’t change the world because you can!”

He said that many young people are now going on mission to various countries.

Mission gives you a sense of self-knowledge and also helps you to appreciate your family, he said.

Ms Rose Phyo Yu Par from Myanmar speaking at a breakout track.

Breakout tracks

Participants then had the option to listen to speakers in four breakout tracks which were held concurrently. These were:
– Building Communities from Within and Without, which focused on how to build capabilities and cultivate leaders from within marginalised communities.
– Bridging the Gap Through Education, which looked at how the poor can succeed through education.
– Telling the Story of Silent Communities, which was about giving a voice to the marginalised.
– Changing the World Together, which focused on how volunteer groups can collaborate and synergise their efforts to meet different needs in a community.

Several of the speakers, such as Gelentio Aboganda, 18, left a deep impression on participants.
Aboganda shared in the first breakout track that he grew up in Payatas, a slum area in the Philippines, where people lived by scavenging from a rubbish dump and eating food discarded by restaurants.

At the age of eight, he started attending a free school in the area, where he came under a feeding programme run by Singapore Catholic missionary organisation Acts 29.

The organisation helped him to process his birth certificate, and with that, he could attend school formally. He says his mission now is to help other children like him in Payatas to read and write.

Other speakers included 24-year-old Rose Phyo Yu Par, who comes from a farming family in Myanmar. During the second breakout track, she shared how she benefited from the Canossians’ Formation of Educators Programme there.

Singaporean Monica Goh also spoke about her experience as a volunteer teacher in the Epiphany group programme, which provides humanitarian aid to communities in the Indonesian Riau Islands.

During Mass which followed, Archbishop William Goh shared a story of how Mother Teresa noticed that a poor family was in need of food and gave them two bags of rice. However, the mother decided to give one bag to another poorer family down the road, as they were also without food.

“We are never too poor to give because there will always be someone poorer than us,” said Archbishop Goh.

The Canossian booth showcasing items made by Myanmar beneficiaries.

Participants said they found the event an eye-opener.

Ms Carol Pereira, who has a background in social work, and who was attending the CHARIS event for the first time, said she was impressed that so much was being done to help the needy overseas, and that there are many opportunities for people to join.

She added that she is now thinking of joining a mission group.

Mr Ricky Yeo said that he was particularly impressed with Aboganda’s sharing. He added that he has applied to work with CHARIS as a volunteer.

The forum and fair also saw CHARIS affiliates and partners setting up booths to showcase their humanitarian projects and volunteer opportunities. Additional reporting: MARISSA CHEW

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