‘I’m feeling sad, but what can I do?’: What it's like to be away from family on Deepavali

‘I’m feeling sad, but what can I do?’: What it's like to be away from family on Deepavali

Deepavali lights 2018
Deepavali lights seen along Serangoon Road. (Photo: Ainslee Asokan)

SINGAPORE: He longs to see his 5-year-old son and wishes he could be back in India with his wife for Deepavali.

"I'm so happy whenever I see them," Kotisuntaram said. He breaks into a smile whenever he speaks about his family.

But for Deepavali this year, the 31-year-old construction worker will only be making a video call with his family from his dormitory room.

“This year I’m just staying in Singapore for Deepavali. I’m in Singapore to find money and I want to take my salary and give it to my family instead of using it on plane tickets to fly back home,” he said.

Deepavali, the festival of lights, is one of the most important Hindu festivals in India. The festival is also celebrated in several other Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore, which will be commemorating it on Tuesday (Nov 6).

Those celebrating the occasion put on lavish outfits, erect spectacular light displays to mark the triumph of light over darkness and indulge in feasts fit for a king. And just like Chinese New Year and Christmas, there is a heavy emphasis on spending the occasion, which can last several days, with family.

But those occasions are rare for Kotisuntaram, who has been working in Singapore for 13 years.

kotisuntaram deepvali
Kotisuntaram, 31, is eagerly anticipating spending Deepavali with his family once he saves up enough money. (Photo: Ainslee Asokan)

He was able to return to Tamil Nadu last year to celebrate the festival with his family, an occasion he cherished. 

“Last year’s Deepavali celebrations were so good when the family came together,” Kotisuntaram said.

The day had started with him picking out festive clothes for his wife and son, before settling in to watch the fireworks that were put together specially for the day.

“I was so happy to be with my family.

"So happy."

As of 2017, there are about 1.4 million foreign workers in Singapore, with 1.1 million of them being S Pass and work permit holders, according to the Ministry of Manpower. 

For many, financial constraints and not being able to take time off work, stand in the way of them going home on festive occasions.

“I miss spending Deepavali back home,” said Sebaria, 29, a technician who has been working here for two years.

"What is Deepavali here without my family? 

“I’m feeling sad, but what can I do?” he said with a despondent shrug before he grew quiet.

When asked if he would go back to India if given the chance, he said: "They are my family so I'm happy if I'm with them for Deepavali, but economically it is not good for me."

arulmania deepavali
Sebaria, 29, is one of the few foreign workers who will be spending Deepavali in Singapore this year. (Photo: Ainslee Asokan)

A return plane ticket which can cost up to S$300 during the festive period has stopped Sebaria from visiting his family back in India.

It is a big sum for foreign workers like him who are paid low wages and have debts to clear. 

“(Workers) who come to Singapore from Bangladesh and India, they actually pay very high agent fees,” said Isabel Phua, programme head for Migrant X Me an initiative that aims to bridge the gap between the migrant worker community and youths in Singapore.

Agent fees can sometimes go up to S$20,000, she said of work permit holders. 

“When they come to Singapore, their contracts are only one to two years long and they are being paid S$400 to S$500 dollars a month.

“Even if you send back the full amount every month, it is still not enough to cover the debts that they are in and so that is why they choose to work overtime,” she said as she explained why many of these workers make the painful decision to spend Deepavali away from their families.

TIME TO MAKAN

Many of the foreign workers who are not able to be with their families make the best of their time in Singapore by preparing a feast of their own – like Arulmania, 27, a maintenance worker.

“I’m cooking mutton and chicken curry in my dorm!” he said excitedly as he laid out his plans for Tuesday.

“This year, I will be cooking, makan, and going to the movies,” he said.

For these foreign workers, “makan” - meaning to eat in Malay - is a highlight of the Deepavali celebrations.

And initiatives like Oh Wow! by It's Raining Raincoats are using food to reach out to those who are away from their families on Deepavali.


Oh Wow! which was rolled out on Saturday, encourages Singaporeans to invite foreign workers for a home-cooked meal, restaurant outing or even for a quick lunch together at various work sites, said founder of It's Raining Raincoats, Dipa Swaminathan. 

food distribution at construction site
One of Oh Wow!'s initiatives is to distribute food to work sites, and to join the workers for a meal. (Photo: Dipa Swaminathan)

Oh Wow! volunteers have been visiting work sites around Singapore to hand out pizza and doughnuts to the workers and to join them for a meal as part of their Deepavali outreach.

"The workers are just delighted when someone comes up to them with a meal at their work sites because it is so unprecedented," said Ms Dipa.

"Actions like these show them that there are Singaporeans out there who care about their welfare. These workers helped build this city and this shows that people are genuinely aware of them."

IT STARTS WITH A "HAPPY DEEPAVALI"

Aside from food-related initiatives, there are also performances and events being organised for these foreign workers.

The Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) is organising a night of song and dance at a dormitory in Seletar to usher in the Deepavali spirit.

mr yeo mwc
Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, chairman of the Migrants Workers' Centre speaks to other members of the organisation at its headquarters located along Serangoon Road. (Photo: Ainslee Asokan)

“The festive (season) is really one good opportunity to engage with them and really make them feel warm," said MWC's chairman Mr Yeo Guat Kwang.

“With all these events happening, migrant workers get to move away from the mindset of just working,” said one of MWC’s ambassadors, Subramaniyan Varatharajan, 51, who has been working in Singapore as a driver.

“These events give workers the opportunity to de-stress, and at least for those few hours they get to be themselves,” he said.

But Mr Yeo also said it is not enough just to hold such events.

“If you are talking about helping these workers during Deepavali, it is quite one-off,” agreed Ms Phua, adding that befriending the workers would be a better long-term alternative.

And sometimes, befriending them could even start with just a simple festive greeting - "Happy Deepavali!"

Source: CNA/aa(ms)

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