How the art of story-telling is drawing attention to the plight of refugees

On World Refugee Day (June 20), Salt&Light remembers the millions who have been forcibly displaced from their homes.

by Christine Leow // June 13, 2024, 2:43 pm


When Poh Yanting was asked to draw the story of a refugee for the World Refugee Day Singapore art exhibition, she gladly agreed because she had always wanted to "use art to share God's work". Photo courtesy of Poh Yanting.

Mary lost her entire family to tribal war in Kenya and in one fell swoop became, not only an orphan, but a refugee.

Alone and afraid, she lived in a tent made of plastic sheets and bits of wood that threatened to collapse each time there was a storm.


Mary’s story was illustrated by Yanting, who hopes to one day illustrate children’s books. Photo from the World Refugee Day Singapore Instagram account.

On another continent, Sakina belongs to the heavily persecuted minority group, Hazara, in Pakistan. When the market in which her brother worked was bombed, she and her family fled to Indonesia. Strangers in a strange land, she constantly worried that her family would not have enough to eat.

In yet another country, Hanifa, aged 11, witnessed a terrorist attack on her village. They killed the men and carried off the women. Those who managed to escape ended up at a displacement camp. Hanifa herself lived in an abandoned building. Though she eventually returned home, married and had a child, she found it difficult to break the cycle of poverty. 


The story of Hanifa was illustrated by Wong Enkai, a Year 5 Visual Arts student at SOTA. Photo from the World Refugee Day Singapore Instagram account.

These are but a few of the millions of stories of persecution, war and violence experienced by refugees worldwide. There are some 130 million men, women and children in the world today who are displaced, disenfranchised and in dire need of help.

To commemorate World Refugee Day  on June 20, the plight of refugees and the work of NGOs aiding them will be depicted in artwork created by refugees and Singaporean artists working together.

This is more than a creative collaboration behind The World Refugee Day 2024 Art Exhibition and Coffee (June 17-30).

The two-week exhibition at One Holland Village is the result of various threads drawn together into a tapestry of love and compassion.

The first thread  

The exhibition featuring 10 refugee stories is the brainchild Refugee SG, a collective of faith-based NGOs dedicated to helping refugees. Among them is local coffee group, Mad Roaster, run by Madeline Chan.

Madeline Chan started Mad Roaster to give refugees a job. Four years on, she is still doing it because “refugees still need help and structural change”. Photo courtesy of Madeline Chan.

In 2020, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, Madeline gave up the corporate life to open a coffee stall in the Central Business District (CBD).

“Refugee stories are often so complex and emotionally heavy. We wanted to tell their stories in a simple way.”

The former lawyer did it, not for the love of a good cuppa nor some grand vision of becoming an entrepreneur, but for the love of refugees.

She wanted to give them jobs so that they could be independent and need not rely on charity. Selling their handicraft was the usual route but it was not sustainable.

“There are limits to altruism,” she told Salt&Light in an interview in 2021.

“I wanted to sell something that people would buy in regular numbers every month, and do it again and again. This would provide the refugees with regular income.”

Coffee came to mind and that was how Mad Roaster came to be. Madeline pays refugees to colour the logo on each cup of coffee Mad Roaster sells.

A year after Mad Roaster went into business, Madeline began to use social media to draw attention to the refugee situation leading up to World Refugee Day. Again, art came into play as she used art to tell the refugees’ stories.

Each sticker that adorns a Mad Roaster cup or packaging is coloured by a refugee. Photo courtesy of Madeline Chan.

“Refugee stories are often so complex and emotionally heavy. We wanted to tell their stories in a simple way that even children could follow.

“Plus, illustration has the added bonus of allowing the refugees to keep their identities hidden, which is a big thing to a lot of the refugees.

“Once we got to working with the artists, it was a shame their work was only going to be seen online. One of the members of our team suggested holding an exhibition to actually put up these works physically. So that’s how the art exhibition idea came about.”

But more was needed to make the idea concrete.

“To be honest, it very likely would have remained just an idea if not for the generosity of Far East Organization, who sponsored the amazing venue for us to hold the exhibition.”


The weekend market that will take place alongside the art exhibition will feature products made by refugees. Proceeds from the sales will go towards supporting refugee programmes and initiatives. Photo courtesy of Madeline Chan.

Because she had the space, Madeline decided to set up a weekend market as well (June 22-23). The booths will showcase products made by refugees such as all-natural balms, soy-wax candles, tote bags and apparel.

Refugees will also conduct art workshops virtually.

Strand by strand

Poh Yanting, 35, is one of the local artists who contributed to the exhibition. She drew the story of Mary the Kenyan.


A panel from the story of Mary that Yanting illustrated. Photo from the World Refugee Day Singapore Instagram account.

But Yanting is not an artist. She is a physiotherapist. In her line of work, she often saw people at their worst – ill, injured, or infirm. One patient in particular drew her compassion more than any other. The woman was elderly, frail and alone.

“It has been my dream to use art to share God’s work.”

“Prayers for her came naturally,” said Yanting.

So began her habit of praying with patients after work. As she prayed, she found her heart softening towards the disadvantaged. Then came the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe.

“I was drawn to their situation. I wanted to do outreach beyond Singapore.”

So years later when she followed her husband to Europe because of his work, Yanting hoped that she could volunteer with organisations that aided refugees. It turned out to be more difficult that she had anticipated.

In the five years she lived abroad, Yanting sought instead to share the Gospel with local friends she made. She immersed herself in local life, picking up the language and taking art classes.

“I wanted to draw my dog, Rey.”

Yanting and her dog, Rey. Photo courtesy of Poh Yanting

Time in Europe flew by and Yanting returned to Singapore. A friend who worked in an NGO knew of her new-found hobby and asked her to be one of the artists for the exhibition. Just like that, the two seemingly separate passions Yanting had been developing – art and the refugee cause – came together.

“It has been my dream to use art to share God’s work. I never thought I could help in this way. It’s interesting how art can connect people, how God sends people to fulfil the project.

“I had been so fixated on helping a certain group of people in a certain way and I was so disappointed not to be able to do it. But God can train you up. My time in Europe made me realise that sometimes it is nice not to plan things.”

Woven into a whole

Grace Tan, 21, is another of the artists who contributed her talent to the exhibition. She drew the story of Sakina who fled from her home in Pakistan to Indonesia.


A draft of the drawing Grace Tan did. She used digital art to tell the story. Photo courtesy of Grace Tan.

Grace grew up in a Christian family that taught her to “think of others before myself”.

From a young age, she volunteered to help children with special needs and went abroad to build a well and a home, and work among the locals.

In her mid-teens, she went on a mission trip that gave her greater clarity about her direction in life.

Grace building a house on a the school trip abroad. Photo courtesy of Grace Tan.

“I felt like God was speaking to me and helping me to realise that there is so much more in this world that is so much bigger than me that He wanted me to see.”

“It has been quite insightful to be a small part of a big project.”

While God was broadening Grace’s horizons, He was also steering her life.

Always interested in storytelling, she had thought she would major in Literature in the university. But one semester into her studies at the National University of Singapore, she was prompted to pursue animation art at LASALLE College of the Arts instead.

“It was something I had thought of doing but didn’t have to courage to do. It was a big leap of faith.”

Because her pastor knew of her interest in art, he connected her with Madeline. Her interest and her heart for the underserved found a platform for expression.

“I feel that art is a good way to help people understand a situation. It is a medium that can engage people in different ways.

“I didn’t realise how big this project was until I found out how many artists were involved in it. It has been quite insightful to be a small part of a big project.”

World Refugee 2024 Art Exhibition and Coffee

Date: June 17-30, 2024     

Cost: Free

Venue: Level 1 Atrium, One Holland Village

Weekend Market & Interactive Activities

Date: June 22-23, 2024

Venue: Level 1 Atrium
              One Holland Village Mall


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About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told, which led to a career in MediaCorp News. Her idea of a perfect day involves a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.