Project Providence - Casseem

Stranded tourist Brahim (left) with care packages he received during his stay at Park 22 Hotel. Photo courtesy of Casseem Brahim.

It was a knock on the door that would add to Wyndee Man’s already growing list of worries.

The 24-year-old native of Guangdong had only been in Singapore six months when COVID-19 hit the country. Fresh from an internship with a local design firm, her job search grounded to a halt as Singapore worked to control infection rates.

“We were told to pack up and leave without our remaining rental or deposit.”

“I was in the middle of applying for a new work pass when the Circuit Breaker happened. I had no choice but to stay home.

“With no income or confirmed employment, I spent every day worried and wishing that things would look up,” she said.

Instead, the knock on her apartment door turned out to be the property’s management with more bad news.

“Local confirmed cases of COVID-19 were rising dramatically, so stricter social distancing rules were put in place.

“Our building management was going from door-to-door checking on the security and sanitation of each unit,” recounted Man.

It was then that Man and her three room-mates were told that their unit had been illegally re-constructed to house more people than was allowed. They were given 24 hours to vacate the premises.

Man was given 24 hours to move out of her rented room with her three room-mates during the Circuit Breaker. Photo by Wyndee Man.

Apart from helping with housing and other basic needs of stranded guest workers like Wyndee Man, Project Providence also has befrienders who watch out for the emotional, mental and spiritual well-being of the workers. Photo courtesy of Wyndee Man.

“Our landlady told us there was nothing she could do. We were told to pack up and leave without our remaining rental or deposit,” said Man.

She was left jobless, homeless and helpless.

Sadly, Man’s plight is not unique during this pandemic. Hers is just one case that was brought to the attention of Project Providence, a crisis intervention group that supports the needs of migrant workers caught in the COVID-19 crisis.

The nations in our midst

There are over 1.4 million migrant workers in Singapore, according to latest figures by the Ministry of Manpower.

The majority are in the construction industry and housed in 43 purpose-built dormitories as well as 1,200 factory-converted dormitories and other temporary construction quarters.

But there are some 200,000 others employed in retail, service and F&B, amongst other industries, who live in rented rooms. Because they are scattered across the island, getting help and information to them is more challenging.

“God brought these nations to us. As the Antioch of Asia, we need to see that the harvest field is here.” 

They are the ones ground-up initiative Project Providence wants to help.

Esther Tan, 31, spokesperson for Project Providence, told Salt&Light: “We are coming alongside government agencies and other NGOs to provide the next-tier social safety net during the Circuit Breaker.

“These are the workers who come from China, Vietnam, Indonesia and other parts of the region. Some of these guest workers, as we call them because they are guests in our land, are at immediate risk of losing shelter because they can’t pay their rent.

“Some don’t have enough money to eat because they have lost their jobs. One girl we helped had not eaten a proper meal for over a week.

“God brought these nations to us. As the Antioch of Asia, we need to see the harvest field is here and help them.”

A burden shared 

Started on April 7 as the Circuit Breaker measures began, Project Providence is the vision of four founding members, all volunteers, who saw a need even before the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the four members, a father with daughters, was walking around Chinatown one day and, seeing these women guest workers, felt burdened to reach out to them, said Tan.

“There would always be some rooms in my hotel which are not occupied. They shouldn’t go to waste.”

When the coronavirus situation became dire and it was clear that help would be needed from every possible quarter, he rallied three other friends, including Tan, to start Project Providence. The core team, which has since drawn three others,  has chosen to remain anonymous to give attention to the project.

“We didn’t know everyone well before this. But God brought us together,” said Tan.

As a help centre and co-ordinating body to plug migrant workers’ needs during the Circuit Breaker, Project Providence works in partnership with churches, businesses, organisations such as the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC), and governmental bodies including the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

Guest workers can approach them directly for help (see sidebar). 

Apart from providing meals and care packages, Project Providence looks for safe sleeping quarters for those who have been evicted from their rented rooms. “The need is great. We rescued one man who had been sleeping under a flyover,” said Tan.

One of the partners Project Providence works with to offer shelter is Ng Aung San, 48, owner of Park 22 Hotel Little India. Ng has opened up rooms in his hotel to house guest workers in need.

“A year ago, I was already thinking that there would always be some rooms in my hotel which are not occupied. They shouldn’t go to waste.

“Instead, I wanted to use them to give someone a roof over their heads to collect their thoughts maybe for a few nights.”

Park 22 Hotel Little India is one of the partners of Project Providence, offering safe shelter to guest workers during the Circuit Breaker period. Courtesy of Park 22 Hotel Little India

Park 22 Hotel Little India is one of the partners of Project Providence, offering safe shelter to guest workers during the Circuit Breaker period. Courtesy of Park 22 Hotel Little India.

That desire was re-ignited when the Circuit Breaker measures were put in place. Through a series of connections, Project Providence got to know of Ng’s intentions.

Now, four rooms in his hotel are used to house people referred to him by Project Providence. More will be opened as the need arises.

Divinely appointed partners

Apart from Park 22 Hotel, Project Providence has seen partners brought in through miraculous ways, always perfectly fitting the needs of those whom they were helping.

The team has watched, amazed, as God has called people with different expertise to join the crisis intervention alliance.

“Before we place each guest worker with a shelter, we pray about the situation and for the person,” said Tan. Amazingly, “they always get placed with people who can meet their needs without us deliberately planning or even knowing.” 

She shared how Project Providence recently helped a man who had a weak stomach. They paired him with a vegan restaurant without being aware of his condition.

“They ended up providing him with the exact kind of food that his stomach could take,” said Tan.

“Even as we are providing for these people, God is also teaching our team about His providence for our needs.” 

Project Providence runs a helpline (see sidebar below) so guest workers in need can reach them. But they are also linked to partner NGOs as well as Ministry of Manpower’s hotline.

“We get our cases either directly from our helplines or through referrals and by word-of-mouth. In the first two weeks, we ended up with 54 cases,” said Tan.

“Even as we are providing for these people, God is also teaching our team about His providence for our needs.”

The emotional and mental well-being, as well as the spiritual needs of the guest workers are tended to as well.

Project Providence has a system that matches guest workers to befrienders. There are now 60 volunteer counsellors on the team. All have been screened and trained to mentor the guest workers by another volunteer who is a clinical psychologist.

“Once we know about you, a case worker will come and see you and check on how you are,” said Tan.

Project Providence’s team has been growing. One volunteer who runs her own creative media company designed Project Providence’s website. Former missionaries and even a stay-home mum with supply chain experience have also come in to help.

The team has watched, amazed, as God has called people with different expertise to join the crisis intervention alliance.

Silver linings

As fast as help is being delivered, needs have increased as well, with referrals pouring in daily.

Apart from guest workers, stranded tourists have also been coming to Project Providence for help.

Musician Casseem Brahim, 38, and his civil servant wife, Dilka, 29, are among those the organisation is helping. The Sri Lankan couple had come to Singapore for their honeymoon.

“There are many things to see in Singapore and it’s easy to come here because we don’t need a visa,” said Brahim.

As fast as help is being delivered, needs have increased as well, with referrals pouring in daily.

What was meant to be a week-long vacation has now become a two-month ordeal.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, my parents told us to stay in Singapore for another week or two because it was safer than back home.

“We thought everything would blow over by then. But then the borders closed and there were no more flights home.”

They had been renting a room from a Sri Lankan they had met on Facebook. When their money ran out, they were told to leave.

A friend in Sri Lanka found out about their situation and alerted Project Providence. The couple was given a room in Park 22 Hotel before the Sri Lankan High Commission in Singapore stepped in.

Guest workers who had lost their rented rooms with care packages at a safe shelter Project Providence found to house them. Courtesy of Project Providence.

Guest workers who had lost their rented rooms with care packages at a safe shelter Project Providence found to house them. Photo courtesy of Project Providence.

“Everybody deserves shelter and food. They shouldn’t be left stranded in a time like this,” said Tan.

To scale up operations, Project Providence is working with Ray of Hope to raise S$300,000 to reach out to 250 of the neediest guest workers to offer sustained help for two months. The funds will go to pay for shelter, meals, transport and basic needs.

“The guest workers are just like us except they’re stuck in a terrible situation. Love compels us to move.”

“All the money will go straight to the people. We don’t use donations to fund any of our operational costs.

“We’re using the S$600 Solidarity payout as a benchmark for the monthly budget per person. S$400 will be for rent; S$200 will be for food and other basic necessities,” said Tan.

“Our aim is to eventually be able to help 1% of the 200,000 S pass holders in Singapore.”

The team has been busy caring for the displaced guest workers on a daily basis, while still working at their own jobs from home.

There are, as yet, no happily-ever-afters but there have been many silver linings.

Wyndee Man has been staying at a safe shelter for women run by Mercy Centre Singapore, along with her three room-mates. She is still hoping to get a work permit but, for now, she has home and a purpose. 

Cloth masks that Man sews with her room-mates at the safe shelter. Photo by Wyndee Man

Cloth masks that stranded guest worker, Wyndee Man, sews for the needy together with her roommates at the safe shelter. Photo by Wyndee Man.

“We can live with no worries for the rest of the Circuit Breaker period. We are even sewing handmade masks to help others in Singapore,” said Man.

Tan added: “The guest workers are just like us except they’re stuck in a terrible situation. Love compels us to move. We believe this is faith in action.”

About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told. This led to a career in MediaCorp News scripting and producing news, current affairs programmes and documentaries. Christine is now a Senior Writer at Salt&Light. Her idea of a perfect day has to do with a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.