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This is the first article of a series featuring this week: Change Makers Around the World.  

She has trudged through thick jungles to rescue a lady in the middle of the night, and on other occasions investigated into ‘forest brothels’ there. She has personally helped victims of AIDs, leukaemia. She has picked up calls at the oddest hours from workers requesting help and advice, and rendered unconditional help to those in need.

She has made it a point to knowing every person living under her shelters, truly caring for their lives.She always has a ready smile, and an equally ready heart to share with others the need for human rights.

There is nothing too small that you will see Bridget Tan dismiss in her work of advocating for social justice for a minority group of people living in Singapore who are often overlooked by locals, if not treated unfairly.

She is none other than the President and Founder of Humanitarian Organization of Migration Economics (HOME). HOME was set up in 2004, and has provided direct assistance to more than 50,000 men and women migrants and victims of human trafficking and forced labour. Among those are migrant workers who are affected by the Tsunami disaster in 2005 and the global economic crisis in 2008 and 2009.

TIP Heroes Award 2011

Bridget was thrown in the spotlight earlier this year for being recognized for her work for migrant workers in Singapore for the past decade. She was personally honoured by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as a Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Hero. In her speech, Clinton said:

Our TIP – our TIP heroes today show us that individual action can lead to some astounding results. For example, in Singapore, Bridget Lew Tan has dedicated her life to protecting migrant workers. And Singapore, albeit a small country, has more than 800,000 immigrants. And she has been volunteering with a local archdiocese. And while there, she met 30 Bangladeshi men assembled behind a coffee shop in the middle of the night, and she helped to set up shelters – one for men and one for women – to provide refuge to migrant workers who had been abused.

Yet despite her years of dedication, Bridget remains surprised and honoured at her TIP Heroes Award. “The great honour only hit me when I was there in Washington DC with all the other heroes and being received so graciously by the top-notch officials from the Department of State, the Department of Justice and Homeland Security  (not Obama) in Washington DC. Gee! I was also quite surprised when Hillary Clinton chose to speak about my work in Singapore before she presented the award.”

The Singapore Ambassador Dr. Chan Heng Chee was personally present to witness her receiving the award. “After the ceremony, I remember her saying how proud she was that a Singaporean received the award and told me how difficult it must have been for me,” she added.

Volunteer Work

This is a rare occasion for her, for her work is mostly unglamorous and unpopular. Even setting up HOME in the beginning proved to be an uphill task. “It was really tough – I had no idea where I could get money and as a new NGO, I had no track record to prove that I could do what I wanted to do. As for the authorities, they wary of me and kept me at a distance.”

Prior to setting up HOME, Bridget founded the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People in 1998 and worked there as a fulltime volunteer. Later in 2002, she set up shelters in the year for migrant workers and other services such as skills training and Soup Kitchen which provides free food for them.

At the moment, although she has not seen the award being translated into tangible donations for HOME, she admits that it has definitely opened doors for her in networking and collaboration opportunities.

Bridget speaks about the media 

She now also deals frequently with the media. “The media is very powerful in the forming of social conscience. Information gets disseminated in moments and stories told in the media are voices of the muted.”

She added that “Alternative media platforms have woke up mainstream media and challenged the present state of affairs. Alternative media provides choices for the community as source of knowledge and insights into human rights abuses. HOME is truly fortunate to operate in a time of the awakening of social conscience.”

Her path of advocacy: “My life became one with this call”

Bridget became involved in advocacy late in life, she said. It all begun with an invitation from a Filipino priest to help in a ministry to migrants in Singapore. “When I said ‘yes’ it came like a call to mission. My life became one with this call,” she said.

At the very beginning of my mission, she recalled a pale complexioned, thin looking Filipina. She was rescued by another Filipina from a bus stop. She was an over stayer and was coughing profusely. Bridget brought her to the police station and then to the hospital. But a week later, she died. Before she died, she was delirious, confused and almost deranged. She was pronounced to be a victim of AIDs. Bridget stayed with her through all these during this lady’s last days.

credit: topnews.in

This is only one of the hundreds of cases that kept her persistent and courageous in the pursuit of justice. She recalls a young, Sri Lankan woman who was sex trafficked into Singapore. She was, 18 years, frail and skinny and she told of how she was gang raped in a locked hotel room.  For a month, she would not speak with anyone in the shelter; she could only befriend the pet dog at the shelter.

On another case Bridget related, there was a Filipina domestic worker who was so abused by her Catholic employer – she fell asleep one night with her lights on whilst reading her bible. Her employers poured cold water over her and made her stand in the hall to drip dry till morning. Then the employer also put chop sticks in her ears till they bled.

“They were all tragic accounts of human lives in search of a better life that no none should have been denied. Theses encounters have indeed altered my resolve be part of the solution to human misery,” Bridget said.

The Freedom Fighter’s daughter

The source of her inspiration is none other than her late father of whom she is closest to. He died when she was only 5, but her mother kept the memory of her husband alive by telling stories of them to young Bridget.

Her father was a freedom fighter in the days of the anti-British colonial struggle. For his involvement, he was arrested by the British under ISA. Her father remained in detention for ten months till he fell seriously ill so he had to be released. He was subsequently exiled to Sarawak. But before that, he left a legacy of books of great freedom writers for his daughter. Like father like daughter, as the saying goes. Bridget carried her father’s DNA for injustice, his feistiness and bravery, and now his legacy of advocacy.

Balancing work and family

Between balancing her family life – caring for her twin children during their growing years – and being heavily involved in advocacy, Bridget still finds it manageable. She said that she had much help from her own domestic worker. Her workload is not one that many others can manage, but Bridget thinks nothing of it.

“Really in life, it is all about our priorities. When my children were young, I devoted almost all my time to them. When my children are grown up and my husband is retired, I have become free and have the time to do what I believe is meaningful. My family has to respect my search to do more for people who needs help – and over time they have come to recognise the character of my person and the purpose of my life.”

Anti-Trafficking Campaign

HOME just celebrated the Stop Trafficking of Children and Young People campaign with The Body Shop last Tuesday as a campaign partner. The petition is submitted to the United Nations in Geneva today.

Moving forward, Bridget plans to involve more heavily in anti-trafficking. HOME has just welcomed a new anti-trafficking manager on board, and will be organizing outreach activities in red light districts.

Read also: STOP Campaign: More than 114,000 signatures collected.

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