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Home is where his heart is

Social worker rejects award but goes on helping migrant workers. -TNP
Lediati Tan

Wed, Nov 30, 2011
The New Paper

Think Mr Jolovan Wham, and the two things that inevitably come to mind are migrant workers and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).

Mr Wham, executive director of Home - a voluntary welfare organisation dealing with migrant worker issues - has over the years made a household name for both himself and the organisation he joined in 2004.

Recently, he made the headlines after rejecting a Promising Social Worker Award given to him.

Earlier this month, he had been told that he would be receiving the Outstanding Social Worker Award.

But because of an "administrative oversight" by the award organiser, Singapore Association of Social Workers (SASW), he was later informed that he would be given the Promising Social Worker Award instead.

He eventually declined the honour for reasons he said he was "not at liberty to disclose".

But Mr Wham, 31, who is single, almost didn't make it to where he is today.

Home's founder-cum-president Bridget Tan, 63, told The New Paper that in Mr Wham's first year with the organisation, he was shaken after a bad experience.

He had been punched in the back and stomach by employees of a repatriation company while he was helping a Bangladeshi migrant worker in 2005.

The worker was being forcefully repatriated by his construction company after he had asked the company for salary that was due to him.

The police were called in the punching incident.

Said Ms Tan: "(Mr Wham) never expected that to happen. He was really traumatised by that experience."

She added that she thought he was going to throw in the towel, but the man soldiered on.

And he hasn't looked back since.

Said Mr Wham: "That incident had a pivotal effect on me. I felt like I was placed directly in the position of a migrant worker...

"If I can feel scared that something like that has happened to me, what more a migrant worker who has to suffer not just the intimidation and assault, but also has to go back to his home country and face his family with a huge debt?

"That experience...strengthened my resolve to do something about the problems these workers face."

And this resolve proved critical in the years to come.

Ms Stephanie Chok, a volunteer with Home, described Mr Wham's persistence when they worked together last year on the case of a Mozambique fisherman who had difficulty renewing his expired passport.

Mr Wham battled for three stressful days to help the fisherman get home, she said.

As there isn't a Mozambique embassy in Singapore, the social worker decided to fly to the nearest Mozambique embassy, in Jakarta, Indonesia, to get the fisherman's passport renewed as it was the fastest option.

Ms Chok, 38, a graduate student, recalled how Mr Wham, after spending the day dealing with all the relevant authorities, caught a few hours of sleep at her home near Changi Airport before flying to Jakarta on the first available morning flight.

After successfully renewing the fisherman's passport, he flew back on the same day, just in time for the Mozambican to catch the 2am flight from Singapore to Johannesburg, where he would then take a three-hour bus ride back to Mozambique.

Said Ms Chok: "Jolovan treats every case seriously. No matter how small your claim, he will help you in whatever way possible.

"He does it because he knows it's important for those who feel aggrieved to know that someone would go the extra mile regardless of the chances of winning."

Mr Wham's work day isn't always that exciting.

A typical day sees him talking to foreign workers about their problems and liaising with their employers, employment agents and the Ministry of Manpower.

He also spends time fund-raising through writing grant letters and meeting donors and volunteers.

He has helped Home set up helpdesks for migrant workers and a shelter for homeless foreign workers, and is also involved in research projects looking into the problems faced by migrant workers.

Propelled by a strong sense of justice and the belief in "making the society you want", Mr Wham hopes to improve the lot of migrant workers here by looking into how laws can be changed to provide more equal rights and better treatment for them.

Changing views

He hopes to challenge the way people view migrant workers as mere economic units who are simply here to drive Singapore's economy, and to start seeing them as human beings in their own right.

Asked to list his biggest achievement, Mr Wham said it was the simple fact that Home is still surviving after all these years.

When asked about the Promising Social Worker Award, Mr Wham declined to elaborate, but added that he is still working with the SASW and remains a member of the association.

In response to queries, SASW explained that an e-mail was sent to Mr Wham about the Outstanding Social Worker Award before "an endorsement of the winners was finally obtained from the selection panel", reported Straits Times last week.

But the panel later felt it was "more appropriate" to hand him the Promising Social Worker Award because he has only about seven years of relevant experience.

In comparison, previous outstanding award recipients each had more than 10 years of experience.

Said Ms Tan: "Jolovan told me that he declined the award because he couldn't accept the explanation that was given to him by the association."

Ms Chok added: "He's a person of principle...He's done this for seven years, he didn't need this award to tell him to keep doing what he's doing."

This article was first published in The New Paper.

Copyright ©2011 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Co. Regn. No. 198402868E. All rights reserved.
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