The night of 13th April was the tipping point for Sudesna Roy Chowdhury.

She’d just received an update on the number of Covid-19 cases in Singapore. Most of the 386 cases that day were linked to dormitories where migrant labourers live. “This was the watershed moment, where the majority of the cases are now going to start coming from the dormitories,” she says.

That night Roy Chowdhury pulled together a translation website to help migrants communicate better with healthcare workers at the frontline. In the three months since, a community of volunteers led by Singapore’s Generation Z have come together over social media to support migrant workers.

Ground up

Roy Chowdhury’s original website helped doctors translate medical questions for migrant workers from Bangladesh. They refer to a simple table of English clerical questions, and play the corresponding Bengali audio. “Instead of making the workers read it on your phone, you can just press play. The biggest part is that I wanted audio and less tech”, she says.

The initiative rapidly gained momentum, with plans for over 20 language coordinators. “I’m really looking forward to it because I think it might be a bit of a game changer, especially because you want to include dialects”, says Roy Chowdhury.

By May, nearly 100 people had pitched in with offers from creating websites, to translating medical documents for Covid-19 and live calls. In the future, she hopes to provide reverse translation so workers can communicate their specific problems.

Building a youth movement

What started as a translation tool has since led to a strong community of volunteers to support migrants. “To me, it seemed that the biggest impact this had was getting together a community of people where we all want to help for the same cause”, she says. All of their work to coordinate and expand the community was done on social media like WhatsApp and Instagram.

The civic movement has seen particularly strong leadership from Singapore’s youth. “There is a strong lever of energy and potential in our generation”, says Roy Chowdhury. Translatefor.sg is a 22 year old’s website providing audio translations in 10 languages; while visualaid.sg is run by a 24 year old service designer providing visual translations. A 27 year old provided 500 daily Iftar meals for workers during Ramadan.

Over time, the community has expanded to other avenues of service. New areas include a food donation group and a mental health group translating songs and reading materials for workers. The most active group has been food donation, with one volunteer raising $37,000 for daily Iftar meals for workers living outside dormitories. “She’s not in an organisation and all of us are just volunteers. So I’m really proud of people who work in contributing to learn and offer as well as coordinate” says Roy Chowdhury. Upcoming projects also include setting up a dedicated translation hotline, and working with NGOs like Relief Singapore to support Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Roy Chowdhury’s community is part of a number of other civic groups that have launched services for the migrant. Better.Sg, a collective of tech developers and creatives, want to tackle societal issues with digital tools. In February, they launched a tool to crowdsource masks when they were in short supply in drug stores. From domestic violence to mental health, it has been curating and promoting tools built by local volunteers like Roy Chowdhury.

At a time when many see younger generations as apathetic, it seems there is plenty of untapped enthusiasm and optimism in our future. These twenty-somethings banded together to help a community in crisis, using digital tools to build quickly and grow constantly.

Hear from the founder of Better.sg, Gaurav Keerthi, at 5pm SGT on 23 June, Tuesday.

Photos by Sudesna Roy Chowdhury