A Lifeline for Troubled Transnational Families


A client family speaking with case workers and a translator from ACMI during a consultation at Agape Village in Toa Payoh. Photo: ACMI.

A Lifeline for Troubled Transnational Families

The Catholic Church’s outreach to migrants living and working in Singapore through its organisation, ACMI, might be familiar with many Catholics. But writer Schutz Lee learns that there is in fact a lesser known and equally dire need that ACMI addresses amongst migrants – troubled families.

President Donald Trump’s executive order on the immigration ban in January and Brexit in June last year are real-life examples of how divisive the issue of immigrants and foreigners have become in many societies.

Stories of foreigners affected by the immigration ban in the US or by deportation from the UK post-Brexit highlight how vulnerable people can be when they are labelled a foreigner, an alien, a refugee or a migrant.

In Singapore, one organisation has been working tirelessly over the years to be the compassionate friend to all non-Singaporeans. The Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants & Itinerant People (ACMI) was commissioned as a Diocesan Migrant Ministry (DMM) in June 1998 by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore.

ACMI’s aim is to respond to the pastoral needs of all migrants and itinerants in Singapore regardless of race, language or religion. ACMI provides social/legal assistance, counselling and befriending services to all migrant workers, foreign construction workers, foreign domestic workers, foreign spouses and their families, foreign students and transients. Its mission work is informed and inspired by Catholic Social Teaching.

Esther Chia, Executive Director of ACMI said, “We are called to this work in ACMI because we view it as bringing Christ to every segment of society, wherever the foreigners are, regardless of their race, religion, or social standing. We are at the forefront of evangelisation, we hope they will discover Jesus through our witness. At the same time, by serving, we encounter Jesus in those in need, who feel vulnerable, who are facing deportation.”

ACMI’s volunteers handing out food at a domitory for foreign workers. Photo: ACMI.

For over 18 years, ACMI has helped over 4,768 migrants with their challenges and issues, supplied more than 163,978 meals/ration packs for foreign workers and trained over 7,781 foreign domestic workers, and in 2016 alone, helped 62 foreign spouses in learning.

While its work with foreign workers is quite well documented, less well known is ACMI’s handling of cases involving the challenges faced by foreign spouses in the aftermath of a marital breakdown.

One such case that dated back to 2013 took three years to come to a reasonable conclusion. During this period, ACMI case worker Elizabeth Tan tirelessly journeyed with a mother and her children, taking their calls at all hours of the day, guiding or encouraging them, and directing them to other channels of help.

In 2013, Serena (not her real name) turned to ACMI when she was seeking to divorce from her Singaporean husband. Her husband was previously married and his grown-up son and the son’s girlfriend lived in the same rental flat as Serena, her teenage daughter and her young son. She and her children occupy the bedroom and the other three, the living room.

In this rental flat, from his vantage point next to the main door, the husband terrorised Serena and her children, often locking them inside or outside the house depending on his mood. Once, he confiscated Serena’s son’s passport in an attempt to prevent him from leaving Singapore to visit Serena’s family.

On a daily basis, Serena’s husband, his adult son and his son’s girlfriend would watch TV through the night in the living room at high volumes, preventing Serena’s children from doing their homework or sleeping in peace.

One of the first things Elizabeth pointed out to Serena was that she would lose her long term social visit pass in the event of divorce and will not be allowed to stay in Singapore. This meant a separation from her daughter and son, who are both Singaporeans.

“Divorce was counter-productive in Serena’s case, since her children were still young and not yet able to sponsor her stay in Singapore,” said Elizabeth.

She advised Serena to wait a few more years until her daughter reached the age of 21. Serena agreed to wait. In the meantime, Elizabeth helped Serena to arrange for anger management counselling for her husband at a Family Service Centre nearby. Elizabeth was also always a phone call away when Serena or her children needed a listening ear.

Today, Serena and her children are resettled in their own rental flat. Her daughter has started working and is the sponsor for Serena’s application to be a Singapore permanent residence.

Participants attend a baking course run by ACMI, one of many skills courses provided. Photo: ACMI.

Said case worker Elizabeth, who had once been ACMI’s chairperson and executive director, “The cases that we handle have become more diverse and challenging, and are on the increase. We cannot shut our eyes to them. As long as there are families in crisis, ACMI is here to help them.”

Esther added, “When we take on a case, we try to get to the root of the issue before we look for solutions. We listen, we ask and then we seek to find the help and support they need, and journey with them each step of the way. We look at the pastoral care of the whole human person, ensuring that they are empowered to take back their dignity as a person, and transform themselves.”

Those experienced in case work and counselling, or are bilingual in English and any ASEAN language and available as casual translators, are welcome to volunteer as Befrienders by writing to: [email protected].

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