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Cai Yinzhou: Separated from his parents, he empathised with migrant workers affected by Covid-19

SINGAPORE – Being separated from his parents during the circuit breaker gave social entrepreneur Cai Yinzhou, 30, a taste of how migrant workers here felt being away from their loved ones.

When measures were imposed in early April to curb the spread of Covid-19, he co-founded the Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition, mobilising volunteers across different groups such as Singapore Migrant Friends, Migrants X Me and his own social enterprise, Citizen Adventures, to assist those who not only had to endure the lockdown of their dormitories but were also far from home.

His own parents were stranded in Central Asia, where they had gone in February for volunteer work. They were unable to return home when the pandemic threw international travel into upheaval.

“I realised how it felt to miss family and how crucial the family unit is in difficult seasons of life,” said Mr Cai. “Many of the migrant workers’ families in their home countries are unemployed and unable to cope with the spread of Covid-19. Even though the workers instinctively want to be with their family during difficult moments like this, they know if they quit their job and leave, their families may suffer.”

Besides meals, the coalition also distributed essential goods such as groceries and toiletries. By September, it had delivered 1.7 million essential goods and given out about 82,000 meals to migrant workers.

For his contributions to the community, Mr Cai was nominated for this year’s The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award.

He said the efforts to highlight the plight of migrant workers and assist them went beyond his as an individual and included the many Singaporeans who pitched in.

“I was excited to be able to represent the efforts of hundreds of volunteers who have been part of the journey and also the donors who joined the cause,” said Mr Cai.

Growing up in Geylang, Mr Cai, who has an older and a younger sister, made friends with migrant workers in the area, bonding over casual games of badminton or volleyball. He learnt more about their lives in Singapore, and the families they missed back home. He was also deeply affected by their concerns as sole breadwinners.

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He said: “A common thread was the sacrifices they made just to come to Singapore.”

As Covid-19 cases here stabilise, Mr Cai has turned his focus back to his other venture, Citizen Adventures, which conducts tours for people who want to understand social ecosystems, and other projects such as Backalley Barbers, which offers free haircuts to migrant workers, nursing home residents and those who cannot afford to go to a barber.

Going forward, Mr Cai said he will continue to encourage Singaporeans to think of their privileged position in relation to social inequities and the environment.

“The work lies in practical initiatives to serve a particular need, amplifying that through social media, rallying people together for a cause and then having conversations about the topic and moving the needle on the issue,” he said.

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