4-minute read

Humanity Over Nationality – Life Lessons from Telling Stories About Refugees

Mai from Our Better World's community team and co-lead of OBW's series Refugees: Displaced, Not Discouraged, reflects on what she's learned from the friends she's made through telling the stories of refugees and refugee advocates in Asia.


Mai Tatoy

Mai is happiest when she finds meaningful ways to involve the community in the stories we tell. She gets a thrill at seeing a story transform people’s lives. Mai loves to sing in church, bake at home and eat anywhere.

One of the perks of working in the community team of Our Better World (OBW) is getting to meet and become friends with people from all walks of life.

As Singapore International Foundation’s storytelling initiative, OBW searches Asia for stories of people doing good. We then tell these stories in a relatable, heartfelt, compelling way, to inspire others to take action. We believe every action counts and every person matters.

In my nearly eight years of working at OBW, the people who’ve affected my life the most, are my refugee friends.

As is often the case at OBW, we met through stories. After our content team produces the story, the community team gets introduced to the story subjects. We get to know them; they get to know us. Sometimes, we get to meet in person. Often, we only know each other online, through screens, on messaging apps.

In the process of getting to know them, friendships are forged. And because our story subjects are already doing something to make the world better, their work and their mission have a way of seeping into you. They’ve helped me open my mind. They make me see life from their perspective. They teach me to empathise with their experiences in life. They teach me that we are no different from one another.

We tell their stories to create a positive change in their lives. But I too, am changed.

When I joined OBW in 2013, I didn’t know much about the refugee crisis. I’m still no expert by any measure, but I know more now than I did then. Moreover, I know refugees who despite all the odds against them, show up to help other refugees. They have taught me the importance of each of us taking care of one another. They remind me to welcome the strangers in my midst. To be of service to others. That life without service is not much of a life at all. 

They also teach me that the basis of friendship is mutual trust and respect. It’s a relationship of equals, and the giving and receiving goes both ways.

As we wrap OBW’s series Refugees: Displaced, Not Discouraged this year, I wanted to thank our refugee friends and friends who advocate for refugees for being part of the solution to the refugee crisis. Here are some of the lessons I learned from them:

Hasan taught me to value humanity over nationality.  I first heard this phrase when Hasan’s Al-Hasan Volunteer Network (AHVN) organised online events for World Refugee Day last June. From the time we told the story of Hasan and CyberCare in 2017 till now, I remain in awe of the force that is Hasan. How he not only built a strong community through AHVN and Refugee Emergency Fund from the ground up, but did that while studying! I will always be a champion of his heart for his fellow human beings.

Nimo, co-founder of Sisterhood Community Center, reminds me of the importance of getting to know refugees as individuals. How they bring with them their hopes and dreams for themselves and their families. Nimo: “Sometimes someone will call me refugee. No, my name is not refugee. I'm Nimo.”

Abdullah, whom we met when we told Refugee Learning Center’s (RLC) story in 2019, shows me what a true friend is. It’s the person who dreams with you and never gives up on you. Even as he’s resettled in Canada, his belief in the goodness of people rekindles my belief. I am inspired by how he’s mobilised people to get refugees to Canada. When I am down, I only need to remember Abdullah’s unwavering hope and I again find my way to hopefulness. 

From Sikandar, who took over Abdullah as principal at RLC when Abdullah left Indonesia for Canada, I learnt the importance of showing up for people. When I speak with him, he always talks about the needs of others, even as he himself sometimes struggles with his life in limbo, as he awaits the chance to resettle in Canada (You can help him do that here).

This year, we also had the joy of working with refugees to tell their own stories. Through our partnership with The Archipelago, we got to know the stories first-hand from Sade, Abu, Erfan, Elina and JN.

In telling these stories, we’ve met so many people who have hearts for refugees: Katrina, Mathilda and Wani, Kieren and Warsan, Mahi, Abhi, Farhana, Nila, Hana, Jon, Sharifah and Nasha, Suzanne and Tanny.

OBW's first community event on refugees, Kuala Lumpur, 2018

If there is one thing that I’ve learnt from meeting and working with all these people, it is ironically the one thing we at OBW are aiming to teach through stories: for you to know that your action counts – big or small. That positive change is not dependent on me, or you but all of us, working together, doing our part. That is how we make a difference.

Yet, there are times lately when I find myself asking: Are we making a difference? When you look at what is happening in Afghanistan and the worsening refugee crisis, it sometimes doesn’t feel like we’ve moved the needle.

So often these past few weeks, I found reassurance and resolve by reading the words of our friend Saleh, founder of Parastoo, who sent this note to OBW when we celebrated our 9th birthday last May. I’m sharing it now so we can commit to treat refugees with respect and give them the dignity they deserve as our fellow human beings. 

To Our Better World,

I did not know enough about Singapore before. I just knew that Singapore is a modern, developed country bordering Malaysia. But after Our Better World made a film about the Parastoo Theater, I became acquainted with the culture and people of Singapore. I have learned a lot of good things from working with Our Better World. Now I really respect and love the culture and people of Singapore. I have many Singaporean friends now. They are all kind, and I am learning from them how I can support others.

Our Better World supports those who are forgotten. Those who are in society but are not seen. Our Better World introduces the knowledge, abilities, and aspirations of those whom society needs to know. Our Better World has been able to play an important role in change. 

I still use the film Our World Better made about Parastoo Theater. I often introduce Parastoo through that movie. 

I am proud to have many friends in Our Better World, and I wish you all success.

Congratulations to all friends at Our Better World as you turn 9. 

Please keep going. Many people need your support.

Saleh Sepas

Parastoo Theatre




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