• INSMS International Network for Students of Migration Studies

Founder of Advocates For Refugees - Singapore (AFR-SG) and employee at a disability organization

This week we had the pleasure of speaking with Mathilda Ho, who studied not migration but development studies at the University of New South Wales, Sydney in Australia. She told us her story of how she founded her own advocacy organization.


Mathilda is 32 years old and from Singapore. She has a Master's degree in Development Studies, with a focus on International Development. During her undergraduate studies and also during her postgraduate studies, Mathilda worked part-time as a community support workerfor people with disabilities in her spare time. In addition, Mathilda volunteered with various non-profit organizations (Cancer Council NSW and Amnesty International Australia) in Sydney.


Immediately after graduating, Mathilda applied for the United Nations (UN) Young Professionals Programme (UN YPP) - specifically for the Social Affairs track, a UN initiative to recruit young professionals. Since Singapore, Mathilda's country of origin, participated in this program in 2015, she was eligible to apply. This UN YPP program was an obvious choice for Mathilda, as she originally wanted to pursue a career in International Development.


Living a frugal lifestyle to bridge the time between graduation and finding employment


However, since Mathilda did not know anyone who had also applied for this program, she had no idea how challenging it would be to apply for it. Nevertheless, a few months later she was informed that she had been admitted to the assessment process. This consisted of a written exam in the same year that she had applied for the program. However, by the time of the written exam, six months had passed since she graduated from the Master's program and she was still looking for a job, so the pressure was slowly but surely mounting. Nevertheless, by living a rather frugal lifestyle, Mathilda was able to support herself.


Building a studying group


While preparingfor the exam, Mathilda came into contact with many more individuals who met the eligibility criteria, and thus, with her fellow students, decided to form an online study group for the UN YPP in Social Affairs. Although Malthilda was not shortlisted for the interview after the exam, Mathildadoes not regret choosing this path. Rather, she greatly appreciates the opportunity to learn in-depth about the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In the process, she also learned about the global agenda, multi-stakeholder policy formulation, and high-level structures and processes at the intergovernmental level.


In addition to studying for this exam, Mathilda took a very ambitious step and started her own grassroots movement, Advocates For Refugees - Singapore (AFR-SG). Reason for launching the movement was Mathilda’s deep concern about the aftermath of the Andaman Sea crisis in May 2015, in which more than 5,000 Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya refugees were abandoned by smugglers. In this time, Mathilda had met a Rohingya in Australia who told her to tell his story so that people would be aware of the plight of displaced people. Since

Mathildaalso studied a module on Refugees and Forced Displacement and was very inspired by participatory approaches to community development, which definitely helped shape the way she engaged with affected communities, it led her to see the need to bring like-minded people together to find ways to improve the situation for the displaced communities.


Raising awareness


AFR-SG is a volunteer-led grassroots movement that advocates for the humane treatment of refugees and displaced persons in Southeast Asia and beyond through awareness campaigns, research, government engagement, and partnerships to channel support for displaced communities.


Diverse interests - hard choice


Given Mathilda’s keen interest in various fields, founding her own movement helped her to engage with different marginalized groups, as next to her volunteering engagement, Mathilda worked in various freelance opportunities which had again another focus and allowed her to additionally dedicate time to her own grassroots movement.


For about 2 years after graduation, Mathildaworked freelance in the field of elderly care and as a research assistant at a local university. This initially provided her with a good way to balance her various interests. She was also no stranger to freelance work in the field of elderly care, as she was prepared for this professional activity after graduation, similar to her part-time work as a community support worker for persons with disabilities.


Since 2017, Mathilda has been working for a disability organization in Singapore and continues to invest most of her free time in managing the Advocates For Refugees - Singapore (AFR-SG) movement.

Since July 2021, in addition to her full-time work as the founder of the movement described above, Mathilda also serves as the Vice Chair of the Southeast Asia Working Group of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), a membership-based network that works to promote the rights and integration of refugees and others in need of protection by sharing information and resources, strengthening each other's capacity, and engaging in collective advocacy.


Dedicates weeknights and weekends to her movement



Given her many commitments, a day in Mathilda’s life looks appropriately busy. During the day, she is busy at the disability organization, while she uses the evenings and weekends for her volunteer work. That's when all the volunteers meet, either in person or online, to discuss their activities and plan upcoming projects. Occasionally, they also have appointments or collaborations with outside stakeholders. Mathilda often speaks to student groups or gives interviews to raise awareness about the people affected by forced displacement.

Prior to the pandemic, she typically scheduled her working vacation for overseas travel to meet with refugee communities and partners in the region. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made this more of a challenge.


To achieve maximum results for target communities with minimum effort in scope of the grassroot movement, they heavily rely on the support of members and volunteers. In recent years, Mathilda and her movement have produced merchandise to raise money for various projects and initiatives supporting displaced communities in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Jordan.


Get the business sector on board


When we asked Mathilda if she enjoyed her work, she answered in the affirmative. However, Mathilda wishes she had even more time and energy to devote to the refugee population and displaced communities. According to Mathilda, the nonprofit sector in the field of migration (including refugees and displaced persons) is relatively small and often underfunded. Therefore, there is a need to sensitize businesses and high-profit sectors to the pressing issues of our time so that they engage and support the rights and protection of migrants and refugees, which in turn could help strengthen cohesion, peace, and prosperity in society. This is where Mathilda sees the potential to attract more resources to her work - such as her engagement with refugees and displaced persons.

Encountered challenges & what it needs to overcome them


When we talked about the challenges in the migration work areas, Mathilda pointed out that limited funds and resources affects people who want to seek a professional career in the migration sector, as well as the people whom the sector seeks to support. The Covid 19 pandemic has made it even more difficult, Mathilda said. According to Mathilda, a gradual change in mindset is needed, such as building public awareness for the need of ensuring the rights and protection of migrants and refugees in order to work toward more equitable outcomes for all. However, as long as there are gaps in the treatment of citizens compared to migrants and refugees, there will be a need to create more initiatives such as the sustainable models of AFR-SG.


Tips for success


As a final tip for migration studies students, Mathilda recommends getting as much experience as possible through volunteering and internships. This helps to gain hands-on experience to better understand the landscape. She also recommends going where your interest and passion lie. However, after graduation, not only is there the opportunity to pursue your passion professionally, but it can also be helpful to first find a place that can support you financially. This doesn't mean that you can't then get back into the non-profit and migration field. Rather, it can also help to gain highly sought-after technical or professional skills (e.g., in philanthropic partnerships, fundraising or monitoring and evaluation, information technology, logistics, language skills) that are transferable to the field of migration work and make it easier to find a job in the desired field afterwards.




*INSMS is always looking for interesting career paths of former migration students. If you would like to share your professional history with the network, please contact us by email: info@insms-network.org, Subject: P2P campaign





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