How Saleha Singh is making connections & building bridges

By Indira Laisram
Saleha Singh // Pic supplied

There is something very refreshing about Chai Chat & Community, a webcast that tackles various South Asian issues. Founded and presented by Saleha Singh, it is tailored to address topics that most Indians brush under the carpet or do not like to talk about. For Singh, it is just an aspiration to better the world—in her small ways.

When the pandemic hit the world in 2020, Singh found herself amid the punitive chaos of social media, where groups of women were talking about family violence, mental health or coping with children and disabilities. The lack of information among these women was jarring. She was seeing women advising other women, who were victims of domestic violence, to seek Reiki vibes help or ‘to cook up good meals’—as if they were the panacea to the problems.

While Singh felt sympathy, she also felt a level of frustration about why people are still living in stereotypes seeking alternative recourse to issues that should actually be addressed by professionals.

“So, I decided to start Chai Chat & Community and, as the name suggests, I wanted to make it a place to chat over cups of chai within the community roping in medical professionals and other experts to address key issues,” says Singh.

For someone who is a professional writer and storyteller with many voluntary roles to her credit, Singh is clear-eyed about her success. Since its launch in September 2020, her weekly webcast has drawn hundreds of viewers and she has had women contact her personally seeking help.

“I have had a fantastic response,” reflects Singh. Some of the subjects she has focussed are on the pandemic and its offshoots such as the rise in cases of domestic violence, stigmas around addressing mental issues, international students and joblessness, intergenerational trauma, etc.

It is unsurprising that Singh has connected so well with people given her background. “I tell stories for a living and connect with so many people. Initially it was all about me contacting people, now it is the opposite. It is such a humbling experience.”

Interestingly, as of March 8, Singh has also become a published author of SHE Shines, fourth book of the SHE Collective. This year, the book contains short stories of hope, optimism, self-realisation, faith amid geo-political strife, illegal practices, unchartered territories, personal monsters, and everyday routines.

“The money that is raised from these books goes to fund women and disadvantaged children in India. This year the money is also going to UNHCR,” says Singh.

The book is another string to her bow. Singh also works as the Publications Lead at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, she is President of IndianCare Inc.—a primary intervention, early intervention not-for-profit community organisation to tackle family violence, South Asian Student Support, and alcohol and drug abuse among seniors—and, she is part of the Regional Advisory Council, Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC).

Singh arrived in Australia in 2004 and originally hails from a small town Asansol in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. She describes her early life in India as a preparation for her works—growing up under the wings of her grandmother and her mother, strong progressive matriarchs, who had profound impacts. “The generosity of heart, of giving and helping was what I learnt from them,” she says.

When her grandmother passed on, it was her mother who took forward the work she started and went on to build schools in Asansol.

Similarly, Singh has been known to advocate for many causes here. With Indian Care, she has helped bring a stealth progress to the organisation. “We have started collaborating with local government areas (LGAs) working with various Councils on various projects.”

Singh also understands the troubling job scenario for migrants and is ostentatiously putting this understanding in action. “As migrants nobody wants to give us a foot in the door, everybody wants local experience but is never willing to give you experience. We do that, we take in international students,” she says.

In Singh’s life and work, complacency is not so easily revoked. As Director of PeaceMeals, a not-for-profit community-engagement project, she also organises simple gatherings that provide an opportunity for refugees and asylum seekers to share a meal, share their stories and make connections. “We invite them to share a plate of food with established Australians so that they can make connection. A great capacity building project but we want funding from the government,” says Singh, adding she would like to relinquish the role of President and be on the board instead because of time constraints. It is a productive role, nonetheless.

Saleha Singh // Pic supplied

Incidentally, Singh’s story, which features in SHE Shines, is about a refugee inspired from PeaceMeals. However, it is “not a true story but inspired by true events,” she reveals.

There’s a lot on her plate, “but this is how I thrive,” Singh says with a laugh, adding, “I am fortunate that my girls are grown up and they have their successful careers. I live with three dogs and my husband, and I have the time to pursue my passions.”

There is a lot more work to be done, believes Singh, who has a particular interest in the welfare of vulnerable Indians in the community. “Indians are the highest tax-payers, and we are not heard enough. I would like to see more people of colour, and especially Indians to make policy decisions, as only we know what affects us. I also would like to see more male role models and want men get to the table, and I have been wanting to do this for months.”

To devote time and work for others and the communities is a hideously difficult task. But Singh shows us that leaving the shores of India and the progress you make and how far you can go from there has no end.

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