It left a great impression on me hearing my friend Desi share her experience volunteering with Enrich, which has transformed countless lives since its inception over a decade ago.
To my surprise, at our first chat, Myriam, co-founder of Enrich shared how whilst budgeting was a useful skill/tool, there is something more significant she wishes to tackle/support/heal. And that – is where her heart led …
I really feel that if more of us took time regularly to come back to this peace within us, we wouldn’t have so many problems in our world, we’d be able to just ride with more ease, and life wouldn’t have to be this complicated. So that’s where I am now.Myriam Bartu
- Development work: starting in East London
- China Beckons: Yunan, Tibet, and Qinghai
- Enrich – Beginning transforming lives
- Mental health challenges
- Inflection point – Best thing I could have done was to let it go!
- Where my (Myriam’s) heart lands
- Aha moments
- Team zest paving way forward
- Addressing underlying pain
Karen Tsui, Where My Heart Leads
Where did it all begin? Where did you grow up?
Myriam Bartu: So I grew up mostly in Singapore. My father was covering the whole of Southeast Asia, he was foreign correspondent for a Swiss newspaper. So we left Switzerland when I was two. Lived briefly in London, and then Singapore. And while living in Singapore, we travelled extensively all over Southeast Asia. And we spent several Christmases in the Philippines. I remember that as a young child.
I think I was very emotionally impacted by poverty or all the inequality, or indifferent access to resources. And it’s something that I think just struck me already as a young child. I remember an incident where I befriended a girl who was selling shells on the beach.
Just got to know her and I remember that … I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I came home with just my underwear. I came back to the hotel in just my underwear once. And my mom said, what happened? And I said I gave my clothes away because she doesn’t have enough clothes. I don’t know what or how I came to realise that she had very little, but I naturally felt the need to give what I had. It must have hurt me somehow to see this – this imbalance – already very young.
I left Singapore when I was 14. And when I was 18, I took a year off when I finished school. I took a year off travelling around Asia, particularly India, Nepal, Southeast Asia.
I volunteered in a school in Nepal, teaching English in a village. And then just backpacked with a friend who has also grown up together in Singapore. And for me, that year was all about living with as little as possible. That was very important to me. So in India, we were living on $5 a day. We were staying in monasteries, railway stations, places where we could stay for free, or very little. And I don’t know why I had this strong desire to experience life with more simplicity and less resources.
It’s just something that resonated with me. I grew up with quite a privileged family, at least privilege in comparison to what I was seeing when travelling. An International School and expatriate family in Singapore.
And so I had this urge to go back to Asia and to experience life. Living without so many rules and so much need. I think I felt a bit suffocated and stifled by some of the expectations at home or of how you have to lay things out properly. I hated having to buy stuff for Christmas, Christmas gifts and all this consumption. So that quite early on was something; I was drawn to living a more simple life.
The year I spent backpacking, I was so proud that for a whole year, it was 10 months that I was travelling with just the backpack. The clothes I had on me, and my home was my backpack. And I had my sleeping bag in there and we would sleep where we could and spend very little money.
I worked in a supermarket for a couple of months in Switzerland and that was enough to keep me going for 10 months. And so by the time I started university, I was a bit disconnected from my peers.
Although quite a few, I went to study in the UK, who had gap years. But I found the first year of uni hard and then transferred to London. SOAS was easier because they were all the students and more international students and I was living in a city. When I finished university I was drawn to development work. Actually I wanted to do development studies. My father didn’t agree. So I ended up reading history and Chinese.
But my first job, the first thing I wanted to do was just to contribute to people who were living a simpler life or on a lower income. I think it was both a desire to help, and also this attraction to another way of doing things with less rules and, and less formalities. And I guess I found some liberation in not having to deal with all this “stuff.” All these conventions, and so called needs, which I felt were not needs.
1. Development Work: Starting in East London
So my first job was in London, in East London, mainly with ethnic minorities, lower income women, and some refugees. We’re doing microcredit. But really, it was a women’s support group, where we were encouraging women to start a business, and then meeting weekly with them, having them support each other. We’d give them a loan of 500 pounds, which is very little money to start a business right, in London. Yeah, a lot of them didn’t even want the money. So it wasn’t really about the loan, it was more about the support, the training, the monthly gathering of weekly groups. So I did that and facilitated these groups of women. Again, I was really struck by what happened in their lives, the connection between poverty and what happens.
I remember making a list of all the stories I had heard, you know, this lady whose son got shot, this one has medical issues, this one has children with disabilities. All these incredible life stories and this resilience these women showed, despite all this, I think I was quite amazed by them. And also sometimes quite overwhelmed. And I realised quickly that probably I wasn’t bringing them anything. I was so young, they were older and much more experienced, it was more me learning about how they were navigating life in such a different way than the worlds I had seen closer to my own family.
2. China Beckons: Yunan, Tibet and Qinghai
And then my husband, back then was my boyfriend, he transferred to Hong Kong. I didn’t want to come to Hong Kong, but I wanted to go to China. I had this idea that I had studied Chinese and that I wanted to go to China. So I kind of left my suitcase in Hong Kong and went straight to China. And on the way I had done a course on microcredit in the US. So I got some short term consulting work. And for a couple of years, I did a combination of volunteering and consulting in China for different NGOs.
I was really drawn to the place, the rural areas of China, to the peoples, again, a lot of ethnic minorities I was working with both in Yunan and Tibetan areas, and Qing Hai. Again, this simple living – it amazes me how human beings can survive with so little, it just puts into perspective our city and its perceived needs.
So in China I was really drawn to the place, the people and the charities trying to figure out what’s this development work? What are people really doing? What works, what doesn’t. I loved seeing the positive connections between the NGO groups and the beneficiaries. And I was really drawn to a more participatory form of support where we really listen to the people, the villagers and see how we can support them and learn from them and how the most powerful projects involve, and were actually locally–led by the villagers and how actually they have so much wisdom.
So I was supposedly “training” on microcredit, and women’s support, but really I was learning from how they were doing things. So I was there for a couple of years, and then my husband stayed in Hong Kong and I had to choose between the work of my life and the love of my life. I decided to come back to Hong Kong because it was at the point where otherwise the relationship wouldn’t have survived.
3. Enrich – Beginning transforming lives
And when I came here, I was drawn to migrants, partly because I spoke English, that’s a group I resonated with. I was working in Mandarin in China, but I don’t speak Cantonese. And I just felt though, that wasn’t gonna replicate. I mean, there were enough services available in Cantonese, compared to those available to non Cantonese speakers. So I felt that it made more sense for me to work with English speakers because not much available for them, especially migrants – so domestic workers, Indonesians, Filipinos. And so I freelanced with organisations supporting them.
And I didn’t find one that I was able to completely devote myself to, because what I wanted to do – to empower them, no organisation could put resources and time into. So that’s how I decided to create my own, and particularly I had a friend who was doing training on financial literacy with migrants. And so we collaborated and created a program with both empowerment and financial literacy and that’s how Enrich was born. I co-created that for a few years. And then I became a mom. And I was quite a tense person at that time growing Enrich. To the point that I think I didn’t do things in a very effective way sometimes because I was, I was becoming very anxious.
4. Mental health challenges
For me, I realised my mental health was struggling actually.
When my son was a toddler and a preschooler. And so I think also with growing Enrich, I felt torn – although I loved our team, and we were a group of volunteers doing what we’re passionate about.
But then there was this need to become a more professional organisation to pay staff so that they could keep doing this work. And so I was kind of forced to grow Enrich more quickly than I was comfortable to. And I was doing need to do things I wasn’t very comfortable doing, like fundraising, governance, I had a whole – a lot of my focus was on governance and fundraising because by that point, I was chair of the board, which was a very stifling position to be in, I was much happier being a trainer and working directly with the participants.
As the founder, I kind of grew with the organisation and maybe grew more slowly than the organisation. The organisation needed to grow. I was pushed into something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. And around that time – being in this difficult role at Enrich and being a new mom, I just realised my anxiety was inhibiting my ability to grow Enrich. I wanted to keep it small, so I can manage it. I struggled to manage growth.
5. Inflection point – Best thing I could have done was to let go!
So I went through this period when I was struggling with Enrich and with my mental health. And that’s when I discovered the MBSR – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program, and I did this meditation program. I started meditating regularly. And I just went, Wow, this is what I’ve been looking for. I just found this peace. Everything else was less important when I found that peace within me and I went, this is what I want to share. It was much deeper than anything else I was doing.
And at that point, I had this aha moment where I was like, I just need to grow Enrich so I can let it go. And that became my vision. I need to grow it so I can let it go.
Then I had more energy, to do the governance, do the fundraising, to get a board together. to have to get a budget so we can pay staff. All I really needed to do was to pay a fundraiser, and it took me a while to realise that. To pay a fundraiser, we actually personally put donated money to hire a fundraiser.
Once Enrich had a fundraiser, the fundraiser was able to do the fundraising, to pay for a manager and actually then it kind of happened. It evolved on its own and I was able to step back. I realised that a lot of what Enrich needed was done much better by others, particularly the governance, the fundraising, the management and that wasn’t where I wanted to shine.
And so we grew Enrich and a beautiful team came, and they did a great job with communications, design, and there was a team for programs and it just flowed at that point and now a new Enrich has grown. The best thing I could have done was to let it go because the team who took it on grew it with so much more professionalism and passion!
6. Where my (Myriam’s) heart lands
So Enrich took its path. I still stay connected always, and I’m still lovingly connected to the people running it. And I support them.
For me, I just wanted to share this peace. That’s when you know Where My Heart Lands, I think that it really landed there. And so as I was growing and reducing my involvement in Enrich, so this was in 2015 I did the MBSR.
2016 – I did my first meditation teacher training. I went to India, my parents were living in Goa, (Your parents were living in Goa!) This was lucky – for five years they lived in Goa so we went there four times over Christmas. I just arrived in Goa, brought my son to my parents place and went off. The first year I did a retreat; the second year, I did a meditation teacher training; the third year, a yoga nidra teacher training; the fourth year a sound healing training.
In summers, I was also able to leave my son with my parents and do more teacher trainings in Europe. So I did all my teacher training outside Hong Kong, because they were residential, I was able to do that leaving my son with my parents.
Opportunities arose where I was in Europe over the summer and in Goa in winter. In Hong Kong, I started teaching initially in my living room, leading meditations, and then gradually in studios.
The last two years having been in Hong Kong, and not travelling, I did a yoga teacher training here with Sudevi and a further sound healing training with Mona Choi. Recently, I’ve gone into leading retreats because I feel this is now the time for people to find that peace. Sometimes just coming for an hour of yoga nidra is not enough. It’s very difficult on a busy day to just take an hour away to practice. Yoga Nidra takes us to such a deep place that it can be too much of a contrast to the rest of the day.
By doing a retreat, it gives you that space to find that peace. Ultimately I’m still trying to help people find that peace within them. So now these last few months, my focus has been on creating retreat spaces, one day, two days or three days, to find that peace.
I really feel that if more of us took time regularly to come back to this peace within us, we wouldn’t have so many problems in our world. We’d be able to just ride with more ease, and life wouldn’t have to be this complicated. So that’s, I guess, what and where I am now. That’s a long story.
7. Aha moments
Going back to like that aha moment that you realised that vision you had for Enrich, can you talk a little bit about that?
Myriam: I think there were several moments. I remember once LenLen, one of our co-founders asked me, Why are you afraid of growth? You know, What is your fear of growth? That was definitely an aha moment where I was like why am I afraid of growth? I realised it was just me personally I felt I couldn’t cope with a large organisation.
I enjoyed us all being on the same boat, being a team like we were a cooperative. For the first five years really we were all a team of volunteers doing this with no structure. I didn’t like the idea of a hierarchy and if you’re going to have a professional organisation, you need to have a hierarchy if you’re going to have anyone paid because you need to have a board that’s unpaid and then staff members that are paid. And I was uncomfortable with that. I wanted everyone to be equal and no hierarchy. I didn’t want titles.
First we were just a group of friends creating Enrich. And that worked to some extent – I mean it’s actually quite incredible how for five years we did that with almost no budget. We had a budget of less than HKD100,000 a year in the first few years. But of course, what we could do was limited, we needed staff it was only fair to pay people for the work they were doing so that we could grow.
So how have things changed? Partly it was in the organisation, we had some amazing people I was working with. And I felt, it’s only fair for them to be paid to do this, rather than – The model we had is that everybody had full time jobs, paid work. We were doing this as extra. But everyone was saying – we’d rather do this as our main job, but Enrich is not paying anyone so …
That was another aha moment when we had an away day. Everyone was saying, actually, we would like Enrich to be our main work. Why is it that we’re just doing this on the weekends? So that was one – this passion from the team. They wanted Enrich to grow, the team wanted it.
8. Team zest paving way forward for growth
So their wanting to see this growth helped you?
Yes. I was holding everyone back.
Initially, I was the coordinator, then I was the Executive Director, and then I was the chair of the board. I felt I always had to keep being the leader. Perhaps because I was the only founder in Hong Kong for most of the time; I took that on myself. That wasn’t necessary, I could have realised earlier that those roles could have been better distributed. But it just naturally flowed that I took on that responsibility. So I think that aha moment was realising – Hold on, I don’t need to do this. Enrich can grow, I don’t need to stop it. It can grow without me being the one doing it. It took me a while to realise that, because I always felt that because it’s not paid, who’s going to take on all this work without pay?
Until I realised, we could change the model. So that leading can be done with full pay. Also lots of other people were in fact willing to do things unpaid at a board level. We worked with the Asian Charity Services (ACS), they really helped us with Enrich transitioning into a professional charity.
So that was the first step to mould the structure?
They were the ones who suggested a different structure. They were like, well, you guys are the management. Now you need a board, you need an executive director. No … We’re just a group of friends doing this! Part of me really resisted that, because I was like, No, we’re all equal. You know, as soon as we had a hierarchy and structure, then yeah, someone needs to have that title.
So I was the first one to have that title of Executive Director and then I passed it on as soon as I could. As soon as there were funds, I passed it on. So there was that push from the team and from the consultants helping us to grow. For me, the motivation was wanting to do something else, to see Enrich grow, and not be the one managing it.
9. Addressing underlying (pain)
I remember the last time we had a chat, you mentioned about if the underlying pain can be addressed. Then it kind of resonates with what you said earlier, like a lot of the problems that people have is because they are not connected. Would you be open to discussing what you’ve observed from facilitating the empowerment or the financial literacy workshops?
Yes, that’s when I shifted what I want to share.
Budgeting is hugely important; it’s a tool to help save and use money more wisely.
But so often, the problem is an emotional issue.
Consumption can be a compensation for emotional pain, for this longing. It could be longing for family members. It could be longing for another place, it could be loneliness. That’s the human existence, we all have a longing in us. And sometimes consumption is how we try to fill this longing.
And when we recognise it, it’s helpful because it can help reverse some of our unnoticed coping strategies which can be excessive consumption.
Even if you know how to make a budget, if you have this urge to spend on new clothes on Sunday, or eat certain things that you know aren’t good for you, you are unnecessarily using up your funds. Or if you send money home to a partner, who is spending it on be it alcohol or other coping strategies, unnecessary consumption, then the problem is going to continue even if you teach budgeting, there’s going to be this ongoing pain.When the pain hasn’t been addressed, it can be difficult to change spending habits.
All images are from Myriam Bartu unless otherwise noted.
Date of interview: 5 October, 2021 at Singing Bowl Zentral, Hong Kong.
Where My Heart Leads – Food for thought:
- What have you found your heart is leading?
- What gives you that sense of purpose?
You may also be interested in: