How online groups give a helping hand to fellow members

When online groups become dynamic communities, caring for fellow members and making a difference in real life

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You’re not alone. We’re with you.

That’s the sentiment, repeated over and over by hundreds of apparent strangers, that has kept Vikramjeet Singh going these last few days.

Scrambling to arrange funds for his visiting mother’s medical treatment and with very few people to turn to, Granville resident Vikramjeet – who moved to Australia just over a year ago – made an impassioned appeal on the 27,000-member-strong Indians In Sydney group (IIS) on Facebook.

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Vikramjeet with mum

How the community responded over the next few hours and days was part heroic, part human and deeply touching.

First came financial help (Vikramjeet had received $4,000 before the day was up), then advice (using which Vikramjeet set up a GoFundMe page) and then a lot of initiative (people tweeted out Vikramjeet’s story, tagging India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, the Indian Consulate, and the Indian insurance firm whose cover Vikramjeet’s mother had bought).

The result? A representative of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, visited Vikramjeet on 4 December, promising help.

By 5 December, Vikramjeet’s GoFundMe page had raised over $65,000.

There for each other

It is just the latest illustration of how migrants, both old and new, are finding solace and support from online communities such as IIS. From desperate pleas for job opportunities, questions about visas and travel advice to restaurant reviews and shopping recommendations (and the occasional forwarded joke or three), the groups are the whole spectrum of human emotion on display.

Facebook Groups.Indian Link
Indians In Sydney Facebook Group

The groups are also a fairly accurate representation of what the diaspora is talking about and thinking about. They offer an insight into the community’s aspirations and ambitions, its fears and frustrations, its hilarity and heartbreaks.

They are also an embodiment of Indians’ intrinsic unity but also, at times, their inevitable fault lines of regional and linguistic differences and political persuasions.

But despite this, and due to the spike in migration numbers in the last three years or so, the groups have become both increasingly populated and increasingly popular. For the typical FOB, they serve as an all-you-wanted-to-know-but-didn’t-know-whom-to-ask forum, with old-timers dispensing advice with avuncular patience.

And in these collaborative communities, some truly heart-warming stories have emerged of how the group members have come together to help each other out.

So, for instance, a new migrant who faced a last-minute glitch in his accommodation arrangements posted a message on the group, saying that he couldn’t afford to buy a mattress and asked if anyone had a spare. Not only did people come forward, some even offered to drive to his place and drop it off themselves!

Then there was the time when the members came forward in aid of a fellow IISian (that’s what they call themselves) who sought a bicycle and a mobile phone to help him work as a food delivery person. One member who lives in Perth but was flying to Sydney that night offered to meet the creator of the post, Saiprasad, and buy him a bicycle. Several others wrote in, offering their old mobile phone. Some others asked Saiprasad to send them his CV so they could help him find a job related to his field, IT.

Advice and opinions

Even when it is not about material goods, the group has plenty of advice and moral support – sometimes a kind word is all you need – for several other queries.

Many posts are about the biggest concern of new migrants: finding a way to crack into the competitive job market. On every desperate post asking for a job – any job – there are invariably several members who ask for the CV to be sent to them. Others who can’t help directly always have words of encouragement, general advice and tips and suggestions to make the CV more relevant.

Visa categories and subcategories can confuse the best of us, but trust the resident experts (or MARA agents) to bring clarity on the issue.

And then there are posts about the more mundane – but equally important – things. Things such as ‘What food items can I bring to Australia?’, ‘What’s the best way to transfer money to/from a bank account in India?’, ‘Which is the best private health insurance?’, ‘Passport expiring soon, what to do now?’, ‘Which centre is best to clear driving test?’ and so on.

There was one post that even talked about how toilet paper doesn’t offer the same kind of, er, satisfaction as water did when it comes to morning rituals. While many said they found the post utterly relatable, others quickly pointed to many options – jet sprays, bidets, and ‘lota by the railway tracks!’

All about helping fellow members

But whether the topic is lofty or lowly, help is always around the corner. For someone who has arrived in Australia, leaving their comfort zone, social circle and family behind, the group is the new family and safety net. Which is the point of the whole group, its credo, says Nadeem Ahmed, the group’s founder.

Facebook Groups.Indian Link
Nadeem Ahmed

An IT professional, he moved to Australia in 2006 and found that there was no one to answer questions about where to find apartments, look for jobs or what documents to carry to get a driver’s licence. “I spent a lot of time looking for that kind of information but it was hard to come by. I realised there must be many people in a similar situation. So I thought of forming this group to help members share information and knowledge,” he says. Ahmed added that the group had grown steadily over the years, but the last three years have seen a rapid increase.

“The main aim is to help our fellow Indians. We have all come here to Australia, away from our comfort zone, and have each other to rely on. That’s what binds us together,” he says, adding that helping others ‘feels great.’

In fact, studies show that online interactions have positive outcomes for real-life, place-based communities, but the intersection between online communication and the offline world also forms two halves of a support mechanism for communities. A report by Illinois News Bureau quotes a research by Caroline Haythornthwaite and Lori Kendall, professors in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Illinois, says, “From social networking, to civic participation, to community support during emergencies, to providing on-the-ground information in disaster areas, the professors say that the rapid development and widespread use of online technologies – for communicating and networking, for contributing and distributing content, and for storing, sharing and retrieving files – are creating ties that bind for offline communities.

Facebook Groups.Indian Link

Concerted action for Vikramjeet

Which brings us back to Vikramjeet Singh’s case. The group’s conversation has been dominated by it ever since Vikramjeet’s first appeal for help on 28 November.

The group’s action has been a model of concerted action, with many members making the cause their own. “Irrespective of faith, background, language, we all came together to support him,” Ahmed says.

One such member was Gagan Bindra, who tweeted about Vikramjeet’s case and tagged India’s Ministry of External Affairs and its minister Sushma Swaraj.

A firefighter, Bindra is no stranger to helping people out. “When I saw Vikramjeet’s post, I knew I had to do something,” he says, adding that he started by creating his Twitter account for the first time and tweeting to Swaraj because she is a ‘good lady whose ministry helps Indians in dire situations overseas.’

He says he was moved to act because ‘it could have been my mum.’ “Hundreds of parents come to visit their children here and take Indian insurance, but if the company doesn’t pay, then it’s no use. So, I also wrote to Religare, whose insurance Vikramjeet’s mother had,” Bindra said.

Facebook Groups.Indian Link

The company later tweeted, saying that it had ‘noted the concern’ and was looking into the case. The Indian consulate also responded with a message.

Bindra said he was glad his tweet had worked and was glad that the community had come together for a common cause. “Most of us are first-generation migrants. We are far away from our motherland and that is what binds us together. We can put ourselves in others’ shoes and have sympathy for each other. We help rather than trying to pull each other down,” he said.

True enough, many retweeted and shared Bindra’s tweet, a factor that undoubtedly prodded the authorities to act. Each step forward – financial milestones, insurance company taking note, Indian authorities promising to act – was posted on the group.

Vikramjeet, on his part, was grateful too. “First, I thought I was all alone,” he said. “But now I feel the whole world is standing behind me.”

No wonder then, that the group members were excited about the impact the campaign had had. “Great effort from everyone,” a member commented. “Unity rocks.”

Ferrying parents, medicines, goods

In October, a group member Vicky Vikas posted a message on the group, saying that he was travelling to India and would be willing to help anyone with ‘parents, medicines etc.’

It was a simple enough post, but the spirit behind it left members applauding Vikas.

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Vicky Vikas

Many people from the group sent him requests to carry some goods. As Vikas responded to the comments, one member asked him why he was doing this. “The group helped me when I was in need of medicines for my mom,” Vikas wrote. “Just wanted to return the favour.”

In fact, there are many posts on the group asking fellow members if they would be willing to accompany ageing parents from India to Australia or back.

For many, asking members on social media groups to be travel companions to their senior mum or dad is quickly becoming something of a standard practice.

Often enough, someone responds, either by volunteering to be the seniors’ companion or giving helpful advice, for instance, which airline to take so that the parents would be well taken care of.

Requests to bring medicines – again, mostly for parents or other visiting seniors in the family – are also fairly common. Some months ago, Neer Vish was coming back to Australia from India and asked the group members if he could help bring some stuff over.

Facebook Groups.Indian Link
Neer Vish

While he did get a few requests, it was his gesture that won him praise. “It’s no big deal,” Vish explained in a comment. “I may need help in the future so just paying it forward.”

Helping return purse, with group’s help

In July, banking professional Mayank Jain won praise after he helped return a purse containing bank cards and about $600 to a woman who had forgotten it on a train.

After finding the purse, Mayank wrote a post on Indians In Sydney, asking what he should do.

In no time, Mayank got a string of suggestions that ranged from contacting the bank, handing over the wallet to the train station manager and approaching the police. He chose the last option.

“I went to Riverstone police station and handed over the wallet to them,” he said.

Mayank kept updating the Facebook post about how he was going about returning the purse. Those who saw the post heaped him with praise. One person shared how they had also recently found a purse and returned it after tracing its owner through Facebook.

Then, around 10 pm on the same day, Mayank got a call from the police, saying that they had located the owner of the purse. “The policeman told me that scheduled to fly overseas the next day and had been saving the money to buy her husband a present,” he said.

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Mayank Jain

“Good job, mate. Keep up the good work,” said a commentator on IIS. “Imaandari zinda hai (honesty is alive). Proud of you, Mayank,” added another.

Mayank, 37, however shrugged it off, saying what he did wasn’t ‘a big deal.’ “I have been a student, so I know how hard saving money is. I just did what I thought was the right thing to do,” he said.

As the group members thanked Mayank for restoring their faith in humanity, one person summed it up, saying, “If my wallet ever gets lost, I hope you are the one who finds it!”

Communities for job aspirants

Browse long enough through any Facebook group about recent migrants and you are bound to come across posts from people looking for a way to crack into the job market. Many of these posts betray a sense of urgency, desperation, and, in some cases, downright alarm: new migrants running out of savings from India with no job in sight in Australia. The financial situation may not be dire for others, but it is certainly frustrating as they face rejection after rejection.

Desi Referral Network is one such community that has thrown the veritable lifeline to quite a few such people. With advice about tailoring one’s CV for the Australian market, job hunt and networking strategies and job postings as well, it is a great resource for new arrivals and job aspirants.

One recent post on the group was by a member who had got a job after three-and-a-half months of struggle during which they claimed to have sent out over 600 CVs to potential employers. “This was the toughest time of my life and I want to assure all of you who are struggling right now that you will get a job in your field. It’s just a matter of time.”

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Gaurav Wadekar

Another member posted that they were about to give up, ‘although I couldn’t afford to give up,’ when they came across the group. “It really gave me instant energy, giving hope that this is going to work,” they said, adding that they got information about a job vacancy and a reference. This finally helped the member land a job.

Gaurav Wadekar knows this drill all too well. A business analyst himself, he also runs a meetup group for new migrants and job seekers, although not particularly from India.

“I thought I was good at my business analysis skills, so started a meetup called Australian Business Analysts in June. Four people came, all looking for jobs. That’s when I realised there would be many such people, so I started the meetup called Finding A Job In Australia,” Gaurav said.

He said he started getting calls from people saying they hadn’t been getting interview calls. “I looked at their resumés, helped them align their skills with the job requirements, gave them networking and interview strategies. I have been able to place about 15 people in the last four months,” he said, adding that while most of the jobs have been in IT, others have been in financial services, retail and construction.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach. I have to research for each sector to see what kind of opportunities are available. I also speak to the people who approach me to analyse what skills they have, what kind of experience they have, what their present circumstances are. So, it’s a very tailored strategy,” he said.

While most of Gaurav’s work is face-to-face with a candidate, the initial contact is often on, or because of, the online meetup group that he has created.

The group also organises monthly meetups in which guest speakers talk on a relevant topic (how to write a resumé and cover letter, networking tips and so on) and where one can meet fellow job seekers and exchange notes.

Of course, there are many who still struggle to find jobs after moving to Australia. This phase of uncertainty can stretch for months, and it’s easy to fall down the pit of hopelessness. For such people, the group can be a job referral network, or at least an agony aunt. And then there are those who finally land a job, and immediately write a post on the group, detailing their journey and urging others not to give up. One such recent post by Harshad Barge touched the hearts of many.

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Gaurav meet up

Barge detailed how he worked casual jobs and struggled to do any kind of saving, but kept at it to pay rent. “All the while I was applying for jobs but all I was getting was either silence or rejections. Then family arrived. Had to work more to sustain all financially. Took up casual roles. After a 1 year, 1 month 5 days, got a dream job again. Just don’t give up. Keep swimming. For those who think of going home, keep swimming the shore is there.”

The post tugged at more than a few heart strings. “Not everyone can share their struggle story but trust me everyone has one! Good to share, hope these words can inspire someone not to quit!” said one comment. “You would have inspired at least a few strugglers for sure,” added another. “Kudos to your spirit,” a third added.

When Indian mums connect

If you are an Indian-origin mum living in Australia, you’re most likely a part of an ‘Indian Mums’ Facebook page (Indian Mums Connect, IMC Sydney, IMC Brisbane, IMC Gold Coast, Desi Mums in West Melbourne, Connecting Indian Mums Melbourne).

You’ve no doubt marvelled at the information disseminated on these pages, and have most probably been motivated to contribute yourself.

As information and communication platforms, these vibrant pages are fast becoming the go-to place for your queries, indispensable particularly for new migrants.

Facebook Groups.Indian Link

A wide variety of topics are discussed. “Eggless cakes” are a recurring theme for some reason, but so are women’s health issues, babies’ and childrens’ health matters, hot-housing of primary school kids (online resources for maths practice? Hindi lessons? Martial arts?) contraception-related matters (where can I get a morning-after pill?), house help, travel advice, even advice on interfering in-laws and recommendations for divorce lawyers. The suggestions pour in in a matter of hours, sometimes minutes. With the quantity and quality of knowledge contributed, it is becoming a valuable support mechanism as we negotiate the demands of our fast-paced lives. Electronic word-of-mouth, you can say, does wonders.

One brave young woman is currently vlogging her way through her cancer treatment – and to see the massive outpouring of love and concern and prayers and virtual hugs from the online community, can only raise your faith in humankind.

True, the advice can sometimes be inauthentic (beware of migration advice from non-professionals, or medical issues dealt with in outlandish suggestions from alternative therapies such as “Skin rash? Apply chandan”). But overall, the users have themselves stated more than once, the groups are “better than Google.”

Clearly, Facebook can be more than “look at how much fun I am having.”

It can help reinforce local relationships, and indirectly, local identities. Rather than one-on-one or even small group communication, experts call this a kind of “whole community communication” that results in binding ties in a manner that long-standing community ‘associations’ have not been able to foster.

Of course, online communities are not without their limitations. As members continue to communicate with their own ‘type’, they run the risk of limiting their exposure to new people and new ideas. But for the moment at least, in our own community, this growing social trend is becoming vital infrastructure, as members connect away online.

Rajni Anand Luthra