When I first received the challenge, I was really excited to finally be able to attend a Migrant x Me session. I first found out about the programme through Instagram but never really got the chance to sign up for it.
To be honest, whenever I see migrant workers in public spaces, I usually ignore them and try my best not to get in their way. However, an encounter with them made me want to connect with them better. I was on one of my solo photography adventures when I bumped into a huge group of migrant workers by the beach. I helped them to take some photos together, talked to them and observed how they interacted with fellow workers. I always had the assumption that the workers would only hang out with people of their own nationality. Hence, I was quite amused when I saw the Chinese, Indians and Bangladeshis hanging out together! It led me to think that if they can hang out like this, surely, I can hang out with them too!
CHALLENGE: PART 1 (The Migrant x Me Session)
On the day of the session, I had mixed feelings. I have always wanted to visit the migrant quarters in Singapore and get to know them better. The opportunity to be able to do so made me very excited! However, my excitement soon became fear. Being the youngest in the group of participants was slightly daunting for me. Nonetheless, I told myself to just go with an open heart and mind. True enough, I had such an eye-opening experience!
Entering the dormitory made me feel like I was entering a brand-new town! In that compound alone, the migrant workers had access to everything we also have in our neighbourhoods — supermarkets, ATMs, salons, coffee shops, laundry services, phone shops, recreational spaces etc. At this sight, I thought to myself: “How bad can it be to live here?”
However, in my conversations with Rahman (a Bangladeshi migrant worker I befriended during the session), I realised how wrong my assumptions were. Rahman shared with me that in his dorm of 12 workers, only him and another guy are from Bangladesh and the rest are from China. Due to the language barrier, Rahman occasionally feels left out. Out of curiosity, I asked if the workers are allowed to hang out in their friends’ room. Sadly, he replied that that is not allowed and they are only allowed to stay in their own dorms. Due to certain restrictions like this and more, Rahman barely has any friends.
He also shared with me that the dormitory caters food on a daily basis for the workers, but the food gets delivered at 5pm daily. By the time they return after a long day of work, the food is cold, bland, and has sometimes already gone bad! There was also a period of time when Rahman was told to stop working after he was injured. Because he had no money due to his temporary absence from work and no friends to share the costs of cooking with, Rahman could only continue eating the catered food daily without complaints.
Despite all the risks that may potentially threaten his life, Rahman continues working because he hopes that whatever amount of wages he gets will be able to provide his family a better life back home. He shared too that his father, whom he affectionately calls “Baba”, will call him every day without fail to chat with him and check on his safety.
CHALLENGE: PART 2
After the session, the second part of my challenge was to find a migrant worker, give him a ‘Thank You’ card that I wrote, and bless him with some food and drinks. I noticed that there was a lot of construction going on in different parts of my school and I managed to spot a few migrant workers sitting on the grass patch outside my school.
I approached one of them and asked about his work, how long he’s been in Singapore and got to know him a little more. He seemed confused and fazed that a student like me would approach him to have a simple conversation. I proceeded to explain that I wanted to thank him and his friends for working in my school. I showed him the card I had written and he rejected my card thinking that I had a hidden motive. I hurriedly explained that my friends and I had put together some cards to thank people like him who work at our school. After my explanation, he smiled and accepted my card and the snacks and drink I bought. We then had a little laugh over how bad my drawing on the card was (I really tried)!
When we said our goodbyes after the short conversation, I felt a little sad that he and his friend felt so intimidated by my simple intention to bless them. Perhaps it was because it isn’t common for young people to walk up to a migrant worker and have a simple conversation like we do with others.
Getting to know the struggles that the migrant workers face on a daily basis — from not being able to contact their family, having to miss big events (weddings, funerals etc.) back home and struggling financially — made me respect them more than I ever have. Putting myself in their shoes really did humble me! The ages of the migrant workers are not too far from mine but the privileges that I get to enjoy are worlds apart from them. It broke my heart when I realised that the migrant workers who build our homes don’t get treated as fairly as they should be.
If not for this challenge, I would not have understood a small glimpse of what it is like to be a migrant worker in Singapore. Through this experience, I have been educated on a deeper level and also challenged to be more intentional in my interactions with migrant workers the next time I encounter them. Remember, a kind act from us makes a world of difference to them!