[UPDATED 3 June 2019]
The migrant workers' story in Singapore isn't an undocumented one - we've all read about their struggles and challenges before. But in this article, 40-year-old migrant worker Zakir Hossain tells me more than just the hardships he faces during Ramadan and Eid.
I had the greatest opportunity of interviewing Zakir, a quality control project coordinator for Changi Airport's Jewel. As most Singaporeans welcomed the opening of Jewel with awe and admiration this year, many of us forget the people behind its success - most of them migrant workers.
This is Zakir's story - a story about a migrant worker's struggles, hopes and dreams ❤️
A migrant worker's challenge during Ramadan
In Ramadan, it's a struggle for migrant workers like Zakir. It doesn't help that most of their jobs require toiling under the hot sun. It's also especially tiring when they are forced to sleep late but have to be up early for sahur:
"By the time we finish our jobs and return to the dorm, we have to cook for sahur. In other months of the year, we can afford to eat outside or eat catered food but in Ramadan, we have to eat nutritious food. But here's a concern: If we work long, we cannot cook. If we cook and don't do overtime, we earn less. But we still try to reach home early, pray Terawih and cook together as a team, even if it means sleeping at almost 1am and having to wake up at 4.30am the next day. For many of us, the work day means having to be under the sun, though some bosses let workers be in the shade. But many of them still continue fasting."
For iftar, there'd usually be arrangements for migrant workers to break fast together but since the Jewel project was done this year, Zakir tells me that many workers have been redeployed to other construction sites so these days, he buys some food for iftar and then find a space to do his prayers. Sometimes, he'd have his iftar during his bus journey back to his dorm. On Sundays, Zakir and his friends try to go to Sultan mosque for iftar and prayers.
Through the hardships, Zakir is motivated to carry on doing good work. He says many things around him have inspired and spurred him on.
"I feel good in Ramadan - I am fasting but still, I do very hard work. Because my family taught me this way - I observed how my father did hard work for us but he still fasted - and that inspires me. I see many older migrant workers do hard work but they still fast. In Ramadan, you can find Bangladeshi migrant workers at mosques - they help for iftar, wash dishes and prepare food. I have friends who spend the whole day working but during iftar they still go to the mosque and help, and they can still go back to their dorms and cook. Through it all, they can still smile and say "Alhamdulillah" for the blessings. If they can do it, why can't I?"
Zakir tells me that all migrant workers always try to show that they're happy in Singapore through photos or social media. They don't want their family to see their struggles ?
Zakir (extreme left) and his team after the completion of Jewel
Missing home and his father
Beneath the positive exterior, Zakir occasionally misses home and reminisces the times he spends with his family. This is especially striking during Ramadan. And it's even harder because his father just passed away last year.
"I miss my family too much, especially during Eid and Ramadan. When we were younger and waiting for the azan to break fast, my father never failed to pray for my late grandparents and for us. It's still very sad and painful that he's gone and I still can't believe it sometimes. I carry my father's memory with me and I miss him every moment but I believe he is with me in my heart. When I do prayers, munajat (dua), solat and when I work, I'm reminded of my father as he was very close to my heart. Every day I cry for him during prayers. I always say to Allah -
رَبِّ ارحَمهُما كَما رَبَّياني صَغيرًا (My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up when I was small) [Quran, 17:24]
I miss him too much. I thank Allah that I had a father like him, Alhamdulillah. He was a very good father, he took care of me and my family so much, and I don't know if I can be like him. Thank you appa, I love you appa."
If anyone asks Zakir who his inspiration is, the answer will always be, his father. "I've never met anyone better than him before - he taught me punctuality, kindness to others and honesty, even if life is hard." His father was always been supportive of all his passions. He keeps telling me he misses his father a lot. But Zakir struggles to forge the same kind of relationship with his son, Zarif:
"My son is growing up without me - I try to put myself in his shoes all the time. How does he feel when I'm not there? It always bothers me - is my son growing up well? Will he be a good person? Our Rasul, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said in a hadith that a father can give a good character to his son but here I am, not being able to provide that for him. Financial support is not enough. When a child is growing up, he carries the memories and emotions of his childhood with him, but my son can't get that feeling I had with my father, and that tortures me. He's very young, only 8 years old, I'm not sure he understands my sacrifice but I try to call him every day to make up for lost time, though I know it's never enough."
Spending Eid away from home
For Zakir and hundreds of other Muslim migrant workers in Singapore, Eid starts off with eating some traditional Bangladeshi sweets in the morning before congregational prayers at their dorms - with the sermon (khutbah) led by a fellow migrant worker too. After prayers, they'd embrace each other and celebrate with good food. Usually, their feast would have biryani and other meat dishes they'd normally eat back home. It takes a whole lot of teamwork to prepare the meal - from heading to Tekka market to get the supplies to cutting the meat, vegetables and cooking them ☺️
Zakir says the best part about Eid is the sea of colours that you'd see. It is Bangladeshi culture to wear new clothes for Eid - their costume consists of the punjabi suit and they'd pair it with pants called the pajama but this is optional.
Zakir (second from right) is in his blue punjabi and white pajama
As they are not spending Eid with their family, migrant workers take comfort in their "brothers" and spend their off day out. Every year, they try to do something different. This year, Zakir and his friends will be celebrating Eid by going on poetry and photography walk at Chek Jawa in Pulau Ubin. Last year, they spent their day off at Lazarus Island.
Interestingly, how Zakir spends Eid in Singapore isn't too different from how he'd spend it back home. Unlike many of us, Zakir doesn't have the luxury of spending Eid with his family all the time, though he tries to make it back every few years ? He vividly remembers it as a festive moment for him and his family:
"My father would always buy new and colourful clothes for us, so when I'm back in Bangladesh, I try to do the same for my family. It puts me in a happy mood to be giving these new things to my family, the feeling is priceless. Me and my siblings would take turns to buy - we'd ask the family what they want - discussing what dress and colours to get is also a form of celebration for us!"
Continuing his passion in a foreign land
Like many of us, Zakir has his passions. He loves journalism, photography and most ardently, poetry. Listening to him speak about his love for poetry amazes me - I could see the burning passion in his eyes. He tells me he finds time to pen down his thoughts on the bus or train journey to and from work ? It's also like a source of strength and release for him. Zakir's passion for poetry led him to win the Migrant Workers' Poetry Competition in 2014 and 2015, and motivated him to do more:
"When I won the competition, many people asked me, 'You're a migrant worker? How come you can write such beautiful poems with a deep meaning? Were you a poet back in Bangladesh? Then why do you come here?' Singaporeans think migrant workers come here only to work and do construction but we're humans too, we have our passions. Then I thought to myself, why is there a separate poetry competition for Singaporeans and migrant workers? A poet is a poet, there's no need to separate us. That's why I started the Carnival of Poetry - for poets from both sides to read together. Because our struggles, dreams, feelings of love and missing are the same."
Zakir feels poetry can bridge the gap between migrant workers and Singaporeans, especially when there are so many misconceptions between both groups.
Big dreams for the future
I asked him what his greatest wish for the future was. His answer? To become a full-time writer back home in Bangladesh:
"I trust my skills and myself. If I continue these things, my dream will come true. I believe that I'm a good writer even with the obstacles I'm faced with. I can't earn much by writing, we don't have a supportive environment in Bangladesh but it's something I want to do."
Zakir's optimism struck me. He's 40 but his flame is still burning bright. I applaud him for having such tenacity and strength. As I bade him goodbye, all I could do was to pray and hope that he will get to pursue his passion soon. For now, Zakir has to continue his good work and wait fervently for his dreams to come true ?
Note: All photos are taken from Zakir's Facebook.