SINGAPORE: It was a Sunday of many firsts for Kadir Mohammad Abdul, Hosen Sahadat, Islam Shohidul and Abul Hosen. It was their first time inside a Housing Development Board home - though they’d certainly helped build enough of these flats over the years.
Their first evening as guests of a Singaporean family. Their first taste of a real Singaporean home-cooked meal.
On their sole day off after a draining week of 12-hour work days while fasting, the four men from Bangladesh had spent some time at their dormitory in Mandai dressing up for the occasion.
Kadir, the ‘elder brother’ of the group, sported a striped shirt, Sahadat and Shohidul donned punjabi suits, while Abul, the youngest, filled out a shirt and vest. They were upbeat if a tad nervous as the hour of iftar - the breaking of the fast during Ramadan - drew closer.
When asked, Kadir brushed it off with a laugh and the Singlish-ism he’d picked up after six years in Singapore. “No lah, scared for what?” he said, as they navigated the confusing layout of the HDB block's circular void deck, trying to find the way up to the third-storey unit.
“Happy lah, our first time here.”
Waiting for them were their Singaporean hosts, Siti Zawiyah, a nurse in her late 30s, and her husband, interior designer Fadzullah Hassan.
When Siti learnt that a friend who works at CNA Insider was documenting the lives of migrant workers this Ramadan, she thought this would be a good opportunity to “take that first step” to invite them to dinner - a gesture of appreciation for what they’d done for Singapore, as well as sympathy for the fact that they were thousands of miles from home during this time.
Over the years, Siti and Fadzullah have shared trays of food with migrant workers while breaking fast at the mosque during Ramadan.
We’ve been wanting to invite them over, but we just didn’t know how to approach someone and say, ‘Oh, do you want to come to our house?’
And so, Siti asked her parents if they could host the four Bangladeshis at their five-room flat, the roomy venue for countless family gatherings. “It was an instant yes, no apprehension whatsoever.”
In fact Madam Sukati Mustaffa, a homemaker in her mid-60s, asked if more of their fellow workers could come. Their enthusiasm, Siti reckons, springs her father’s time as a drydock fitter at Keppel Shipyard, where he worked for four decades alongside migrant workers.
The family had grown accustomed to hearing Mr Mohamad Lamin talk affectionately about his colleagues from Bangladesh, Myanmar and India.
“He understands how they have been away from family, so it’s always been in his nature to bring food from home for them,” said Siti.
HAPPINESS AND TEARS
For iftar with their special guests that night, Mdm Sukati had prepared well-loved family dishes such as sambal prawns, pan-fried mackerel fillets, stir-fried vegetables and chicken curry. Siti’s younger sister and brother-in-law also came over with their young children.
At 6.30pm, Kadir and his friends showed up at the door. They greeted the adults shyly, but were almost immediately drawn to the children - Myiesha, a smiley six-year-old, and playful toddler Mateen.
Abul, 26, seemed to have a natural affinity for them, while the children seemed to touch something deep in Kadir. “Now, I'm seeing this, I'm missing...” said the older man, unable to finish as emotion took hold.
This is the sixth consecutive Ramadan that the father of three has spent away from his family. Kadir has had to watch his children - aged six, eight and ten - grow up through video calls and photos. Earlier that day, he’d tried to make his usual Sunday call to them, but the connection had failed, and the homesick longing was clear on this face.
WATCH: Trying to make a home away from home (7:31)
Siti's family was curious about their Bengali visitors, but didn't want to to unnerve them by being too forward with questions.
“It took a while for them to warm up. But my father helped a lot by sitting with and talking to them,” Siti said.
Her husband, Fadzullah, gave a short heartfelt speech thanking them for the sacrifices they made to work here and build Singapore.
A beaming Kadir expressed how he was “very very happy” to be invited - and abruptly broke down into heaving sobs, the pain of being away from his own family crashing down hard on him.
“Don't cry. You will meet your family,” said Mr Mohamad, trying to comfort him.
'HAVE WE EXCLUDED THEM?'
Siti understands only too well what migrant workers like Kadir go through, especially the loneliness. “Despite being with friends in the dorm, ultimately that’s work, and it’s sad not to have family relations,” she said. “Relying on mobile phones, how happy can they really be?”
In 2015, soon after she and Fadzullah got married, the couple organised a small backpack-and-toiletries donation drive for migrant workers. The idea came about when Siti spotted a worker on the train with a dirty, tattered bag. “My niece had a nicer bag,” she thought.
The couple collected more than 100 backpacks filled with hygiene essentials. But when they tried to hand these out for free to workers near construction sites, “they were quite apprehensive,” said Siti.
It was as if they felt they didn’t deserve any goodness from us.
The couple then contacted advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), which among other things, runs a free food programme for destitute workers in Little India. Being there and handing out the remaining backpacks “was an eye-opening experience”, Siti said.
They met migrant workers who could no longer work due to injuries, but had no savings to return home “so they were pretty much in limbo”. Some of these workers could not believe that they could keep the bags for free.
“‘Do I have to do something?’ they would ask me. I’d say, ‘No, no, it’s yours to keep.’
“That was when I asked myself why they would react this way. What does it say about us? Have we always excluded them?” added Siti.
Nicholas Harrigan, a university lecturer who volunteers as one of TWC2’s research coordinators, said that “despite adversity, overall these men are resourceful and proud”.
But, “they are away from home, they work long hours for low pay, and they’re often in considerable debt,” he noted. “All of these can contribute to poor mental health. But job insecurity, agent fee debt and verbal harassment by supervisors are the most damaging.”
So “while social integration would be nice,” Mr Harrigan said, “honestly, it is a long way down the list of priority issues migrant workers would like resolved”.
GIVING BACK, BEYOND RAMADAN
Still, knowing that someone cares could go some way towards helping them bear that burden.
Fadzullah believes that coming to Singapore “is a gamble” for many migrant workers. “If it’s good, they earn money and rejoin their families. But if they fall sick or get injured, they lose everything. No money, no future for them or their families.”
That is why he and Siti hope that more Singaporeans would “play a part by giving back” to these men - and not just during Ramadan, when the spirit of giving runs high.
“For most of us who work, we have enough and there is always something we can give - not in terms of money all the time, but in terms of time and effort also,” Siti said.
And giving back is just what dozens of CNA Insider viewers have volunteered to do, in a moving response to Part 1 of this story describing the life of Muslim migrant workers during Ramadan.
Many on Facebook said they would be happy to host migrant workers to a meal at home - and starting Sunday (June 10) night, several will get to do just that, in house calls facilitated initially by CNA Insider.
Reflecting on his first experience as a guest in a local home, Kadir said that while he was a bit nervous at first, the family was very friendly.
“The culture is actually very similar to my family. Together we sit on the floor, share makan, and after praying we have tea and talk… I miss this. It makes me very happy,” said Kadir, who is planning a one-week trip back to Bangladesh during Hari Raya Haji in August.
Said Fadzullah: “We as Singaporeans need to take the first step. I’m glad that we did today, and inshaa'Allah (god willing), we’ll do it again.”