A Meaningful Conversation with at Shapla

It wasn’t hard to spot H upon arrival at Shapla Restaurant in Little India on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. Amongst the chatter and laughter, he was sitting alone at the table hunched over with his head hung low, hands clutching a green token while other Bangala brothers were sitting in groups. With this green token, it allows H and several other migrant workers on the Special Pass to select their choice of meal for lunch, as part of the Food Project HealthServe holds twice a week. One of HealthServe’s caseworker, P, was speaking gently to H as I walked over. P shared that H was feeling depressed and could perhaps use a listening ear. I approached H cautiously, politely introduced myself and asked if I could sit down with him. H stood up to welcome me and humbly apologised that he wasn’t good in English. As I asked H for his name in broken Bengali, “Tumar nam ki”, I could feel a small part of the wall he built up coming down as his lips slowly curved upwards “Amar nam H”. 

As we conversed in a mash of Google translated Bengali, simple English and hand signs, I soon found out that like many other migrant workers, H had to pay an agent fee of S$10,000 to work in Singapore. Without the large amount of cash available, he took up a bank loan and exchanged his house as mortgage in return. H left his country for the first time, full of dreams and ambitions. He looked forward to his new job in Singapore to hopefully earn enough to alleviate the plight of his family situation back home in Bangladesh. H was the sole breadwinner and his mother, wife and 1 year old baby depended on him for their livelihood. However, all his hopes were shattered after just 2 months into his new job at the shipyard in Singapore. 

Working in the shipyard meant that H was exposed to many workplace hazards. He was placed in charge of the grinding machine when he slipped and lost grip. He fell and hit his head against the metal plates and blood gushed out. Eventually H was discharged with 3 months of hospitalisation leave after severely injuring his head, neck, back and right hand. But this was just the beginning of his problems. H’s employer not only threatened to send him back home immediately, but also stopped providing him a place to live in and no longer gave him his monthly salary. As such, he was unable to send money back home to feed his family and pay off his bank loan. Faced with such a predicament, H worries his house will be taken by the bank. Coupled with the pain of his injury, H shared that he has not been eating and sleeping well. “I thinking many, head pain, neck pain, hand pain”. A friend provided him a ray of hope amidst despair and told him of “[a] place that help and give lunch”. Since then, H has been coming regularly for HealthServe’s food projects at Little India and MRT top-ups. 

Our conversation was interrupted when H suddenly broke into a smile as M, another migrant brother walked into Shapla Restaurant. As they conversed excitedly in Bengali, M and H invited me to walk with them to the food counter to choose their lunch – ruti (bread) with curry vegetables for H, bhat (rice) with several dishes for M as explained and translated by them. I finally understood why H was reluctant to choose his food despite my continual cajoling, he was waiting for his friend M to partake of food. He enjoys a moment of reprieve from his troubles as he engages in lighthearted conversation with his fellow migrant brother, laughing and joking as they conversed in Bengali. H broke off a piece of his ruti and offered it to me, “try, eat”. In just 30 minutes, H treated me like a friend, exhibiting a generous heart despite his difficult situation as he offered to share half his roti with me. 

As we ate I asked if H could show me pictures of his family. His eyes lit up as he showed me the photos on his phone, pointing out each of his family members and friends, photo after photo of a small fraction of his life back home. What struck me most was how different H looked in those photos – he was much healthier looking in comparison to the scrawny frame right in front of me. It has been close to a year since H last saw his family. It’s hard to imagine how all H has are photos and phone calls to be the father, husband and son from 1,792 miles away. I look at the new friend I’ve made sitting across me who was 2 years younger than I, who’s been through 2 times the anguish yet emerging twice as resilient despite the amount he bears on his bony shoulders. He and I who shared the same ruti, yet separated into 2 completely different worlds. 

H is certain that he will not be able to return back to Singapore for work given his injury. In a few months time when H case is revolved, he will go back to Bangladesh. It is not clear how H will be able to clear his debt back home, but like many others in HealthServe, they can only wait and hope for the best – that the compensation they may receive will be able to tide them over.

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