“My grandfather is a proud British Indian. My father is a proud Pakistani. And me? I am a Bangladeshi. My family always stayed in the same village, but each generation has a different nationality.”
Fazley Elahi Rubel, 30, grew up feeling like a misfit in Bangladesh. Due to constantly changing borders, each of his family members identified with a different nationality. As such, he believes in harmony regardless of race, religion or nationality.
When he was studying in Bangladesh, books in Bengali and English were a way for him to explore the world. He amassed a shelf of books about science and history in his room, and would pick them up to read it whenever he craved an adventure.
His love for reading even led him to start a small library back in his village, but all that had to be left behind when his family hit a financial roadblock.
“The library was already done up, and was just about to officially open, too,” he says.
Leaving his parents and five siblings behind, Rubel came to Singapore as a migrant worker around a decade ago, putting a stop to his studies in business management.
Now working as a safety coordinator at a construction company, he has noticed how migrant workers here were afraid to run into Singaporeans. When they get off work, they would avoid void decks and other public spaces, staying in their dormitories or within Little India.
He tells The Pride: “We don’t hang out where Singaporeans go because we feel scared.”
As a result, his fellow colleagues never saw much of Singapore, which didn’t sit right with an adventurer like him. Most of the dormitories are also situated very far from Singaporean residential areas, which Rubel notes that it didn’t allow for much communication and coexistence between locals and migrant workers.
“Every day, they’re working and sending money home to their families. That’s not what life is. You need to work and enjoy life too.”
In a live interview with TEDxNTU, Rubel shared that while the migrant workers had created somewhat of a community in Singapore, they still feel like a fish out of water.
He hopes Singaporeans could actively make them feel more welcomed, as they had to give up a familiar life just to provide for their families back home.
“We spend our best years in Singapore, leaving our families behind to come here and work. We deserve better,” he said in the interview.
Uniting the migrant worker community
Life was tough when he first stepped into Singapore.
“It took me seven years to find out where help was,” he said, referring to nonprofit organisations that look after migrant workers.
Even then, he noticed that most of the activities being carried out were tailored to workers of individual nationalities, rather than bringing everyone together.
“The Bangladeshis will go for Bangladeshi events, the Thais will go for Thai events… it was all separated.”
“Then I thought of my dream to start a library. Why not do it here?”
Rubel saw an opportunity to bring the migrant worker community together through books. Together with two friends, he approached Transient Workers Count Too, who supported them with a space in Little India.
It started as a library meant for Bangladeshi migrant workers, but quickly grew to include other communities. It soon became known as Migrant Library Singapore.
“Some of my friends suggested it to keep it as a library for Bangladeshi workers, but I remembered my values. So I chose to open the library to migrant workers from various nations and languages,” says Rubel.
The library accepts donations, and it is managed by volunteers of different nationalities from the migrant worker community. The library relies heavily on donations, and those for Tamil and Bengali books are harder to come by.
He says: “I want it to be a migrant worker’s library. So we have books in Bengali, but also English, Thai, Vietnamese, Malay… and we are adding more languages.”
Founded in 2017, the library’s space was also used to host book sharing events. Mobile libraries visited dormitories to make reading accessible to migrant workers.
Workshops conducted by experts on story writing for poetry and prose were open to all, hosted at a bigger space in Geylang East Public Library. Rubel’s boss gives him time to juggle between working and planning for the library’s events.
Up till the pandemic, the library had grown to 700 books, but Covid-19 has hit it hard – it has been closed since the circuit breaker began.
Events were halted and mobile libraries had to be called off as cases surged in the migrant worker dorms.
Rubel himself, who saves up to travel with his close friends, had to put this year’s trip on hold. “I even put a picture of my packed bag on my Instagram story,” he says.
Despite that, he looks forward to reopening the library once everything is clear. He hopes that the library would grow to be a welcoming place for everyone, migrant workers and locals, regardless of race or nationality.
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Books and memories keep him going
Back in his site at Orchard, Rubel has a space to accommodate some donated English books that couldn’t fit into the library. Sometimes after work, he would settle down to read them. He is a fan of books about history, science, and action-filled thrillers.
His favourite book is Yuval-Noah-Harari’s A Brief History of Humankind, a book that documents the major developments of humans.
“It reminds me that we are all one race: the human race,” he says with a smile.
He also has a library of memories stored in his phone, mostly about his travels with a close friend. He recalls trips to Langkawi and Bintan fondly, where the two of them went on mangrove tours and enjoyed each other’s company with good-natured humour.
“I want to make travel videos and put them on YouTube someday,” he says. “I want to show my friends and other migrant workers that life can be fun.”
Most importantly, they got to interact with others from different walks of life. “I like to bring people together wherever I go,” says Rubel.
Rubel hopes to promote intercultural awareness with his projects, and bridge the gap between the local community and migrant workers.
That’s why this year’s show was titled ‘The Bridge’, as it was the first to showcase artists who are locals, migrants and foreign domestic workers. The show spotlights migrant culture through music, dance and poetry.
It is his dream to bring people together, whatever their circumstances, wherever he goes.
“My name is Fazley Elahi, it means ‘to own big things’. I like to think I own a big heart.”