By Qistina Hatta
His daughter is 5, but he hasn’t seen her since she was born.
Rubel Bepari, 38, is far from his hometown in Bangladesh. He has spent 10 years in total in Singapore working any job, from being a mover to soil tester, just to send money home to his family — his wife and daughter.
He has missed the past four years of his daughter’s life. Part of it was having to work overseas for his family, but a big reason was also because of Covid.
When the pandemic first broke out in 2020, we all went through lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus. But while Singaporeans quickly got out of the circuit breakers, the migrant worker community went through much more stringent restrictions.
Workers were quarantined in dorms, where cases surged into the thousands. By the end of 2021, more than over 175,000 out of 323,000 dormitory residents had caught the virus.
Perhaps due to that, migrant workers were subject to much tighter restrictions, kept in dorms for months on end — with little to reassure them on their future.
Rubel was one of these workers.
He remembers how every day, he would hear the sirens of ambulances, taking his friends to hospital. He didn’t know whether he would be next.
“My wife was scared, I was scared — but I needed to work,” recounts the normally jovial Rubel.
He is talking to The Pride in the last video of our Portraits of the Pandemic campaign. The online series follows the lives of different people in different occupations and asks them how they got through the pandemic, and how things have changed for them now.
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Being confined to the dorms for months was tough for these men who would normally go out to work six days a week. They were restless and scared. Normally, explains Rubel, he and his friends would be busy working, earning money to send back to their families — they seldom had time to stay in their rooms to think.
The pandemic put a stop to their work, and many started to get anxious about their lives and livelihoods.
For too long, even after restrictions were eased for the general populace, the migrant worker community in Singapore had to deal with stricter living measures. But that didn’t stop Rubel and his friends from finding a silver lining.
Dealing with lockdown
“Four, five months, this was my home,” laughs Rubel as he recounts his time in quarantine, showing The Pride’s camera crew around the small rooftop area on top of his flatted factory dormitory in a light industrial estate.
“This was my house, this was my playground, this was my gym, this was our garden… everything we did, we did in this area,” he says, spreading his arms to show the space, ducking under lines of drying laundry.
He recalls the experience with fondness now, but at the start of the lockdowns, with no end in sight, the morale of he and his friends were much lower.
“We didn’t know when we were coming out of this situation,” explains his friend, Rahmatul Islam Raihan, also 38.
“Our families, they would call us. They would be upset… because they see what’s happening on the news.”
Rahmatul says that they would call their families to reassure them, even though they weren’t sure of their futures themselves.
Nevertheless, Rubel, Rahmatul and their friends tried to keep themselves busy.
Rahmatul, a driver, started attending online diploma classes; and he also encouraged his group of friends to go back to school. He is now pursuing a diploma in Engineering at Institute of Technical Education (ITE).
At the height of the pandemic, when they were confined to their dorms, it was tough not to lose hope. They had much to worry about: Family, safety, money, and even food.
Many of them felt down that they might not be earning enough money; they were getting basic pay — it helped — but it wasn’t enough.
The circuit breaker in 2020 coincided with the fasting month for Muslims, so confinement was even more difficult. Stuck in their dorms, they were not even allowed to order in food, or go out to buy. Living in Tuas, they had limited sources of food, unlike most Singaporeans, who often live within walking distance of a supermarket or convenience store in their neighbourhoods.
When they had to wake up for suhoor (morning breakfast before the sun rises), they struggled to find food for the many Muslims in the dorm. They weren’t allowed out to buy food and didn’t have anywhere to buy food from.
“We needed support for our minds. We were all scared,” recalls Rahmatul.
Rubel would sneak out to buy essentials and food for himself and his friends. He recalls how he was frightened when he saw cars driving around the industrial area in the early morning hours.
He was nervous when the occupants stopped and introduced themselves.
He says: “I thought I was in trouble, but they actually just wanted to help!”
During the circuit breaker, volunteers from non-government organisations (NGOs) like Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO) & Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA) drove around Tuas to to find dormitories to give out food to migrant workers living there because they knew how hard it was for them to get food.
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“They continually helped us — morning, lunch and even dinner. Every time, they would take care of us,” says Rubel.
Hobbies during Covid
Being cooped up for months in the same place was not good for their mental health. They needed sun, fresh air and human interaction.
The rooftop of their dorms, meant to be a dining area, slowly transformed into a recreation area, recalls Rubel.
It became a place to exercise, play, destress and just breathe.
One part of the area became a gym with old donated exercise equipment. Rubel would often work out with weights, getting teased by his friends.
“You can see the difference in Rubel before and after the circuit breaker! He became a bodybuilder,” jokes Rahmatul and Linkon, 35, another friend.
Some of the workers started growing plants like mint, bird’s eye chillies and curry leaves. Some even learned how to cook.
The workers played tabletop games like carrom, but their favourite was still cricket!
Even though they couldn’t play it in a field, being confined to the dorms, they found a way to bat some wickets on the rooftop — despite breaking some lights!
As the months passed, and through the visits of Singaporean volunteers, the workers grew more hopeful and morale started to rise.
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More important than the food they brought, the volunteers extended a hand of friendship. After so many years working and living in Singapore, say the migrant workers, they finally made some Singaporean friends.
“Singaporean friends helped me and wanted to help other friends in other dorms. They helped us a lot. I am very thankful,” says Rubel.
Dreams and aspirations
Now that Covid-19 restrictions were more relaxed, Rahmatul, Rubel and their friends spend their days off on Sundays catching up on school — through home-based learning — something they are still getting used to, explains Rahmatul with a laugh.
Rubel recently returned to Bangladesh, where he hopes to find a new career that keeps him closer to home.
Having picked up skills and education in Singapore, he hopes to start his own business in his hometown.
He says he has missed out on so much of his daughter’s life that he doesn’t want to be apart from them any longer.
“Singapore is good but it’s too hard for my family to move here. My biggest dream is for my family to be together,” says Rubel.
Rahmatul, on the other hand, plans to make use of his time in Singapore to pick up as many skills as he can and even bring his families here.
He is still pursuing his ITE diploma and hopes to get into polytechnic and beyond in the field of engineering.He wants to upgrade his skills and become a better person for his wife and kids, he says.
He hopes to bring his family here so his children can get the same education as Singaporeans and grow up to be strong and independent.
“This is not just my journey — it’s ours. Singapore is also my home,” says Rahmatul.
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