Poetry From Migrant Workers Shines a Light on Their COVID-19 Plight

The current pandemic has exposed a long overdue, festering blind spot in Singapore’s economy: our migrant workers plight. In short, the working and living conditions of our migrant workers have led to large scale outbreaks in their communities and dormitories. This has created a sudden surge of interest and outrage, with thousands of Singaporeans calling for change. 

As this issue gained first local, then global, attention, the past few weeks have seen headlines such as “Covid-19 outbreak brings migrant workers from margin to center of Singapore’s attention” (The Straits Times), “ ‘We are in a prison’: Singapore’s migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back” (The Guardian) and more recently—cutting straight to the point—: “Singapore is Trying to Forget Migrant Workers are People” (Foreign Policy). 

On the Importance of Narrative and Literature Right Now

All this reminds us of the importance of narratives, and of the voices behind them—who is telling what story? Who gets a say? 

Amidst the tussle over control of Singapore’s Covid-19 narrative, it is important to listen to the voices of the migrant workers themselves, to their telling of their story. 

Literature is a powerful medium through which a voice can be heard. It crystallises and translates a community’s experience into a shared language that can be accessed and understood by all. Literature is a means through which people “assert that the world [is] theirs too”, in the words of Alexander McCall Smith. 

Singapore’s very first Migrant Literature Festival was held at the National Library in December last year, attesting to the presence of a growing migrant literary scene here. Despite the coronavirus breakouts in the migrant communities, their literary scene has not gone silent.

Migrant Worker Lockdown Literature

We reached out to MD Sharif Uddin, Warmi Ningsih and Haidee Roiles, three foreign workers based here who are active members of the migrant literary scene. They were generous enough to share some of the writing they have done during the lockdown, through which are expressed migrant workers’ varied and honest experiences in this time.

MD Sharif Uddin

MD Shariff Uddin was born on 5 September 1978 in Dilalpur village, Nandail, Mymensingh, Bangladesh. He has a Diploma in Ceramic Technology.

He arrived in Singapore in 2008, where he works in the construction and tunneling sectors as a supervisor. Sharif writes short stories and poetry and his writing has been published in various journals and anthologies in Singapore and Bangladesh. Over the years, he has won many accolades across many genres and competitions, such as the Singapore Migrant Workers Poetry Competition and the Singapore Migrant Workers Short Short Story Competition in 2018.

He also wrote a book, Stranger to Myself, which you can get here. His favourite writers are Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Bibhutivushan Bandyopadhyay.

During the pandemic, Sharif has continued to add to his impressive literary collection, penning down his thoughts about the lockdown and the quarantine.

Here are two poems that he has shared with us, which can also be accessed on the Facebook group, Daily Life in COVID-19.

In The Cry of a Migrant’s Heart, Sharif shares about the struggle of being quarantined in a dormitory while missing his family back home and grieving the loss of his late father. 


The Cry of a Migrant’s Heart

I saw my father in a dream this morning. I ate Seheri* and lay down on my right side. I saw that I was sitting in my younger brother’s room. Suddenly, something in my eyes made them very itchy. I got up and went to the mirror to look into my eyes. Instead, I saw Father staring at me impassive in the mirror. He too had one red eye. I backed away from the mirror, the inside of my chest twisting. I wailed loudly. My younger brother came and asked why I was crying. I uttered something and hugged him. Then he cried too. I woke up. I sat still, my heart still throbbing. There seems to be a problem. I think of my brother, my sister, my wife and my son.

Life in exile is very difficult. Living here without family means struggling by yourself in every moment.

Lying on bunk, see nothing but a piece of sky boxed up by the window. I store all my troubles in that bit of sky. I am afraid that it will shatter when I can no longer bear the burdens of my suffering!

Be well, my father. Before you left the world, I wanted to embrace you and say I love you so many, many times. But I couldn’t. 

* The morning meal eaten by Muslims before the sun has come up during Ramadan.

In Singapore Circuit Breaker: 29th day, he laments not being able to go out and enjoy his usual activities. Just like the rest of us Singaporeans, he longs for the simple pleasures of a meal at his favorite eatery, of traveling to various local spots and hanging out with his friends. Like the rest of us during this lockdown, all “desires are blocked by four walls”.


Singapore Circuit Breaker: 29th day

The Death of Wishes 

“I wish to go to Orchard’s field or Kallang Park!” I scream like a baby.

I am running in vain!

“I want to go to Mostofa Minimart and eat two plates of briyani at Fakhruddin, chat on the fourth floor of City Square.”

Kissing hot tea and blowing smoke.

“I wish to sit in the front seat on the top deck of bus number 67 and walk around the narrow streets of the city then buy a three dollar big sweep ticket.”

Fly in the sky of dreams!

“I want to go to the clothing store in Bugis Village unnecessarily! I want to read various books in Kinukuniya or City Book Room! I wish to climb the grassy hills of Marina Bay and Botanic Gardens, spend the whole day in Jurong East and Tempanis Market! I want to dive into the murky waters of the East Coast Lagoon and visit Universal Studios, Sentosa, too! I wish to walk in the morning and evening around Dhoby Ghaut MRT, read poetry sitting in the National Library. I want to go to Pulau Ubin. I wish to ride a bicycle! I want to go to Jewel. I wish listen to the song of the fountain while lying down!”

But wishes are lost in the city. All desires are blocked by four walls. I am a monk at night. The day is dust!


Warminingsih

Warmingninsih is a 38 year old Indonesian who has been working as a foreign domestic worker in Singapore for the past 20 years. She enjoys writing poetry as she loves the beauty of the words in poems. She writes to destress, explaining that doing the same chores repeatedly takes a toll on her wellbeing. Beyond her usual scope of work, she volunteers at the IFN (Indonesian Family Network), a support group for foreign domestic workers which provides counselling and courses. She also used to teach English for four years, before she stopped due to her workload. 

Last year, her poetry was shortlisted for the Migrants Poetry Competition. Although she did not win, it made her more motivated to write more meaningful and beautiful poems.

She wrote Pandemic as a response to the false rumours which were initially circulating about how more domestic workers would be infected with Covid-19. This rumour was based on the assumption that they would contract the virus from migrant workers, since many domestic workers find partners from the migrant worker pool. As she shares, those rumours made her “so sad and frustrated”. 


Pandemic

Disbelief hoping it’s just a scary dream stuff from a movie scene
Believing it’s only happening at the far side of the world
It will never reach our shores
The outbreak caught everyone by surprise
Battling invisible enemy without a face

Pointing fingers blaming games begin
While the weak suffers unbearable pain 
Some survived some succumb to covid-19 
For now, there is no medicine nor vaccine

Circuit breaker lock down caused everyone to feel scared 
Panic buying everywhere stripped the shelves bare
Eerie empty streets the world stand still
Everyone wishes never to fall ill

My plan to visit my family had to put on hold indefinitely 
Worry about their situation checking on them daily 
Telling them to wash hands, stay safe and healthy

Everyone is home, my workload already plenty, now double 
I struggle with the amount of task I have to juggle
In the of the day I am exhausted can’t move a muscle

In the midst of this global pandemic
I saw and heard some selfish acts and crazy antics
Fake news and rumors demeaning migrant workers plights
But, as the world become chaotic I witness plenty of heroic deeds 
Countless kind souls helping migrant workers in need
Give me a glimpse of hope a tiny light
Everyone needs to play a part by doing what is right
We will surely win this fight!


Next, Covid-19, written from the perspective of a migrant worker, depicts the growing despair of those trapped in dormitories, and the hopeful stance they take despite it all. The speaker urges everyone to remember that migrant workers are humans too and that despite the spikes in migrant worker cases, they aren’t the enemy. We are all humans with similar worries—our family’s well being, our jobs—facing a common enemy: Covid-19.


Covid-19

When Covid-19 arrived in China, we migrant workers were not worrisome 
We believed it was not an infectious disease to some
We have no time to worry
Need to work from dusk to dawn and in a hurry
We are more concern about our siblings’ empty bellies 
Utmost importance is to send money to our family 
Each evening we were back to our congested dormitory 
Covid-19 was not in our dictionary

All were well when I fell asleep that night
Morning came and we woke up to a shivering fright 
Covid-19 has spread really fast among us
Worried and overwhelmed, we kicked a fuss
The law forbids us from going outside
Our plights were finally known nationwide

We faced a new routine
Social distancing to fight Covid-19
Wash hands, keep them clean
It’s terrifying; everyone I know is under quarantine

As the days go by
We have to accept Covid is here to stay
The workers are facing this unforeseen reality 
We are not ready for this calamity
Anxious about work and a monthly salary 
Each updates casualty increase daily
Sadness descended into, our heart feels heavy 
We aren’t begging for mercy
Just a little understanding little empathy

That we are fighting the same enemy
We now have a common enemy called Covid-19
It was such a relief when the Singapore government stepped in
Their information and report on the virus are reliable
We believe they are capable; their actions in handling the virus are admirable


Haidee Roiles

Haidee is a foreign domestic worker from Central Philippines, Cebu City who is also a member of the Facebook group Daily Life in COVID-19. She has been writing since she was a child, as an outlet for her intuitive side. Over the years, with the various twists and turns her life has taken, her innate desire to write—to “scribble the words into a piece of art”, in her own words—was stifled. However, she asserts that “passion always finds its way out” (paraphrased). The Covid-19 circuit breaker meant that her employer’s family was home all the time, leading to increased stress from her job. She therefore turned to writing once again, rediscovering how energised and happy it makes her after an exhausting day.

She sent us two poems —Creating Images of Wishes on Covid-19 and Humanity Love, in which she shares about the hopes she still holds on to during the pandemic. 


Creating Images of Wishes on Covid-19

You came like a love story.
Unexpected, unpredicted and unprevailing,
In just a short while like sunshine,
You are like wildfire, burning every desire.

Mysterious, unknown and unseen silhouettes
But because of you many are vanished like Summer skies.
It came as a thunderstorm of worries and uncertainties.
Everyone has to shield from your  powerful destruction.

And everyone has to make a wish beforehand
That someday, somehow will get brighter and better,
Our wishes will be made in heavens
Our hearts longing for your bygones be bygones.

Creating of wishes is so wonderful
You made every seconds spent valuable
Every moment gives us such an appreciation.
And wishes were made into realizations.
Whatever blessings in disguise you have created.
We wish it will remain crafted.

Deep into every heartbeat of humanity.
That will be a compilation of wishes and reality.
Hold your breath before your shadow gone in darkness,
Because we have to thank you for creating images of wishes.


She wrote Pag-ibig Para sa Kapwa or Humanity Love in Tagalog, providing us with an English translation. In this poem, she reminds us of the need to stick together and support each other during the pandemic.


Humanity Love

Which love is most important?

It’s the purest love for humanity.

In times calamities and distress,

Holding our hands together in this.

Where ever corners of the globe you are,

Over the seas here we came united,

With great love and togetherness.

No one is expecting you to brought this havoc,

Mixed emotions, reactions from all of us,

Fears, worries and anxieties

Mostly for us who’s far away from our families.

How could it be?

The fear we have from deep within,

We are counting the time and days again and again

Hoping for the olden cheerful days to come back.

But there is no certainty.

It’s in our honesty to live with our own self responsibility.

We fear not only for the island we come from,

We the fear for our second home, a place we are standing still,

What if we fail?…what if we have lost?..

We migrant workers, like me.

A heartfelt gratitude!

A big leap from a grateful heart, we thank you.

The government sectors, the healthcare frontliners, the people, the humanity for the love and care.

It’s very touching.

Many alone hearts cries for tears of joy.

We feel, we belong.

The slap of this epidemic are unseen to our naked eyes.

Yet really felt by our hearts filled up with fears and worries.

Many time we haven’t realized, 

Deep in the nook and corner, sitting down there,

Tears kissed our cheecs unknowingly,

Reminiscing the joyful yesterday.

A realization struck from disillusions, 

We are here fighting for,

Raising along with sun, watching the horizons,

Our souls filled with dreams and hopes to get better and brighter!

Because it is not only ME…

    Not only you… not they.. not them..

All of us… We are the hope… and the love for humanity is the best weapon to face this challenging situation.

With so much love.


Migrant Literature in Singapore

Singapore’s first Migrant Literature Festival happened last year. (Source)

Sharif, Warmi and Haidee aren’t the only migrant workers sharing their thoughts during the lockdown. As Singapore begins to focus its attention on the migrant population, it is worthy to also read and support their literature, through which their experiences of the lockdown are honestly shared.

‘Real Time’ Migrant Lockdown Writing

You can read ‘real-time’ migrant literature at MyVoice@HOME and Daily Life in COVID-19. MyVoice @ HOME, or the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics, is Singapore-based charity that supports migrant workers who are victims of abuse and exploitation while Daily Life in COVID-19 is a public Facebook group. In these two groups, migrant workers and foreign domestic workers write about their lives, frustrations and hopes during the lockdown. 

Migrant Literature Books

Besides these pages, our migrant literature scene has published a number of notable books, including:

MD Sharif Uddin, Stranger to Myself

Sharif (featured above) writes about the most memorable and poignant moments of his life as a migrant worker who has—along with thousands of others—sacrificed much in building the beautiful cityscape of Singapore. 

Various foreign domestic workers, Our Homes, Our Stories

Our Homes, Our Stories shares the stories from women who have left their homes and families in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar to work for a better future in Singapore. They share about the hardships they experience here: difficult employers and homesickness, but also about the dreams they harbour and the moments of hopefulness and encouragement they encounter.

Various migrant workers, Call and Response

Call and Response is an anthology of migrant poetry, each paired with a creative response by a local writer. 

Various migrant workers, Migrant Tales, An Anthology of Poems by Migrant Bengali Poets in Singapore

This anthology features a wide array of Bengali-centric poems written by various migrant Bengali workers. This text aims for a more ‘authentic’ voice, therefore containing minimal editing, preserving the original spirit of the writers as much as possible. 

Md Mukul Hossine, Me, Migrant

Me, Migrant features poems from Md Mukul Hossine that are translated from his native Bengali. They express his heartfelt emotions, experiences and dreams.

Other relevant literary groups you may want to check out include Migrant Writers of Singapore and the Global Migrant Festival

Featured image from CNBC.

  1. Thank you for your kind appreciated to migrant as like me we are so proud of Singapore and Singaporean
    May Allah bless to Singapore and bless all of my friends and family

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