We received an invitation to a performance by a singer called Israfil. We’d never heard of him before. It’s unlikely you have either. Israfil, you see, is not really a musician – even though he does love to sing and play guitar – he’s just one of the many, many migrant workers here in Singapore.
He could be the guy you trip over near-midnight around Cuff Road – the one curled up on the street, trying to get some sleep. The one who gets prodded awake several times a night. Told to move again, and again, by police doing their rounds.
If he was slightly luckier, he could be living in one of the many dormitories scattered across the island. You’ve probably walked past and never noticed. But stop, look, and you might see. It could be that room above the coffee shop in that less-desirable part of town. Or the run-down apartment in the old walk-up that also houses Chinese hookers here on social visit passes.
Look closely and you might see stacks of bunk beds, clothes flapping off them. You might see the long lines outside the lone toilet that serves 12, or 26, or 35… or however many people the landlord chooses to cram into the space. Walk past in the evening, and you might get a whiff of dhal and curry.
Israfil isn’t so fortunate. He doesn’t have a bunk bed in a room overflowing with other workers. He doesn’t get to queue for his turn in the loo. He doesn’t get to cook his own meals in a squalid kitchen that’s also a fire hazard. He doesn’t get to do all these things because he is homeless and effectively, jobless.
We met him on Friday, at a restaurant in Little India that also serves up free meals for stranded workers like Israfil. He told us he’d arrived in Singapore 14 months ago. Borrowed $8,000 to pay an agent to arrange for him to come. Here. Singapore, Land of opportunities.
He worked for four months at a shipyard, fell from his harness one day and hurt his back. The insurance company disputes his claim. His employer stopped providing accommodation and medical care ages ago. He still owes a bunch of people at home $6,000. He’s bewildered. How could this happen here. In Singapore?
He approached an NGO, who introduced him to a lawyer. Volunteers got him off the streets and placed him in a shelter. The months that followed were a blur. A legal nightmare. His lawyer asked the insurance company for $40,000. They said no and offered $15,000.
“I said OK, I’ll take it. And then I can go home.”
We didn’t state the obvious – It’s going to cost a lot more to fix your back.
“And then the insurance company said, no. They want to pay less. So now we are still fighting.”
Still, he said he was confident he would get to go home soon. Maybe in the next few days. He told us he’d spend the past nine months just hanging around. In pain. Legally barred from working. Stuck. The performance organized by a local NGO, was perhaps the one bright spot in his long and sorry stay here.
We apologized for not attending. The invitation had arrived too late.
“Maybe next time?”
“Next time, I’ll not be here. I’m going home.”
He sounded so confident, looked almost relieved. He didn’t say how he planned to survive at home with little hope for another job, an injured back and a massive debt.