The smiling migrant man

Badly injured and left in limbo, Shabdar Ali finds strength to help others.

I first met Shabdar Ali at a Culture Kitchen event, where South Asian migrant workers and other Singapore residents gathered over a hearty meal of Briyani (flavoured rice dish).

He came across as an unassuming and friendly person, and though I don't quite remember what we spoke about, our brief conversation left me with a good impression of him.

But it was night time and he was wearing a pair of dark sunglasses — that sparked a few questions in my head. I thought I'd save those for the next time we met.

A few weeks later, I found myself sitting at the same table as Shabdar, both of us volunteering at TWC2's (Transient Workers Count Too) Cuff Road Project, which gives out free meals to injured migrant workers.

I turned to him and asked: "So bhai, tume ki sharmosha?" (So brother, what problem did you have?).

For the next 40 minutes, he told me about his work-place injury and his experiences undergoing treatment.

He then removed his sunglasses to reveal what to me was a grotesque and appalling sight: his left eye surrounded with small translucent plastic bolsters and purple stitches. It looked damp; perhaps with pus?

I cringed.

"If I glasses no wear, people look at me and they will be scared," he said.

I could only nod.

Despite his injury, he has not become an antisocial recluse, which seems to me like the easiest form of coping or escape.

Instead, he displays a resilient and positive outlook in life, which I find deeply laudable.

He also spends his time helping other migrant men in need, and being a friend to many.

In the few months of our friendship, he has rarely shown his weak side, despite the various strains on his life - his medical condition and trying to get an insurance payout; not being able to provide for his family; and this in-limbo state while waiting for his case to be resolved.

It makes me wonder if I would be as strong, if I were in his shoes.


More than a year after being injured, Shabdar went back to Bangladesh on 8 April, 2014. His employer, whom he said did not take care of him following his injury, has ceased operations. His case is not resolved.

You can help fund urgent and essential medical treatment for workers like Shabdar by contributing to TWC2's Care Fund.

Additional photos: Shabdar Ali

About TWC2

Founded in 2003, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) is a non-profit organisation in Singapore dedicated to improving conditions for low-wage migrant workers. Functioning with a small groups of staff and volunteers, TWC2 has become a valuable agency in helping migrant workers.


Filmmaker & Video Editor

Juliana Tan