Friday 24 March 2023

"Even if you are educated it is hard for Biharis to get work" - the Geneva refugee camp in Dhaka

"There's no space here. The children have nowhere to play or study and I have to cook in a small space under the stairs"said Shahana.  We were in her tiny home in in the Geneva refugee camp in Dhaka. More than 40,000 people live here in the dark, narrow alleys, in homes lacking basic services. Shahana was sitting on the steps that lead from a tiny ground floor room to two others of the same size. None of them have natural light. Fourteen people live in this house, including seven children. Her mother-in-law and her 97 year-old grandmother, Jamila, sat on the bed that fills most of the room, and her husband crouched down, talking to me through the narrow entrance to the floor above.

Early morning in Geneva refugee colony

Life in Bangladesh is often lived very publicly. It is not unusual to see people bathing in rivers or brushing their teeth in the street. In Geneva there is no choice and even the most basic human functions are carried out with little or no privacy. There are shared washing facilities and toilet blocks and water has to be queued for twice a day. Most of the residents arrived at the camp in 1971 after the War of Liberation when after a bloody conflict, what is now Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan. Many Bihari Muslims had left India in 1947 during Partition, opting for what was then East Pakistan. Their mother tongue is Urdu and during the war, most of them supported the Pakistani army against the majority Bangla (Bengali) speaking majority. Some took part in atrocities but others were also victims of violence. Figures for the number of casualties on each side vary wildly and are the subject of much dispute. After the war, and into the 1990's, many Biharis managed to leave for Pakistan. This process has now ceased, due in part to sometimes violent opposition from other Pakistani communities.

"The teachers are not friendly. We have to pay them bribes to get the children admitted"

Even in the middle of the day the camp streets are not light and are so narrow that it can be difficult to pass through them. Nazma was playing with her small grandson in one such alley. She was born in the camp and looked older than her 50 years. Before the War of Liberation, her father had a good job working for the railways. Her husband runs a small shop and her son has a car repair business. I asked her about problems with the outside community. She said "We had trouble in the past, but we don't really have those problems anymore". Then she added "But it can be difficult to get the children into outside schools. When they realise we are Bihari, they don't want them". Mohammed Ashore, a barber aged 36, expanded on this. "The teachers are not friendly. We have to pay them bribes to get the children admitted". He lives in a one room home with his wife and two children. They pay 4000 taka a month in rent. According to the World Salaries website a barber in Bangladesh can earn between 5,000 and 12,000 a month.

Nazma and her grandson

Nazma understood the importance of education as a way of breaking out of the camp. "I want my grandson to be an engineer" she said "but even if you are educated it is hard for Biharis to get work". Shahana said that her 11 year old daughter wants to be a doctor but that "my 14 year old son is not interested and doesn't want to study". For many years it was difficult for Bihari children to attend state schools. The community did not have citizenship and therefore lacked ID cards and other official documents necessary to secure employment and to access services. This changed in 2008 when the Government acknowledged their right to citizenship, perhaps recognising that the majority of people in the camp were not even born in 1971. Despite this positive step, long-standing suspicion and prejudice is harder to overcome.  

The camp has a small bazar running through one of the wider streets. Residents go there to buy fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, rice, paan and other consumables. They also go to visit the barber, get electrical items repaired and to seek advice at the office of the local community organisation. On the day of my visit a man selling rabbits from a wheeled cage was also trying to do business. I told my friend that rabbit was once a poor man's dish in the UK but is now served in expensive restaurants. He assured me that they were being sold as pets and not for consumption. 

Shahana, her mother-in-law and grandmother

"Yes, I am the malik"

Shabanah is 45 and was born in the colony. She was doing brisk business at her tea shop. I asked her if she was the malik (boss/ owner) and what she did before opening the shop. "Yes, I am the malik" she told me, then added "my husband works here with me" as she turned to look at, and indicate the man preparing snacks on a raised platform behind her. "I used to work in textiles, but I set this shop up three months ago"  she added. The shop occupies a narrow hole in the wall with a stall set up on the pathway in front. The monthly rental is 2,500 taka (about £25). I ordered a tea and as I spoke to her in my limited Hindi, a small crowd gathered, curious to know what we were talking about and in some cases, anxious to join in the conversation. She told me "My grandfather's name was Mohammed Miah. He came from Bihar but I don't know exactly where". She agreed with Nazma, Shahana and Mohammed Ashore that the main problems of living in the camp were access to good water, space and facilities for children and the generally poor living conditions. She has two children and I asked about her ambitions for them. "I want them to be able to recite the Koran in full" she said. She agreed to a photograph and covered her head in preparation. When I got up to move on, she refused to accept any payment for the tea, saying I was her guest. 

Shabanah "I am the malik"

Despite Nazma's assertions that relations with the majority community are now better, one exchange I had in the bazar showed that there is still resentment about the events of 1971. A middle-aged man approached me and asked where I am from. When I told him I am British he became very enthusiastic, praising the UK and asking me if I had been following the cricket series between England and Bangladesh. I told him  cricket isn't really my sport, but I knew that Bangladesh had done very well and had seen people celebrating their victory over England. His manner changed instantly and raising his voice, he said that he was not happy, didn't want Bangladesh to win, hated the camp and that I should go to the community association to hear the truth about 1971. Then he stopped mid-sentence, shook my hand and left.

Many residents of the Geneva camp have spent their whole lives there. Others have lived there for more than 50 years, under what they hoped and expected to be a temporary arrangement. The ongoing problems with lack of space, poor access to water and other services can only cause more resentment and frustration. In the past, there have been occasional clashes with the majority community, including at another camp in Mirpur, where in 2014 at least nine people were burned to death in their homes during disturbances. Despite this, the angry man I met in the bazar was not typical of the people I spoke to in the camp, all of whom were ambitious for their children and grandchildren and recognised the importance of education in securing a better future for their community. 

Children going to school inside the camp

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Friday 17 March 2023

The rag-pickers of Sylhet

It's the birds that you notice first. They are everywhere, perched on the diggers, sitting amongst the rubbish and circling above the forty or so, mostly women, workers picking through the waste. Several women are at the summit of the dump, looking for plastic and other recyclables. It takes a moment or two to realise that there are other workers further down, surrounded by the rubbish, almost devoured by it. And all the time the birds watch.

This scene takes place near Sylhet, capital of the Bangladeshi province of the same name. The city has many modern shops, restaurants and hotels but to the rag-pickers, (the generic term applied to those doing this work) it is merely the pace they go to sell  items they salvage from the dump. I spoke to Rubi aged 56. She is originally from Moulvibazar, just south of Sylhet and has been here for ten years. I asked her what she did before she began this work. "We were not a rich family" she said. "I had no father and my mother had to do farm work. Then I got married and I was a housewife, but we needed more income to cover the cost of food and accommodation so I came to work here with my husband". Her daughter Fahima also works here. "She's 12 years old" said Rubi, "I'd like to send her to school but who will pay for her books and how will we cover the money she earns that helps to buy food and clothes?"  They sell the plastic items they collect to a recycling company in the city. For one kilo of plastic they receive just 5 taka, about five pence. This is substantially less than the amount the rag-pickers I met in Rajasthan receive for the same weight. Rubi says that on a good day the family can make 200 taka (£2). One kilo of lower quality rice in Sylhet ranges from 55 to 70 taka. Basmati is definitely off the menu at around 350 per kilo.

Fahima is not the only child working here. Johir Islam is also 12. He said "I began working here two years ago. I have no father and I need to earn money to help my mother". He only completed first grade at school and is unable to read or write. Johir was working with another boy, also aged 12. We had just begun talking when a truck arrived carrying new garbage. The boys broke off, picked up their plastic sacks and ran towards it, hoping to find the best items before the other workers got there.

Apart from the odd pair of wellingtons. no-one was wearing protective gear. Rubi, who had by now been joined by several of her colleagues, curious to know what we were talking about, claimed never to have been injured at work. She said that she had never had a skin disease from handling the garbage, despite not wearing gloves. She seems anxious to emphasise this and the others nodded in support of her assertion. I had not mentioned specific diseases. Despite Rubi's claim, a recent report says that as many as 80% of child rag-pickers in Bangladesh have been injured at work, mostly with cuts of different kinds. It also mentions the prevalence of dog and insect bites and respiratory problems from inhaling chemical fumes and airborne dust. Eczema, itching and fungal infection are listed as being widespread amongst this group. 

Although Rubi and her colleagues denied having accidents, they went on to list the various hazards of their workplace. These included dogs, "rats as big as cats", needle sticks and occasionally, snakes. I had a close encounter with four dogs when I arrived. They ran towards me growling and showing their teeth before one of the older women chased them away. They retreated to watch from a distance but did not bother me again.

From time to time, the authorities issue statements about banning rag-picking and then go quiet again. But as Rubi asked "what will we do if this happens? How will we survive?". It reminded me of the occasional proposals to end hand-pulled rickshas in Kolkata and the subsequent protests of the ricksha men, worried that they will be unable to find alternative employment. Rubi's final words before returning to work were "I would like the Government to do more to help people like us. We want to educate our children but we also need to feed ourselves".

As I prepared to leave I saw that the boys had gone into the distance, searching for items away from the main dump. I also noticed Fahima amongst a group of older women workers. She was looking into the distance, perhaps wishing to be somewhere else. But she was in the garbage, picking through the city's  waste under a dark, grey sky, with the sickly smell of decay and under the threatening gaze of those birds.

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