Advocating for Migrant Rights in Bangladesh

4 minute read

As I reflect on six months spent living and working in the beautifully complex city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, I hold more positive memories of a place that many are quick to associate as poverty-stricken and politically corrupt: the joyful smiles, warm hospitality, and sweet scent of mangoes are some of the memories quick to permeate my idea of what comprises the core of Bangladesh. Without support from the Christianson Fellowship, I wouldn’t have been able to experience such a rich and untold narrative.

Prior to my time in Bangladesh, I spent a year and a half conducting extensive research on the labor and social conditions of migrant domestic workers in Jordan – a country in which many Bangladeshi women have recently begun their migration journeys in hopes of improving their livelihoods. By developing relationships of trust with the women and hearing stories of various labor rights violations, I was determined to understand the full cycles of their experiences.

Many women complained of fraudulent recruitment agencies in their home countries that often deceived potential migrants about the terms of employment and provided misinformation about the actual harsh realities of domestic work. In some extreme cases, I met women who were trafficked, unaware of the country in which they were being sent for work, or believed they were going to work in an occupation other than domestic work. These stories piqued my curiosity in the other two angles of the migration cycle: the pre-departure process and the returnee migrant experience. This research led me to Bangladesh.

The Christianson Fellowship afforded me the unique opportunity to work for BRAC, the world’s largest international development organization. While born in Bangladesh, the organization has spread its innovative projects on poverty-alleviation across the globe. For the past six months, I worked in BRAC’s Safe Migration Programme in Dhaka and deepened my understanding of the intricate links between migration and development in Bangladesh. The main goals of the Safe Migration Programme are to ensure the safe migration and reintegration of Bangladeshi migrant workers and their families through policy advocacy, media mobilization, and strengthening network alliances.

As part of my responsibilities at BRAC, I utilized my in-depth knowledge about the in-country experience of migrant domestic workers in Jordan to devise a strategy to promote sustainable migration for female migrants. In addition, I conducted various field visits to rural areas to interview both potential and returnee workers, such as in Nohkhali and Feni areas that act as the hub of outward migration to the Middle East and Southeast Asia. I was at the heart of where it all began, and could now visualize the many stories told to me in Jordan about the rural communities from which the women came. More importantly, I witnessed the lack of economic opportunities afforded to Bangladeshi women and the trend of mothers and daughters migrating together.

During my field visits, for the first time, I felt completely out of my comfort zone and less in control than my previous experiences of conducting interviews. In Jordan, I had learned Arabic in order to communicate with women and document their stories. This time, there was a communication barrier present between the returnee migrant women I was interfacing with – a barrier that made me realize the power of language in communication but also, the subtleties of non-verbal communication that can also contribute to the same relation-building within a global context. The opportunity to conduct these field visits was a truly enriching experience, in which I learned how to build bridges of understanding and trust of women by communicating with my emotions, body language, and gestures.

A few of the women I interviewed had spent time working in Lebanon and Jordan, places that have also left their mark on me. While our life stories have been very different, one thing that remained constant in our experiences was the feeling of being a stranger or an outsider. My experience of studying abroad in Lebanon was the first time I had ever left the USA and lived alone, away from my family and friends, left to navigate a new city without knowing the language.

When hearing the stories of the women reflecting on how they first felt when they left their village for the first time and ventured to Lebanon and Jordan for work, their reflections resonated with me because I too had felt similarly. My conversations with the women led me to realize that no matter where we are from, the feelings of fear, anxiety, and excitement of leaving your comfort zone and moving to a new country are universal and connect us in imaginable ways. Regardless of our differences, the experience of travel puts our identity in a constant flux and changes our ideas of who we are and what we know.

I am deeply grateful to the InterExchange Foundation for affording me the opportunity to transform my understanding about the world I live in and that I hope to shape. My gratitude extends to my coworkers in the BRAC Safe Migration Programme that welcomed me as part of their team and valued my experiences of working in the Middle East to help impact their understanding of how to promote safer migration practices for migrant workers. These six months have helped me realize the importance of being open to new learning experiences, regardless of how daunting it may seem at first, and the endless opportunities of growth attached to critically thinking about our identity and place in the world.

Sadaf H. By

Sadaf volunteered in Dhaka, Bangladesh with the help of a Christianson Fellowship, from the InterExchange Foundation.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation