Greetings from Bangladesh! My name is Sadaf Hasan and I am interning with BRAC in their Safe Migration Programme. I’ve been here for a month now in Dhaka thanks to the InterExchange Foundation‘s Christianson Fellowship and it has already been an eye-opening experience. Before writing about my time here in adapting to the chaos and loud vitality of the city, I wanted to focus this first blog post on my experience at the airport before coming to Bangladesh.
I’m sitting on the floor, beside and surrounded by young and middle-aged Bangladeshi and Nepali migrant workers, all most likely working in Dubai. I’m the only female traveling alone. The other few women present are either accompanied by their husbands or brothers. I feel a bit out of place and wonder what they think about me. My roots are in India but my mannerisms, way of dressing and thinking are completely American. My exterior allows me to blend in but it’s clear I’m different, especially from all the women dressed in their traditional shalwar kameez. Red sneakers, zebra pants and an electric blue shirt. I’m completely standing out from everyone else. I try to avoid eye contact to dilute the stereotype they may have of me based on how I am dressed. I’ve visited India and Pakistan before but in a completely different context. Always with my family, I never confronted this feeling of being out of place. This time, I’m traveling alone and it’s almost 3:00 in the morning.
While observing my surroundings, a bag catches my eye. A World Cup 2014 Brazil sports bag. From Amman to Dubai, I can’t help but notice the sharp contrast in the type of passengers waiting impatiently for their flights to arrive. Here, migrant men crowd the floors, speaking in a variety of dialects to their families and friends on their phones, only an airplane ride away. Men sleeping and using their book bags as pillows, waiting for their flights back home. The sound of different Bollywood tunes echoing throughout. I haven’t yet arrived to Bangladesh but I already feel all that there is associated with moving to a new place. Feeling out of my comfort zone but excited for all the changes and revelations that are to come.
I arrive at the waiting terminal to board my flight to Dhaka. I enter the room and all eyes are on me. As the only female traveling alone, I catch curious stares and glances trying to decipher who exactly I am and why I am on their plane. For the next hour, I wait while staring down at the floor. As I board the bus transferring us to the plane, women inquisitively stare and smile at me. They try to speak to me in Bangla but I just smile back, saying I can only speak Hindi. I tell one woman I was in Jordan the past year and a half doing research on domestic workers in Hindi. She translates my story to her friend, in which her friend immediately starts speaking to me in Arabic. She was a domestic worker in Lebanon and was visiting her family in Bangladesh. All of a sudden, I am speaking Arabic to a range of women and men on the bus, the only mode of communication and connection I have with them, breaking the walls between us from when I first entered the airport.
After reflecting on this cultural exchange of ideas and experiences, I realize how interconnected and small the world really is. Here I am, an Indian-American, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and I am having a conversation across the world in Dubai with Bangladeshi migrant workers in Arabic. While we have strikingly different life experiences, we share the commonality of living and working in places that are completely foreign to us, away from our families and comfort
zones, and learning the language to adapt to the cultures we are immersed in.
I tell them I will be working with BRAC to help understand the life stories of returnee migrant workers from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and they go on to thank me for the great work I am doing. I wanted to thank them, and all the women I interviewed in Jordan, who shared their stories of struggle and sacrifice with me and allowed me to understand where they come from, broadening my ideas of what it means to be a woman living in a developing country with limited opportunities to support the livelihoods of their families.
Thanks for reading! More to come on my adventures of tackling traffic jams in the bustling city of Dhaka and my experiences with BRAC.
by Sadaf F.