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     Volume 4 Issue 39 | March 25, 2005 |

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Cover Story

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Many Bangladeshis see migration as a route to escape all the difficulties that we face in our daily lives. When hearing of people that return we often wonder why they want to come back. Sometimes we tell ourselves that it must be because they failed overseas and so came back empty handed. Contrary to that notion, some migrants have succeeded overseas but have chosen to come back because they want to contribute to their country with which there remains an innate bond that only grows over time.

On 7-8 March, a workshop on the Sustainable Return of Professional and Skilled Migrants organised by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) of Dhaka University explored the ties that bind these emigrant souls to their native land. Under the auspices of the University of Sussex based Development Research Centre (DRC) on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty, it explained the reasons behind these come-backs and the problems people face to start their lives afresh on their native land.

Among the number of returnees, people who return home permanently dominate the chart. With their acquired knowledge, skills or capital they may begin a new career in their home country, while others may retire. Their prospects to re-migrate are no higher than a general desire to migrate.

The second group may return for a reasonable length of time but retain their domicile and contacts in the country of immigration. The length of time they may spend in the home country may vary. During their stay they may contribute their knowledge and skills gained in the destination country, while acquiring new knowledge and experience in their home country.

Transitional migrants, another group of returnees, according to the findings of RMMRU, have their stakes both in the home country and country of destination. They may be involved in economic activities that require them to share their time and efforts between two countries.

The recurrent reason mentioned for coming back was the desire to contribute positively to the country that made them who they are today. No matter how much they achieved abroad nothing gave them greater satisfaction than achieving it at home. As Mushtaque Habib, an engineer trained in the University of California, Berkeley noted, the planning and construction of an University campus in Dhaka far exceeded the satisfaction of executing a sixty-storey building project in California.

Another issue raised was that of greater career opportunities at home: the idea of being "a big fish in a small pond". With the qualifications and experience gained abroad they were able to realise their full potential which otherwise may not have been possible.

Young returnees emphasised on career limitations in the country of immigration. In her presentation, Dr. Robyn Iredale commented that returnees from Australia felt that due to inherent prejudices they would always be overlooked in favour of 'native' Australians. Employers felt that those who did not speak with a particular accent did not 'fit in the team'. There is also an ever-growing feeling that ever since the events of 9/11, migrants from a certain background face discrimination both in job placement and promotion.

Weighing the Options
Dr. Amer Wahed, a young successful physician specialising in haematology and pathology, has enough reasons to stay back in the U.S. where the opportunities are immense. With brilliant results and a good career at home Wahed had even better prospects abroad. He trained at the Houston Medical Center in Texas, U.S.A., the largest medical centre in the world, becoming Chief Resident, Department of Pathology, University of Texas, Houston and later a resident and then a Fellow in related departments of the same institution. Yet in spite of a lucrative and prestigious career abroad, Wahed has chosen to come back to Bangladesh, at least for a few years, so that he can use his expertise in the medical field.
Amer and his wife, an economist, and their three sons have been here since the last six months. Since then Amer has been working at two places. As a Consultant Haematologist at Popular Diagnostics, he is responsible for helping to improve the quality of pathology there. He is also working as Consultant Pathologist at Ibrahim Cardiac Hospital and Research Institute where his function is to set up a small diagnostic lab and blood bank.
It was a joint decision to continue with higher education that Amer and his wife Tanya went to Houston. With a J-1 visa there were two options for Amer. Once his training was complete Wahed could go back to his home country or serve in a designated 'undeserved' area for three years. Moreover, the couple's eldest son was a US citizen, which raised the incentive to stay back.
"But we did not want to live in an underserved area for three years", says Amer, "We wanted our sons to become familiar with Bangladesh, its people and culture. We especially wanted them to bond with all their grandparents and my grandmother"
Thus Amer and his family came back to Bangladesh.
Amer still has a job offer from the place he trained in the US which will hold the position for him for two years. His designation would be Assistant Professor and Assistant Program Director, a prestigious position, especially for a foreigner. Tanya has completed her MPh from the same US university and has currently taken two years leave before she continues with her PhD programme. Her field is in Health policy and management. "We do plan to go back", says Amer frankly. "My wife needs to finish her studies. After she finishes we can then decide where we wish to reside, based on our two years experience here and our experience in the US'.
For Amer there are ample opportunities to find work in Bangladesh. There are few individuals in the country with exposure to Pathology in the western world. Pathology is one of the most technology dependant branches of Medicine. And Modern medicine is heavily dependent on Pathology. Naturally Bangladesh has a lot of catching up to do in this area. But the difficulty, explains Amer is finding people who understand such complexities.
"I am using a fraction of what I have learnt in Bangladesh" says Amer. "This is frustrating as I could contribute more. At the same time, my skills are going to get rusty ( as I am not using them).
Amer says that there are three main issues related to people who want to come back:
"First of all what will they do ( in terms of jobs). The first six to 12 months is crucial. No one wants to be dependent on parents at an age when they have their own family. If a job can be arranged before they arrive in Bangladesh people will be less hesitant to at least come and see if it is worth coming back. Opening of hospitals like Apollo, Square, Continental is a positive thing for physicians who are thinking about coming back."
Interestingly Amer thinks that the wives of men who go abroad play an important role in the decision to come back or not. "Wives have tremendous freedom when they are abroad. This freedom is drastically curbed when they come back. This is a serious issue for people wanting to come back".
More important is the issue of education of the children. "Bangladesh is notorious for school children to be smothered by studies, home work and tutors. Children from abroad are not used to this dedication to studies. Other things are important to them eg video games, sports, going to the movies, amusement parks ". I have to admit though things are improving in this area".
The volatile political scenario and lack of security coupled with poor health facilities are also major disincentives.
There are very few people adds Amer, who go abroad who vow never to return to Bangladesh. Most people do feel homesick, some more often than others. "Many would like to come and at least try to work here for a period of time. Family ties, I think is the single most important reason for people wanting to come back."
--AM Amin

Career choices, however, are not the only factor prompting migrants to return home. For some, returning meant making sacrifices in their career; but those that were greatly outweighed by the social gains of being with family and immersed in a familiar culture, a point articulated by Harvard returnee Prof. Omar Rahman. When a person is overseas, away from family and friends, over time there emerges a feeling of obligation and responsibility for loved ones back home. Traditional South Asian values load migrants with a feeling that they should be there to look after the family, particularly aging parents.

In some cases migrants worry about the identity of their children: do they feel more Bangladeshi or, say, American? The idea of the "ABCD" or "American Born Confused Deshi" springs to mind. Children growing up overseas are likely to be culturally detached from their parents. They may know very little about the culture, religion and may not even speak the same first language as their parents. This makes parents ever more anxious to return so that their children do not grow with some form of hybrid identity.

So with a great many reasons to return, why are not more highly skilled migrants doing so?

From a career perspective, in some sectors, the absence of opportunities is a major factor against return. A moderately successful migrant would not entertain the idea of returning, if, career-wise, they had to start from the bottom and move up. As Omar Rahman noted the establishment of private universities has created a window of opportunity for the return of academics.

For those in the highly specialised professions, the absence of an environment that is conducive to sharing and developing knowledge and information often acts as a hindrance to returning. Furthermore, undesirable work practices and technological inefficiencies leave some professionals frustrated and disillusioned.

On the personal side, the lack of educational and healthcare facilities make migrants think twice before returning. The proliferation of international standard private schools and hospitals is slowly addressing this problem.

Making it at Home
There's no formula for success for people returning from abroad, says Aneela Haque, CEO of Andes Limited. "It depends on how you see life. You have to focus on whatever you're doing with strategy and planning."
In 1988, Aneela went to the USA to study fine arts at Stephens College, Missouri. She interned as a graphic designer at the public relations office of the university and went on an exchange programme to the Parsons School of Design in Paris-Italy in 1990. In 1991, she came back to Bangladesh, and, after freelancing for four years with organisations like BRAC, UNICEF Bangladesh, Care and the Ford Foundation, she formed her own advertising and fashion company in 1995.
"I came back for my parents," says Aneela. "At the end of the day, they're the only incentive I have to look forward to."
When she decided to stay back here, however, she planned her life accordingly and immersed herself in various activities including singing, karate, cooking, interior design, piano, reading and travelling. "Travelling has helped me to appreciate my own culture and values," says Aneela, "and I've learnt that, No matter where you are in the world, it's you, the person, who makes the difference.".
"I had to struggle a lot," says Aneela. "This is not a country for single women. Chauvinism quietly prevails. Smart women are a threat to most people -- both men and women -- who suffer from identity crisis and a power struggle."
At 22, Aneela began her business with her own savings and her parents' patient advice and inspiration. "I hardly came across any like-minded people at the time," she recalls.
Affiliated with Rediffusion Dentsu Young and Rubicam, USA, Aneela now has two branches of her fashion brand Aneela Haque's Andes in Gulshan and Dhanmondi and employs 45 people.
Fourteen years of work have been very rewarding, she says, and has brought her into contact with some good friends and some great minds worldwide.
"If you have the drive and patience," believes Aneela, "you can make it anywhere in the world. And if Bangladeshis in general change their attitudes towards the younger generation by being more positive and not interfering, change will happen overnight."
"Young men and women are often pressurised into getting married even before they've explored life. They feel intimidated to come back home where they feel they will not be able to live as freely as they would like. I faced the same problem, but was bold enough to fight it and now, 14 years down the road, I'm still going strong," says Aneela.
"It would be great seeing more qualified women coming back home and working here with a positive attitude, which would be possible if only they felt more secure here," says Aneela.
"I won't discourage people who live abroad. Ultimately what matters is whether you're happy and you feel successful. But if I can be a good role model to anyone, or if I can touch the lives of the people I work with, or if my friends or young people benefit in any way through me, I will feel the most successful," says Aneela.
-- Kajalie Shehreen Islam

A greater concern is that of political stability and personal security. Hartals and associated reports of violence dampen the desire to return. Corruption and bureaucratic practices are further obstacles.

The transfer of skills and knowledge from those returning is immeasurable; returnees have paved the way for the introduction of international standards and practices. The workshop took the opportunity to highlight those Bangladeshi returnees who have built upon their success overseas and made a positive and enduring contribution at home.

The introduction of the Cat's Eye brand in the early 1980s changed notions of consumerism in Bangladesh, with customers being encouraged to browse while having a salesperson advise them on what to buy. Quality men's wear that had traditionally been earmarked for the export market became available in Dhaka, while in the hospitality field, the culinary efforts of Tommy Miah (Heritage) and Bazlur Rahman (Little Italy and Bella Italia) are now enjoyed by the food enthusiasts of Dhaka. The work of people like Bibi Russell, who has ploughed her resources, talent and international reputation into producing high quality merchandise made by Bangladeshi weavers, has benefited countless people.

A Conscious Decision
For Parisha Zarmmen, a graduate from York University, Canada, the issue of coming back home was always settled. "I went abroad to study and after completing my studies I just came back," she says. "I did like Toronto very much and thoroughly enjoyed my stay there, but that's it. Settling there didn't occur to me in a big way," she explains. She could have applied for immigration as did some of her friends and would almost certainly get it, but she did not seriously consider it. "I know I have got the qualification and I can apply from Bangladesh whenever I want," she says. Clearly, the idea of settling there and getting permanent residency did not figure very prominently in her future plans. After doing her Bachelors in Economics Parisha returned home.
It has been a little over six months since she has been back home and she is quite satisfied with the way things are going. For the last four months she has been working as a commercial executive in a joint project of BTTB and Orascom, which is being conducted by Siemens Telecommunications. "I did have some problems adjusting here initially, but I have managed to sort them out. The work environment is okay, the pay is reasonable and I don't have many complaints to make," is how she describes her 4-month-long work experience. No doubt she could have managed a decent job in Canada too and the pay would have been much higher than what she is receiving now.
She believes opportunities to work in Bangladesh are there for those who want to come back. "There are quite a good number of multinational companies, reputed banks, UN organisations, even mobile phone companies where many foreign trained Bangladeshis are working," she opines. She also thinks that the opportunities are increasing. But while the opportunity to work is an important consideration there are other issues that influence one's plans to settle abroad or coming back home. As Parisha points out. "Over there you have your freedom and you also don't have to worry all the time about security. Often I used to return home at 2 in the morning walking all alone without feeling scared for a moment, which is unthinkable here," she says. But then there is one huge plus point about coming back, she remarks, "In the end your country is your country. And nothing is comparable to living with one's parents."
--Shamim Ahsan

As Dr. Tasneem Siddiqui of Dhaka University pointed out, the creation of backward linkages in the form of catering institutions and affiliated courses have opened up opportunities for Bangladeshis to excel in the international arena. Further linkages have been established in the Arts too; the work of artistes such as Habib have helped to link second generation British Bangladeshis with Bangla culture, and in the process made Bangladeshi music accessible to the global audience and acceptable to young Bangladeshis. The experiences and work of filmmaker Tareque Masud has elevated the image of Bangladesh abroad. This sort of work creates the opportunity to establish and forge links with Bangladeshi networks and communities overseas.

With the development potential that lies in return, what can be done in Bangladesh to encourage people to return?

The decision to leave one's job and uproot the family can be particularly arduous. However, if returnees were able to share their experiences with those considering the option of return, it may help to alleviate fears. Setting up a web-based network illustrating the experiences of those who have successfully returned will certainly contribute to the decision-making process, and show migrants that it is possible to return and successfully integrate.

Research Prospects Can Attract More Teachers
Lecturer at the English Department, North South University, twenty seven-year-old Sabahat is just one of many young people who has returned to Bangladesh, after completing her studies in a foreign country. At the age of 20, she left Bangladesh for higher studies to the USA, where she lived for more than 6 years. After getting a dual degree in English Literature and Psychology from Angelo St. University, and a Master's degree in English from Baylor University, Sabahat was sure about getting a good job in the US. "I had worked on campus while I was studying there, and I knew that I would probably have a better prospect working in the USA," remarks Sabahat. "However, somewhere at the back of mind, I knew that I would probably come back to Bangladesh one day or the other." According to Sabahat, the job opportunities here in Dhaka are worth the stay. "I enjoy teaching here. However, teachers here don't get to be creative or work on something of their own in Bangladesh," Sabahat exclaims. "Back where I was studying, almost all the professors were working on something or the other or doing research along with teaching. In Bangladesh, however, teaching would just define coming to class and lecturing, nothing more than that. I hope this really changes and prospects for research increases in the country."
Sabahat lives with her husband and in-laws. "Even today, entertainment in Bangladesh is limited to eating outside with a group of friends," she says. "If my husband and I were to live by ourselves, I don't think we would have been able to keep up with the growing expenses in Dhaka. Everything is so expensive here!"
--Elita Karim

For those returning with the intention of setting up their own enterprise, the creation of a business network of returnees offering practical suggestions and advice on how to manoeuvre through the bureaucratic obstacles will provide invaluable assistance and make the process less daunting.

From the perspective of the government tax breaks and savings incentives as well as business start-up programmes will certainly encourage return. The celebration of achievements of emigrant Bangladeshis through awards and national days will make the Bangladeshi overseas feel that their country recognises their work.

The potential for a country like Bangladesh, if it can attract back its skilled and professional emigrants, cannot be understated. The Bangladesh government and others concerned should mobilise necessary efforts and resources to actively bring its 'promising sons and daughters' back.

Rupal Mistry is an intern at the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit from the UK.

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