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     Volume 5 Issue 106 | August 4, 2006 |

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Cover Story

A Summer Homecoming

Aasha Mehreen Amin, Elita Karim and Hana Shams Ahmed

It's not just the rising mercury that is warming up Dhaka this summer. Like all other summers it is a time of great excitement for many families whose loved ones living thousands of miles away have arrived. They bring with them much-awaited gifts in suitcases that smell of foreign lands and attitudes, ideas and mannerisms that amuse their local relatives who go to great lengths to pamper and please them and make them feel at home. For many of these visitors it is with a sigh of relief and sheer joy that comes from being with people who love you, eating all those exquisite foods that have been sorely missed and exulting in the luxury of being attended hand and foot. For others this summer homecoming brings opportunities to work in a country where their roots lie and experiences that will last a lifetime.

Nadia Kabir Barb's highpoint every year is her visit to her motherland with her husband and children. “Coming to Dhaka is like coming home for me, despite having lived abroad for most of my life, I am very Bangladeshi at heart, people complain about the dust, heat, crowd and noise, but to me it is part and parcel of Dhaka life. It doesn't bother me,” says Nadia, “I have my mother here, my relatives and so many of my friends.” She also admits that with her hectic life as a mother of three one of the best things about coming to Dhaka is being indulged by her family. “I do get pampered a lot here. It's nice not to have to worry about getting the kids to school on time, what to cook for dinner or deal with all the daily chores. I can just leave those things behind and relax.”

Nadia, who lives in Central London with her British husband and children, also adds that she is more encouraged to come here because her children love it. “People think I've brainwashed them when they go around telling people things like 'everything in Bangladesh is more colourful, it's much greener here and even the air is fresher in this country'!” she exclaims laughingly. But besides that, she says, they enjoy being here and spending time with their nanu.

Her three children Ayesha, Mikhail and Iman agree full-heartedly. 10-year-old Mikhail loves to get away from the cold and drab weather of London to sunny Dhaka. 13-year-old Ayesha further adds, “We get to spend time with our cousins, go out to visit relatives and eat a lot of types of food that we don't get in London like Dhaka paneer!” What seven-year-old Iman finds amazing about Bangladesh is the “atmosphere”.

Like most Bangladeshi expatriates Nadia spends a lot of time socialising with friends and family. “But it is also nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city to my ancestral home where my father is buried. The children can take boat rides or go fishing.”

Nadia, with her children who love everything about Bangladesh

If there's one thing that worries Nadia, it is her kids' falling ill. “The health care system here is obviously not what it could be. If one of them falls ill I want to be able to make sure that they get the right treatment. Although we have highly qualified doctors, we don't seem to have the facilities and the aftercare in hospitals is not necessarily adequate.”

“And of course the traffic here is horrendous,” she adds, “and it just gets worse.”

Sitting at her mother's spacious apartment she exclaims that the one thing that she misses most about life in Dhaka is the support system that exists with family and friends. “If I had this support system in London I could consider pursuing a full time career”, says the 30-something freelance columnist.

Syeda Saira Hussain, a homemaker with a penchant for interior design and fashion trends, has been living in California USA for the last twenty-two years but her heart has never left the city where she spent her childhood and adolescence - Dhaka. While it is her family ties that bring her back every year or so, it is also her attachment to her motherland that nurtures a long standing dream to someday come back and settle here. "There are so many things that attract me to Bangladesh besides my family; it is the smell, the greenery, even the chaos that fascinate me and which I am so familiar with" says Saira. Unlike many Bangladeshi expatriates who find the unpredictability, political instability and lack of basic conveniences (so easily available in the countries they live in) so exasperating, Saira has a surprisingly positive take on Bangladesh. She looks forward to the changes in Bangladesh every time she visits: "I was very impressed with the spic and span airport when I arrived, the shopping malls and the numerous shows on the various Bangla channels which showcase the talents of our people. It is very encouraging."

" Living in a developed country has its conveniences" says Saira who is married to a hardware engineer, "but it also means that life is very routine, mechanical and often isolating. We wake up at 6 am and go to bed at 12 am and then wake up the next morning to do the same things all over again. Sometimes I have sense of emptiness and homesickness - even after living there for so many years".

Saira with her two sons-diehard Bangladeshi fans

Saira admits that back home in Bangladesh with all the pampering and adoration from family and friends makes her miss her country of birth all the more. "I feel like a queen," confesses the vivacious mother of two sons who are diehard fans of Bangladesh.

"It's like a retreat and solace from the drudgery and stress of my life in the States." Which is why she spends so much time just enjoying being in her parents home where she grew up in. "I love chatting with my mother and siblings till the wee hours of the morning, spending time with my many nephews and nieces ranging from age 1 and half months to eleven years."

Like most other visitors she laments over the impossible traffic situation, the lack of basic health care - major deterrents to potential resettlement. But it is also the competitiveness among members of the privileged that she finds disconcerting. And of course the obvious poverty that one cannot escape no matter how cushioned one's life is here.

Saira- looks forward to the positive changes every time she visits home

"The violent politics is of course very disturbing but people have learnt to live with it. I'm sure I would too if I lived here". That may not be too soon as there is little scope for Saira's husband's expertise to be utilised in this country. Meanwhile Saira is sure to make frequent visits to her beloved Bangladesh for her family, lalshakh, paani phuchka and of course shopping.

For Pamela Jabbar, a young aspiring writer whose parents are Bangladeshi but who was born and brought up in England, the experience of visiting Bangladesh is quite different from the usual expatriate Bangladeshi. Her first visit to Bangladesh was when she was a child and this is her third stay. This time it is to research for her first novel. "My main characters are Bangladeshi and they come to Bangladesh", 'so I thought I should come to the country to get a sense and flavour of Bangladesh - the things that seep into you when you go to a country..." This together with a curiosity about a homeland she visited as long as 22 years ago, lured Pamela here with a plan to stay as long as the place could hold her interest. She has already been here for three months and is looking for a job that will suit her credentials. As a writer Pamela finds Bangladesh quite fascinating. " There are so many dramas being played out every second of the day. There's always something new - the way it rains, the political rallies, the street fights and hartals, the day to day encounters of masters and servants, the social differences being played out...the way the temperature fluctuates and how it affects you. So from a sensory point of view, Bangladesh is fantastic"

"It is also the images and characters you see around you - the dichotomy of huge buildings erected next to shanty-like shops that you know wont be there the next time you visit - how do they coexist..."

Pamela is also intrigued by the seeming coexistence of modernity and tradition of Dhaka city. "There is a raging battle between the two, something that happens everywhere when you try to mix modernity with traditional values. This is quite interesting from the anthropologcal-sociological background that I have."

On a more personal level for Pamela there is a quest to find what her Bangladeshi heritage really means to her. "It's the country where my parents come from, one that I am part of. My identity is that I am partly Bangladeshi", says Pamela who speaks Sylheti and was always in touch with Bangladeshi culture thanks to her parents who take pride in being Bangladeshi.

Pamela, as a writer is fascinated by the country

Sadly, Pamela's need to be accepted as a Bangladeshi has been a little disappointing. "I've been treated like a foreigner, the term bideshi has been used a lot - it's almost like an identity people want to pigeon-hole you in. It's strange to be a foreigner in what technically should be your homeland".

Other rude shocks for Pamela include being harassed by security guards at Zia International Airport where she was stranded for three hours, having arrived on a hartal day. "I am surprised at the lack of human courtesy and civility. When you land at ZIA it's such a different experience than when you land at other airports."

"It's also the way people look at you when you're out and about, it's quite difficult for me. Then what I find very disturbing is the dependency of people on domestic help who are treated with such little respect. They are such an integral part of family life here yet they are treated as unequals."

But there are experiences that endear Bangladesh to this passionate writer." I love the sense of family here, that people actually take time to spend it with their family members, just sitting and talking" says Pamela who is staying with her brother's wife. " It is something I don't get a chance to do back home. It feels like such a luxury to laugh and joke with friends and family and not feel guilty about it. It's an essential and integral part of day to day living - I love that."

Mohammad Nurul Karim- always in touch with what is happenning in his homeland

The scenic beauty of rural Bangladesh has worked its charm on Pamela. " The lush greenness, the paddy fields, the yellow mustard fields and tiny tin-roofed houses - these are scenes I remember from childhood. There is a concept of Bangladesh being incredibly poor, which it is, but there is also a rich vibrancy in it that gets lost in the headlines."

"I read in an article on the Happy Index where I think Bangladesh came 37th compared to England which came to like 112 or something, which is interesting because in England you have everything but there is a lot of depression and lack of happiness. In rural parts of Bangladesh, there is this innocence and a certain sense of contentment which makes Bangladesh richer than any of those wealthier nations".

According to 55-year-old Mohammed Nurul Karim, there is no place like home. A Lecturer of English, Karim had left the country in 1978 for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to teach at the Ministry of Education. Actively involved in the cultural activities, he graduated with a Master's degree in English Literature from Dhaka University. He also worked at the ShilpaKala Academy and the External and Home services of Radio Bangladesh, Dhaka as a broadcaster. However, back in those days, a well-paid full time job was rarely seen for an average Master's degree holder. “Once I was offered a job at the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia, I grabbed the opportunity and have been there ever since,” says Karim. After working for more than 20 years with the Ministry of Education, he recently joined the Ministry of Health, teaching English at the Health Science College.

Karim and his family have been coming back to Bangladesh almost every summer, visiting with other family members. This summer he plans to visit his ancestral home in the village

Naimul- gets in touch with the Bangladeshi music scene this summer

in Chittagong. Over the last few decades, Karim has made a note of the various changes that took place in the country. “Almost every summer, I come back to a new country, thanks to the way the country has changed and shaped up in the last few years,” he smiles. He speaks of the changes that took place in fields of culture, technology and even the social structure. “However, the political unrest has gotten worse,” he implies. “I never miss the news telecast on the satellite channels back in the Kingdom and wonder how the country is still surviving so well.”

Nurul's son 16-year-old Naimul Karim is currently studying in the 12th grade at an International School in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Born and brought up in the Kingdom, he has been visiting Bangladesh with his family from the age of 7 months. According to him, coming back for the summer this year is definitely very different from the past summers that he spent in Dhaka. “I was too young to go places by myself and learn about the country in the past,” he says. “However, for the past couple of summers, I was exposed to much more. This is because of the changes that have taken place in the past few years. For instance, there are lots of eateries in Dhaka now. There are lots of places in the city where teenagers can hang out and have fun. Last summer, I had fun at the new Pool and Snooker places that opened up in Dhaka.”

This summer, Naim plans to attend as many concerts as he can in Dhaka. “The music scenario has changed a lot in the past few years,” he explains. “I even got to meet many of the underground musicians personally and saw them while they jammed. I am even thinking of getting a guitar for myself from Dhaka to take back to the Kingdom.”

Keenly interested in sports, computer games, books, movies and writing, he is also spending this summer as a contributor to a supplement of a daily newspaper. “Life here as compared to the Kingdom is very eventful,” he exclaims. “I can explore many different fields related to music, education and sports and even meet with experts if I need to. This is something very difficult to do in KSA. However, I am still not used to the hartals that are frequently held in Dhaka. That is when I wonder how difficult it is for people to get on with their lives here.”

A Working Holiday

Sarah getting hands-on experience in journalism

Twenty-year-old Sarah Mahmud is a bubbly Journalism student from Eastern Michigan University who although has spent a significant part of her life in the US still thinks of Dhaka as her home. “My grandmother lives here so I come here as often as possible, sometimes twice a year.”

This time around she is in Dhaka both on pleasure and as part of her studies. She's doing an internship with a newspaper. “I really like working here. I feel like I can relate to the people of this country rather than the ones in the US,” exclaims Sarah who is half Korean and half Bangladeshi.

“Living in the States, I get really homesick. I was born and brought up in Dhaka till the age of 12,"says Sarah, "I've been living in the States for the last eight years and even though it is much more developed, liberal, and there are a lot of things to keep one entertained, I'd much rather be living here,” she says.

Like any other girl, Sarah loves the shopping experience in Dhaka and she also enjoys going to historical places. “Even though I've been to the museums and Shahid Minar several times before as a child I feel the need to recharge my nationalism batteries a bit more every time I visit Bangladesh.”

Sarah is also crazy about the food here. “I love eating fuchka and chotpoti with my friends. And I love biriyani so much, that I've actually crashed a few weddings just to eat some,” she says grinning, “Most people don't really question me because they think that I'm a 'foreigner' and can't speak Bangla. I just say that I'm a friend of a really distant relative and act very confused and that's pretty much the ticket inside the party.”

What Sarah finds the most disturbing aspect of life in Dhaka is the corruption. “My family and I have had the unfortunate opportunity of experiencing it first hand and it never really ceases to shock me,” she adds.

Despite that Sarah feels that she has a much better life in Dhaka and plans to move back here after she is through with college. “The U.S is too big. I feel as though instead of a name, I have a number. I feel as though I owe it to my country and to myself to do something here.”

Rabi- dabbling with development work

Twenty-year-old Rabi Chowdhury has been working at BRAC this summer in Dhaka. An undergraduate student at the London School of Economics in London, he is currently majoring in International Relations. Having just begun his work at BRAC, Rabi plans to work till late September.

“I come every summer and winter since I have been away,” says Rabi. “I come every spring too if my parents can help it.” Getting a summer internship was Rabi's cousin Tahlee Afzal's idea, a barrister from London who has been working full time at BRAC since March. “Since she worked at BRAC, she was aware of the vacancies and also the need for a student worker or an intern to work there,” Rabi explains. “That's how I got myself an internship this summer.”

Rabi's major task at BRAC is to report on the Women's Enterprise Development (WEDp) programme, which branches out of the micro finance programme in general and also a part of the Progoti programme. “I have to go to the different branches of WEDp,” says Rabi. “And talk to the branch managers and district officers. Other than the paper work done at office, one of my major assignments is to do field work. I just returned from visiting the branch managers and the district officers in Mirpur and Badda today.”

Though he lives in London, Rabi is quite used to how things work in Dhaka. “I lived here for quite some time before moving to London,” he smiles. Nevertheless, working here in Dhaka is an altogether new experience for Rabi. Incidentally, this being his first real job, he has officially begun the process of learning how to mix with people from all walks of life and manage critical situations. For Rabi, spending the summer here is not only a fun-filled occasion to get together with his family, but also to put some real worth into the visit which he would gladly do every summer in Dhaka.

“Dhaka is getting so competitive day by day, I think it's a necessity for me to sample the job market here,” says 21-year-old Rumana Islam. A summer intern at the HSBC bank in

Rumana- getting some banking experience this summer

Gulshan, Rumana is a third-year Economics major at the Queen's University in Canada. According to her, there has been quite an upward shift where the middle-class section of the society and education is concerned. “I think I would like to come back to Dhaka and work here,” she smiles.

Her confidence and competitiveness to join the Dhaka market might be because of the fact that every summer that she visits family in Dhaka, she puts it to use by working as an intern somewhere or the other in Dhaka. “My first summer, I worked at Grameen Trust,” Rumana explains.

Ever since her younger sister and she were little, their parents would talk to them about the country, the economy and the prospects of building a better nation based on a stronger economy. Rumana grew up dreaming about joining the development sector in Bangladesh. “I still have some time till I finish my undergrad studies,” she says. “Meanwhile, I am gathering as much work experience in Dhaka as possible.”

Rumana is quite used to Dhaka and can work around the rough edges. However, she has been surprised, much to her annoyance, while dealing with customers at HSBC. “Back in Canada, there is a certain kind of unspoken or unwritten norm that is followed by both the customer and the service provider,” she explains. “This summer working at a bank dealing with customers, I figured that, if not all, there are some people belonging to the society, who simply don't make an effort to be responsible of what they do. For example, there are customers who come inside the office screaming, without reading the instructions properly, about a card which was discarded after due time by the bank authorities. Some simply don't realise that your bank account is your identification in a bank. If you don't have it with you, there's not much we can do to help you.”

Rumana had also gone through issues related to her gender while working this summer. “There was a male customer I was dealing with,” she says. “Who had called back at the office just to remark on how pretty I looked holding a pen and writing at my desk, while serving the customers. This is something that I was prepared for though, since even today, most people in Bangladesh view women as an ornamental display even at a workplace. I did speak to the man, the next time when he came to the bank, and asked him to be more professional while dealing with professionals at an office.”

Other than the little hindrances that seem to glide up from time to time, Rumana is very impressed with the bank and is sure to learn much more by the end of August when she leaves for Canada.


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