Bearing Witness to the Beginning of Tragedies: Dhaka’s International Terminal

Departing Dhaka, Bangladesh is fraught with the possibility of never coming back

The Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh lacks glamour. Cats wend their way around the orange rows of plastic chairs in the departure lounge. Most of the passengers are men wearing collared shirts and keeping an eye on their duffel bags while they wait for flights to Singapore or Doha or Dubai. The tallest buildings in the world, like the Burj Khalifa, which stretch upward until they disappear into the clouds as a testament to the power of money and men, will be built on their thin bodies. Their eyes meet mine without expression.

On the walls, oversize print advertisements depicting happy families and well-appointed apartments promise middle-class comfort. While those comforts elude many Bangladeshis, the advertisements’ ebullient hope and aspiration is nevertheless reflected on the streets outside. On pohela boishakh, the holiday commemorating the first day of spring, Bangladeshis clad in orange and white flood the streets. The country blooms like garlanded flowers in a demonstration of its joyful penchant for celebration. In one year there, I saw countless expressions of hope and mirth. The country harbors a crafty and persistent resilience that’s as intrinsic and steadfast as the brilliant verdancy. Children, reluctant to smile for the camera, could be cajoled into spilling sunshine itself from radiant, toothy smiles, and some needed no persuasion. A handful of boys in my neighborhood followed me and my camera. They cracked jokes. They ran away and came back. They laughed and laughed in the gloaming as the streetlights clicked on overhead. Their frolicking rendered the world, with all of its conspiring forces, temporarily impotent, unable to deter them.

In other instances, the world bore down. Weary and worn faces linger in memory. Scarves called ornas draped across the heads of women walking down the street, and the fabric, whether starched smooth or silky soft, contrasted with the texture of their skin. The ample hardships and bloodstained history of the nation have insidiously etched themselves into the skin of men, women, and children. Here, deprivation is abundant.

The airport bears the same scars of time, less poetically rendered. The dust seems to have cast a curse of impenetrability across the walls, the orange chairs, and the floor tiles, immunizing them against the constant mopping. All over the country, in places like universities, mopping is interminable. Every day a new swath of tile is conquered, the slippery surface wet as if with blood after a battle against the filth that sneaks in on shoes, the dust that lingers in the air. The maids wear the short-sleeved button up shirts of American janitors over their saris. The women’s ephemeral and essential presence is marked by a weariness suggesting that the victory against the ever-descending dust is a Pyrrhic one.

Bangladeshis turn up in tragedies the world over. When hundreds die attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, Bangladeshis are among the Syrians and Eritreans. After Britain, Italy has the highest number of Bangladeshis in Europe. Most were smuggled or trafficked across the treacherous sea from Africa. When the rickety boats attempting similar journeys to southeast Asia don’t arrive, Bangladeshis are likewise well-represented among the dead. In the investigations of Qatar leading up to the 2022 World Cup, Bangladeshis were among the abused workers, the real victims of the backroom corruption a world away. In campaign rallies, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, promised swift deportation of Bangladeshis. In Singapore, Bangladeshis fill work truck beds like cargo, and their dark skin disappears against the shadows of glamour and luxury cast across the spotless streets. Migrants all over the world pay exorbitant fees to recruiters in the search for work abroad and then subsequently fall victim to predatory loans to help cover the cost. Bangladeshis pay the most of all.

When asked in studies about their reasons for seeking work abroad, Bangladeshi migrants almost universally claim economic motivations. The vast majority of both aspiring and returning migrants cite a desire to provide improved opportunities and standards of living for themselves and their families. With the country’s per capita income hovering around $1000, many struggling Bangladeshis make a choice that leads them to the airport and beyond, where both demand and wages are higher than at home. As a result, the Bangladeshi diaspora is vast and substantial: in 2013, the country received $14 billion in remittances. It ranks eighth among remittance-receiving countries worldwide. In leaving behind their lush delta country, Bangladesh’s expatriate workers hope to also leave behind pervasive poverty, debt, and unemployment. Most often, these workers end up in the Middle East, where they attempt to find stability and opportunity atop the desert’s shifting sands.

In the departure area of the airport, where most of those journeys begin, the row of immigration desks represent the last real barrier between the dusty streets and the dusty halls. The place itself exudes indifference. The atmosphere neither exacerbates excitement nor intensifies dread. Perhaps the emotional intensity, the anguish of bearing constant witness to the exodus of Bangladeshis, has exhausted the building itself. Since 2000, the net migration rate has been negative: more people leave than come. The airport stands as an opposite to Ellis Island. Here, it seems to bitterly say, here are the tired, the poor. Here are the huddled masses.

The lines of people waiting to pass through the last checkpoint before they can go to their terminal is disorderly, tangled. Families, going on vacation or going back to a home they’ve built thousands of miles away, parents’ hands full of passports. Young men, bound for Singapore or the Middle East, where they will bear the burden of the work that everyone wants done and no one wants to do. Students and recent graduates, going to live abroad for the first time, to Australia, to Japan, to Europe, to America. Foreigners working for NGOs or companies or governments, all destined to leave for good eventually. The labeled lines corral them all, united momentarily by space and time, each with as much emotional baggage as physical, and all destined for the far corners of the planet. How many of them will ever come back is impossible to tell.