Refugees: The Story of One Migrant's Journey.
Lush fields of grain border the Meghna river in Elisha, the small farming village on Bhola Island where Shamshuddin's family built their existence over generations.
Shamshuddin was born here in the 1970s and grew up helping his parents farm the land. After his father died when he was young, Shamshuddin, his mother, and his sister were just able to cope and run the farm themselves.
That is, until the Meghna rose from it's banks and tore away their home, washing away their lives and setting in motion a chain of events that would sweep Shamshuddin and his family across the country.
(The following account was corroborated by family members and former neighbors).
Donia: a Temporary Respite
The three traveled west first to nearby Donia Union, where their extended family lived.
Our land was eroded by the river gradually. When it completely grabbed our land, we took shelter in our aunt’s house. She said “I have a husband, children and a family of my own. You can stay here for one month. Then you have to leave.” My mother said “Okay, it’s fine. We will find a way by the end of this month and go.”
Many refugees find shelter with friends and family first, and in this case, Shamshuddin's aunt in Donia Union was a close relative to turn to. But familial safety nets can strain, relationships can fray, and refugees often find themselves quickly searching for longer-term homes.
Shamshuddin’s sister was the first to leave, traveling directly to Dhaka. In Bhola, it’s common for young women to migrate to Dhaka alone, according to migration researchers. Once these women find work, their families join them in the city.
By the end of the month, my sister had found a home.
She worked in a garments factory. She sent some money every month, but it wasn’t enough. My sister told my mother to come Dhaka since we had lost all our property in Bhola. She said “If you come to Dhaka others might get a job and I won’t need to send money. We can live here easily.” We had no resources at that time. So we were bound to leave Bhola and to come to Dhaka looking for work.
Elisha Ferry Terminal: The Move
Shamshuddin’s aunt was true to her word: she let the refugees stay for a month.
When their time was up, Shamshuddin and his mother collected their savings, packed up their bags, and headed for Dhaka.
On the evening of their departure, Shamshuddin and his mother clambered onto a bicycle rickshaw and bumped along a dirt road to the boat terminal in Elisha.
The two boarded a ferry, claimed a spot on the lower decks, and slept through the night, as the boat steamed to Sardarghat, in Dhaka.From the buzzing ferry terminal, Shamshuddin and his mother took a murirtin, a type of minibus that once roved the streets in Bangladesh, to north Dhaka.
After a days voyage, they reached Balur Badh slum, a sprawling urban jungle that has swollen in recent years, in Dhaka’s industrial north.
Sadarghat: Miserable Days.
Shamshuddin and his mother had settled in and were rebuilding their life when, in 1988, massive floods inundated large parts of South and Northeastern Bangladesh.
While Sadarghat was spared the worst of the flooding, the disaster displaced thousands of people across the country. They began streaming towards the capital, just as his family had done years earlier.
In a single night, around 1,200 people came to Balur Badh and built houses in our slum. When I got up from bed in the morning, I saw all new faces. Who were these people? They were outsiders from all over the country, especially the southern and northeastern parts, and also people from other slums in Dhaka… who had been displaced. I had a house in this slum. But we were displaced. Our house was broken down by local leaders, and, somewhere, they started a fire…
Shamshuddin’s house was razed to make room for the newcomers. Tragically, violent expulsion is common in the slums. In Dhaka, slum-dwellers live under constant threat of eviction. The government routinely bullldozes portions of the city’s slums, which together house nearly half of Dhaka’s population.
Slum dwellers fear arson most. “We can’t sleep properly at night, we’re always afraid of it,” Riba Begum, who lives in Bhola Bosti, said. Like many people living in these informal, and often illegal, settlements, Begum worries that local political leaders, or goons hired by private developers, will turn to arson to drive them out. If someone sets a fire, “we might not make it outside,” she said. “Or we’ll have to starve, if the supplies are shut off.”
While many slum fires are unintentional, sparked by gas stoves or faulty wiring, evidence suggests at least some are set by criminals or political leaders trying to grab land. A 2007 World Bank study found that 93 percent of slum dwellers said they’d been affected by violence within the last year. Arson was among the most common types of violence they said they faced.
Bhola Bosti: Time to Rebuild.
Driven from Balur Badh, Shamshuddin and his family migrated to Bhola Bosti, in Dhaka’s Mirpur district. Bhola Bosti sits on land reclaimed from a small lake. “This place was empty,” Shamshuddin said. “No houses or land existed here.” Some of the settlement’s early inhabitants built small homes on the lake. Others, like Shamshuddin, rented rooms.
Migrants from Bhola.
Shamshuddin is not alone. His path was traced by X migrants from Bhola, according to data TKTK. Bhola is especially vulnerable as it sits in a delta between rivers, and has suffered one of the highest rates of erosion throughout Bangladesh.
Migration in Bangladesh
Millions of migrants across Bangladesh are tracing paths like Shamshuddin's.
Pushed off their land by flooding and erosion, they are striving towards a precarious life, often in the capital of Dhaka.