“The migration forum works as a community, it brings together people from different areas of Paikgachha. We have been able to stop a significant number of people choosing irregular migration in recent years.”
Sheikh Faruk Ahmed (36) is a returnee from Europe and also a member of the community-based Migration Forum in Paikgachha Upazilla of Khulna District, situated in the southwest region of Bangladesh. With rising sea levels due to climate change, Paikgachha is one of the country’s most vulnerable areas.
Shrimp cultivation in Bangladesh dates back to the 1970s and Faruk’s family has been shrimp farmers for generations. But when increased levels of salt made it impossible for his family to make a decent living from farming, Faruk was left with no choice but to travel abroad in search of a better livelihood. Faruk contacted village dalals and tried to go abroad. He ultimately went but failed and in the process he lost several thousand Taka and his passport.
He tried again, and finally left for Libya through a recruiting agency in January 2009 after having to sell a piece of his family land to pay for it. “I soon realized that I was betrayed once again. I was given a job as a painter in a construction company. They were supposed to pay me in dollars, but my payments were in Libyan dinars instead,” he said holding his one-year-old son in his arms in his home in Paikgachha. Although he was not making the amount of money he was promised, he still managed to support his family with his monthly wages. But Faruk’s dream for a better livelihood soon turned into a nightmare.
Violence escalated in Libya, pushing the county to the brink of a civil war. People were being mugged and stabbed in the streets for a dinar. “I couldn’t send a single penny back home in those years. At one point I had to spend 27 days out in the street along the borders of Egypt”, he recalled in anguish. War and loss of livelihood forced Faruk to return to Bangladesh. But after a year, Faruk travelled back to Libya in 2012, hoping for a better outcome. For the next three years, Faruk worked hard to repay his debts and build a house in Bangladesh. Sadly, misfortune struck again. Unable to send money to his family, Faruk decided to set sail for Italy through routes run by Syrian smugglers. In 2015, he boarded a wooden boat in Tripoli with hundreds of refugees and migrants sailing to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. The death of Aylan Kurdi (2015) shocked the world, and the UN appealed to all European Union Member States to rescue refugee boats from the Mediterranean. After spending seven hours on a wooden boat in the rough sea, a Turkish navy ship rescued Faruk and his fellow travelers and took them to Sicily. They were driven in a bus to Milan’s refugee center from where they were sent off to designated cities where they could stay and work until their case was resolved in court. With the help of Caritas, Faruk fought his case in court through a lawyer and sought to work in a Chinese bag factory. He felt drained and exhausted after his plea was rejected for the third time by the Italian court and decided to return to Bangladesh and start his family business all over again. This time he did not take Caritas’s help, and returned to Bangladesh in April, arranging his return ticket with the money that he had saved from working in the bag factory. After paying for his tickets, he was rendered penniless. The local Migration Forum member, Roman, contacted him through a mutual contact and offered him counselling support and financial literacy training. Irregular rainfall and the changed climatic conditions had made it impossible to earn decent amounts from shrimp and fish farming, but Faruk had no choice. He leased sections of a gher (large pond) in September 2019. Prottasha helped him start his business by buying him baby Bagda shrimps worth BDT 60,000.
While setting up his business, Faruk also joined the community-based Migration Forum in 2019 and began mobilizing the committee to raise awareness about safe migration. He would often go to the local market and discuss ways of safe migration with fellow villagers and warn them about the dangers of human trafficking. Today, Faruk conducts the Migration Forum and they hold meetings every two months about how they can inform members of their community and create an impact on migrants’ lives. Members of the Forum sometimes have to travel for hours to attend the meeting and yet their enthusiasm keeps it alive.
“The Migration Forum itself is like a community, it brings together people from different areas of Paikgachha. We have been able to stop a significant number of irregular migrations in recent years,” Faruk proudly described their role in the community.
In 2017, Abiron Begum, a woman from Faruk’s village, had gone to Saudi Arabia to work as a housemaid. She was raped, tortured, and eventually murdered by her captives. Faruk and members of the Forum spearheaded the campaign to bring her body back to Bangladesh. Their efforts resulted in Abiron’s final rites being conducted in Bangladesh, and the arrest of her murderers in Saudi Arabia. Faruk continues to work as a changemaker in his community through the Migration Forum and aspires to ensure safe migration for all.