Bombarded with news of sensational and unusual events every day, we often lose sight of important and pressing matters. These matters require effective action, which unfortunately is not taken.
Over the last few weeks, there has been news of some Bangladeshis being killed in the US and Canada. These incidents have been mentioned in insignificant reports, dismissed as just another death, just another murder. But there is a different dimension to these killings of Bangladeshis abroad.
Bangladeshi imam Alauddin Akunji and his friend Tara Miah were stabbed and killed in Queens, New York. Police have arrested a certain Oscar Morel in this connection, though the motive of the murder has not been ascertained as yet. The incident sparked off alarm among the Bangladeshi Diaspora in New York.
Last Wednesday yet another Bangladesh was killed, this time a woman, Najma Khanam, in Jamaica, New York. The incident has further alarmed the Bangladeshis there and angered them as well.
Thousands of Bangladeshis and non-Bangladeshis, including the mayor, police chief and the president’s representative of Queen’s borough, gathered at Najma Khanam’s janaza (funeral rites) at the local mosque on Friday. The people called out slogans, demanding justice and punishment for such crimes. Protestors marched outside the mosque, calling for a halt to such killings.
The local Bangladeshi community state that these were hate crimes. They feel Najma Khanam was killed for her Islamic mode of dressing. Police have arrested her suspected killer. They feel this was a robbery attempt, not a hate crime.
A day after this murder in Queens, 23-year-old Nusrat Jahan was run over and killed by a truck while she was cycling in Ottawa, Canada. While this is apparently an accident, persons close to Nusrat Jahan claim this was a hate crime. Nusrat Jahan’s father is an accountant at the Bangladesh High Commission in Canada.
More or less everyone in Bangladesh, regardless of socio-economic status, has some relation residing in Europe, America, Canada, Australia or elsewhere abroad, whether for studies, employment or business. Many wealthy Bangladeshis have bought homes overseas and channel out their money to foreign countries. They are not friends of Bangladesh and are not significant in number. Then there are the eight to nine million Bangladeshis who work abroad, sending their hard-earned money to their families back home.
Today when we clap our hands in glee at the foreign exchange reserves piling up in Bangladesh Bank, we must remember that a large chunk of this comprises remittances sent in by Bangladeshis of the lower-middle-class bracket. But who really bothers about them, their well-being? How far do the well-paid officials at our diplomatic missions abroad look into their welfare?
A few months ago a Bangladeshi worker from a Middle Eastern country called me over the phone and asked me to write about their plight. I occasionally get such calls. I asked him what the point was in my writing about them. He said, whether it is of any use or not, at least people will know about their predicament. That itself will lend some form of comfort.
He went into details of their sufferings. He said that they were often harassed by members of the law enforcement. As they couldn’t afford to buy meat and fish, they would sometimes go fishing in the sea. They weren’t even allowed to do that. If any theft took place, immediately Bangladeshis were suspected, rather than Indians or Pakistanis. The Bangladeshis were mockingly referred to as ‘Ali Babas’.
The middle class Bangladeshis working in different countries of the world are Bangladeshis heart and soul. They may be physically living in foreign lands, but their souls lie in Bangladesh. Technology, they read Bangladesh’s news online, sometimes even before us. They watch Bangladeshi TV channels and are updated at what’s going on at home. They long for their homeland, but what is done for them?
There are thousands of Bangladeshis in New York. Once in Queens I came across a Bangladeshi who would go to the homes of other Bangladeshis to cut their hair. Haircuts are expensive in America and he would do the job for cheaper rates. He would send money back home for the upkeep of his family.
The Bangladeshis working abroad do not just send money home, but contribute to the economy of their host countries. They cannot be overlooked. Just as they have the right to protection and justice in those countries, they must be given these rights back home.
Naturally there are the few criminals and miscreants among these expatriate Bangladeshis. They deserve due punishment. But it is the moral duty of our diplomatic missions to stand by the side of the Bangladeshis who are unjustly harassed. How far this duty is carried out is a matter of question.
Muslims are a suspect community in the western countries nowadays. Muslim women in particular are eyed with suspicion due to the way they dress. They are often mocked and harassed.
Foreigners were killed in the gruesome Gulshan carnage, and before that, an Italian and a Japanese national were killed. This is a matter of great shame. The people have protested against these killings and the law enforcement agencies are going all out to ensure justice. The government is committed to protect foreign nationals in the country.
We want Bangladeshis to be able to live safely abroad. Recently several Bangladeshis were killed in South Africa. Our missions abroad must come forward to stand by the side of our expatriates in foreign countries. These expatriates contribute hugely to the economic growth of the country. The state is constitutionally bound to protect them. Bangladeshis must be ensured justice in the case of any criminal act.
Syed Abul Maksud: writer and researcher