Stranded

by Farah Mohammad

Someone else's paradise (Issue IV/2019)


It was 2010 when I decided to go to the Maldives. One of my older brothers already lived in Malé back then and worked in construction. He put me in contact with a work agency in Dhaka that arranged work visas. My brother wanted to help me, but it didn’t turn out that way.

When I went to the agency, they told me – and many other Bangladeshis who came from the countryside to Dhaka to find work – that they could arrange a work visa and a flight to the Maldives for around 250,000 Taka, which is about 2,500 euros. They also told me that they would get me a job in one of the luxury tourist resorts where I could earn up to 700 euros a month. For a Bangladeshi that’s a lot of money. In Dhaka we earn 150 euros a month and as I don’t have an academic degree there were few opportunities for me at home. So I agreed to migrate.

Everybody in my family chipped in and my brother sent me the money that he earned abroad. But each time I came to the little office to pay the fee, the price went up and up. They blamed bureaucracy. My family and I ended up paying 5,000 euros in cash to the agency. It may seem naïve to some, but when you come to Dhaka all by yourself to find work, you are lost and, without any education, how do you know if the people behind the desk are lying to you? I trusted them – and many others did, too.

But when the day of my departure came and I went to the airport and the flight that they had booked for me wasn’t on the display board. I went back to the agency and they told me that my flight would be the next day. So I returned, and again the flight didn’t appear on the board. I waited and asked, waited and asked. I sat in the waiting rooms of the agency from mornings to evenings until the agency closed, but the clerks said that they didn’t have time for me. That continued for two years until I gave up. They cheated me – and my 5,000 euros were gone.

But in 2013 I got my chance to emigrate: My brother came back to Bangladesh and before leaving he’d talked to a recruiting agency that was based in Malé and it seemed more trustworthy. Again, he saved 2,000 euros and spent it on my work visa. This time the plane I was supposedly booked on really arrived.

When I arrived at the airport in Malé I had high expectations. After all, the people had promised me so much: an air-conditioned room paid for by the company that would hire me, an extra bed for guests, complimentary food, a healthcare insurance. The day I would set foot on the Maldives would be a day of freedom for me, they said.

As promised, I was picked up by a Bangladeshi representative of the agency at the airport. However, he didn’t bring me to my new apartment straight away. He said that I would have a medical test the day after to ensure my fitness for the job. He also said that he needed my passport to give it to the doctors for verification. I handed my passport to him – and that would be the last time I would see it for years.

Instead of bringing me to my promised two-room apartment, however, I was dropped off at a building that was under construction in Hulumale, right next to the airport. My room was about fifteen square meters in size and there were nine other Bangladeshi workers living in it already. There were only three bunk beds. The rest of the people were sleeping on the floor. The guy who had picked me up gave me fifty dollars for the first rent and fifty dollars for food and then he left. I asked around if the others knew what was going on and then I realized that I had been cheated again.

The others told me that the agency representatives had taken the passports of most of them. All of them had been told that there would be a medical test, but it never happened. And none of them had gotten jobs via the agency. They all worked in the lowest paying construction jobs and built luxury resorts for a couple of hundred dollars a month, working six or seven days a week. It was then it dawned on me that they had never really gotten me a work visa and that now – without a passport – I had fifteen days in the Maldives as a tourist. After that, I would be an illegal immigrant.

Over the last years, many people have asked me why I didn’t go and take legal action or do something about it. But what was I to do? I had no money and no documents. I went to the police, but they told me that they couldn’t do anything. I went to the Bangladeshi High Commission in Malé and sat in waiting rooms again, but there were dozens of other people and we were sent away every day. I had two options, staying in Malé as an illegal immigrant or going back to Bangladesh as a failure. After all, my family had spent all their money and more on me. I chose the former. I called my family and they said “Farah, we don’t care about the money, come back”, but I decided that I had to make the best of it.

I immediately started looking for jobs and I found one in a little convenience store that was selling everything from washing powder, to sim cards to cold drinks and vegetables. I was paid 100 euros per month for a full time, six days a week job. The first months were very hard, because I didn’t speak any English or Dhivehi and couldn’t understand the customers and I only slowly learned all the names of the products.

I also stayed longer than I had to at the store, because I didn’t want to go back to my room. Going “home” felt like going back to prison, because there were always people sleeping on the floor when I got in. Some talked on the phone to their relatives back home, some talked to each other and some were very sick because of the hard work and the lack of food.

In my first weeks, I learned that there was only one way to survive on 100 or 200 euros a month in Malé. You have to find the Bangladeshi dealers who sell cooked rice in little plastic bags for fifty cents a kilo. Then you buy some Dal, a sort of vegetable soup, also packed in plastic bags and mix it together. But the dealers stretch it. They mix 100 grams of Dal with two liters of water and it never satisfies your hunger. You eat it in the morning before work, but after two hours you are hungry again and more often than not, the cooked rice turns bad before you can eat it. But living like that was my only option.

Each day I just worked and worked and never thought any thoughts. I am not an educated man and I didn’t see any way out and it was a very sad time. I had no support, no friends, no family. Sometimes, I heard about Bangladeshi construction workers who had killed themselves, because the working conditions were so bad. Sometimes I thought about doing that, too.

Today, because I always stayed long hours at my job, I earn a little bit more money. Instead of 100 euros, I now earn 250 euros a month and I also clean apartments in the evening to get some extra money. Overall, now, after almost seven years in Malé, I earn 6,000 Maldivian Rufiyaa, or around 350 euros per month. Last year, I also finished an office management training. I went to classes in the morning and then worked until late in the evening and also worked seven days a week instead of six to make up for the time I missed. I have also started to send money home to my family. About 200 or 300 euros a year, that’s all I can spare. I tell myself that everything will be fine, but I know that if I get sick, I won’t earn any money and also can’t pay for a doctor or medicine. I am not sure how all of this is possible in the 21st century, but that is how I live now.

At least I have recently retrieved my passport. I asked the clerk of the agency to give it back to me for months via phone and he never did. Then he finally said I could have it, if I paid him 100 euros. I saved the money and went to meet him. But when he was standing in front of me, he asked for fifty more. In that moment, I got a very bad headache and I felt like killing him. But instead I just said “Why is it like this?” and then gave him the extra money and felt like nothing mattered anymore.

transcribed by Kai Schnier



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