It was Shahana’s first trip abroad. Shahana was a 10th-grader at an English medium school in Dhaka, and she was part of a student exchange program that had been jointly established by her school and a partner school in New York City. Every summer, a student from her school is selected and sent to the United States to spend four weeks with the family of a student at their partner school. In return, an American student then spends four weeks in Bangladesh in the following winter.
This year’s decision to send Shahana to America was based on an excellent essay she wrote about American author Paul Auster’s influence on post-modern literature. After reading all of his books, she could not wait to walk through Central Park and follow the trails of one of Auster’s fictional characters, Marco, who was forced to seek shelter in Central Park after being unable to pay his rent.
On Flight EK 583 to Dubai, Shahana selected a window seat. While looking over the concrete jungle of Dhaka, her mind wandered away. Marco was sitting on the bench next to her in Central Park. He looked up from his newspaper. “It was left behind by an old lady, you know; she comes here every day, and she always leaves her newspaper; that’s how I stay connected with the world around me.” – “Please fasten your seatbelt. We will land in Dubai in 32 minutes.” It was a long conversation. A twelve-hour stop followed, then the next flight. London. Finally, 35 hours after Shahana boarded the first plane in Dhaka, the descent into John F. Kennedy International Airport began. Had she not fallen asleep, worn out by the long journey, she could have seen the skyline of Manhattan and, at its center, Marco’s green refuge.
Waking up she felt a pang of fear, fear of living in an unknown city with strangers. She tried to be brave and to face reality. Shahana resolved to be strong and gather as many experiences as she could from this visit of her dreamland.
At the airport, Mr. and Mrs. Green were waiting, and with them their 15-year-old daughter, Clarissa. Shahana was delighted by the sight of the blue-eyed and blond-haired Clarissa who was about her own age and hence a prospective friend during her stay in New York City for the four weeks that followed.
Unfortunately, Shahana’s expectations remained sadly unfulfilled. She found the behaviour of the Green family, her hosts, not only unsympathetic but also insensitive to her own feelings and needs. Shahana was only allowed to go to the school. But that was all. She was not taken to any of the usual must-sees for people visiting New York City. At her hosts’ home, she was expected to sleep on a mattress on a floor in a dark room. She had to eat separately, and she was left alone, locked up in the house, when the family went somewhere. Whenever the Green family dined out, they never took Shahana with them in order to save expenses. Moreover, the Greens feared that, being a Bangladeshi child, Shahana would not know how to behave in an American restaurant.
Though Shahana spoke English fluently, albeit with a Bangladeshi accent, Clarissa’s family hardly spoke to her, ignoring her desire and longings to express her emotions about the new experiences she was having with her classmates at school. Shahana felt desperately humiliated, and this desperation made her bitterly regret having agreed to visit the United States.
Time passed by. It had been four weeks of immense mental anguish and disappointment now since Shahana arrived at the Big Apple. She was eager to return to Dhaka and her loving family. She preferred her middle-class family with less comfort to offer to the affluent Green family that treated her with disdain and arrogance! But the Greens compelled her to stay longer, as they needed her helping hand for an imminent party at their home, mainly to save expenses. The Greens had their own justification for their behaviour: Why should they provide more for a Bangladeshi child? Was Shahana not fortunate enough to have the chance to visit America after all? The visit itself was a great reward for a child like her!
At last, Shahana returned home, to her loving parents and siblings. Needless to say, Shahana never got to see Central Park. Her experience in America made her wiser and enabled her to develop an insight into the plight of their house maid Jerina, a child of about her own age from a remote village in Bangladesh. Shahana’s family treats her much worse than how the Greens treated Shahana. Shahana’s mother scolds Jerina for every little mistake. Jerina works from dawn to late at night, and sleeps in the kitchen on an old dirty tattered quilt spread on the floor after eating the leftover food. The family behaves with her as if she is a bit better than a stray dog, lower in status than a human being and, at any rate, much lower in status than somebody from their class. She is scolded by Shahana’s mother for every little mistake she makes.
Shahana began to realize that this is a gross injustice. She knows that Jerina also has a family somewhere in Bangladesh, extremely poor but loving and caring. Jerina was sent to Dhaka because her family was unable to provide food and appropriate care for her. Shahana’s guess is that Jerina also had the same pang of fear on leaving her own village for the big unknown city of Dhaka, leaving behind her family and friends. But what is she getting from Shahana’s family for her tiresome service? Just enough for physical existence, and a small amount of money to be sent to her poverty-stricken family. Is that enough?
Every human being has the same basic rights – and, above all, the right to be treated humanely and respectfully. Almost all these rights are denied to Jerina. Shahana’s family restricts her mobility and freedom, exploits her labour and does not provide her with a basic education. They are depriving Jerina of her childhood, and they dim her chances of ever breaking out of the vicious cycle of poverty. The benefits she receives, such as accommodation, food and clothing, only further reinforce dependency on others. There has to be some remedy for this social malady. Bangladesh is better than that.
Disclaimer: This story is entirely fictional, but many aspects of it are entirely real for an estimated 421,000 child domestic workers in Bangladesh (and many other people around the globe).
This post was co-authored with Hasna Begum. Hasna is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dhaka.