A 19-year-old Simran Akter, clad in black burkha in the July heat, led the way through crowded narrow corridors. After all, it was just after Friday's Jummah prayers, and the men were bursting out of bottlenecks of narrower corridors.
After turns and bends, lined by homes on both sides, and Urdu words pouring out of small windows, finally, a gate to step inside. And then steep stairs without railings to climb; not an easy ask for weak knees.
The climb is just one storey up. Space is restricted and not merely limited; a boxed-in feeling overwhelms the senses. However, the dark brief stairwell is enlivened by young children's voices and footsteps.
We landed inside one of the approximately 9 by 9 feet rooms at Geneva Camp in Mohammadpur to meet Simran's friend and peer, Shafia Siddiqua.
Shafia, a 19-year-old HSC candidate at the Dhaka Udyan Government College, has a busy schedule to keep. When she is not at the coaching centre for her own exam preparation, she is outside tutoring students.
Her schedule is jam-packed, her ambitions are high and she does not have a minute to waste. "I am glad it is Friday, I have the time to sit and talk today," she said in the room - also their house - with no electricity but eyes that lit up.
Shafia speaks fast, like a bullet train, and fluently in perfect Bangla. There is no trace of accent or pronunciation that would hint at her background. If it was not for the dead giveaway (her home address) - no one could have guessed Shafia is in fact a Bihari resident of the Geneva camp in Mohammadpur.
While Shafia's mother is a homemaker in her mid-30s, her father started a mudir dokan (small-scale grocery shop) in the camp several years ago. "My grandfather used to live there," she said, adding, "after his passing, my father decided to set up a shop and then rent this space [where we sat] for us to live."
But this is not Shafia's father's first business venture. "He incurred a loss of Tk5 to 6 lac from his hand embroidery business," said Shafia.
With rent to pay (Tk6,000 in total per month, and Shafia's family rents two rooms for their six member family), food, health bills and daily necessities, "I do not think it is fair to burden one member with so much," she said.
Shafia's income from teaching students Arabic outside the camp pays for her own coaching tuition fees and sometimes helps with the household expenses.
Two peas in a pod and a nursing school scholarship
For Simran, second-generation camp resident, the main goal is to be educated, have an income and move out of the camp. Like Shafia, her parents, both of whom were born in Geneva camp, had limited options.
"We have seen all our lives how they led their lives within limitations, we want to be able to do more," said Simran.
"I want to be capable so that even without a partner, I can sustain a livelihood," Shafia added.
And they both are aspiring to get admitted to nursing schools.
Both these girls know Khalid Hussain, a friend of their families and both are fellowship students of a New York-based Ahmad Family Foundation. Khalid manages a scholarship programme which was started in October 2015 by the foundation.
"It started with two girls, one who is now a registered pharmacist and the other, the foundation helped to complete her MBA," said Khalid, founder and chief executive of the Council of Minorities Bangladesh. Both those girls have moved out of the camp.
The founder of the foundation, Hussain Ahmad - an Urdu-speaking Bihari - lived in Mirpur during the Pakistan period (pre-Liberation War) and moved to Pakistan with his family eventually. Later, they moved to America.
Since 2016, the foundation has provided scholarships to 200 to 250 Bihari students in Bangladesh per year. "And we have a special fund for 10 nursing students where 95% of the cost is covered," said Khalid, also a lawyer and human rights advocate.
Alisha and Huma are also Geneva Camp residents and a batch senior to Simran and Shafia. They both recently got admitted to the Dynamic Nursing College in Mohammadpur. "The foundation paid Tk45,000 for the admission fee," he added.
"I got the news right after Eid, my heart jumped," said Alisha, adding "I start classes at the end of August."
Why nursing? "We feel as though nursing is the more accepted choice in traditional families," explained Khalid, adding, "the main goal is to give them an opportunity to have financial independence and empowerment. And with nursing, we saw the families, even the in-law families, are more accepting."
Khalid, born and raised in the Geneva camp and a first-generation camp resident, moved out in the late 2010s after Biharis were recognised as Bangladeshi citizens in 2008 by the High Court of Bangladesh, a ruling which he said he was heavily invested in as he fought for Biharis' citizenship rights in Bangladesh.
A minority in the country, a very condensed version of their history is marred with complications and tragedies. Primarily, it is a ripple effect of the 1947 Partition (a division based on religion) that carried over generations down to teenagers like Shafia and Simran today.
A brief history
It is documented that during the 1947 Partition many non-Bengali Muslims who inhabited India's eastern state called Bihar migrated to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. They spoke Urdu.
However, at the time of the Liberation War, many of the Urdu-speaking Biharis took a pro-Islamabad (West Pakistan) stance. This bloodied relationships and further complicated matters. And after 1971, they were tagged with a new label "stranded Pakistanis."
In the past, the Bihari community in Bangladesh has been known to have leaders who advocated and lobbied to 'return' to Pakistan. But all in vain. Due to failed talks between Pakistan and Bangladesh, this community remained in Bangladesh.
Currently, there are 116 camps across Bangladesh's 13 districts, which host 400,000 members of the Urdu-speaking Bihari community, and 4% of the community live in Dhaka alone across 45 camps. Geneva camp is one of the larger settlements.
The camps were established after the Liberation War and "only those who belonged to, let us say, 'labour class' or low-income families, were sent to these camps," said Khalid.
New dawn? The past, present and future
Like Shafia, Simran also goes to the same college and coaching centre for exam preparation. "For now, we know that our exams have been postponed once again and are currently scheduled for November this year," she said. 19-year-old Simran also tutors students.
They have seen others move out of the camp. Although they say it is a low percentage of people, Simran and Shafia both remain hopeful.
"You see, for us girls, after we complete our HSC, the next step is marriage," said Simran, adding, "but it is because of our parents and their support that we are able to pursue this life and have these future plans."
This is when Shafia's mother, sitting behind her in the dark room, chimed in. "We did not have the opportunity. I did not study and I have suffered because of it. I want my four children [the oldest is Shafia and three sons] to build a better life," said 35-year-old Nargis Siddiqui, with a shy smile and proud eyes, and a distinct Urdu accent.
Both of Shafia's grandfathers passed away before her parents married, "and they both moved here at the time of Liberation, not before," she said, with Nargis nodding silently at the back.
What about the history of Biharis, do you know it? "We read about the Liberation War for sure, but never were taught about what led our people here, in this condition. As we grew up, we heard things and picked up on things," replied Shafia.
Breaking gender stereotypes is harder than usual in a place like the Geneva camp. Simran is the oldest of four daughters. And she strongly voiced her desire to secure a paid job in future, and education, she believes, is the way forward.
According to these two teenagers, in the recent past they have seen more male teenagers go out and tutor students, but hardly ever saw female teenagers be allowed to do the same.
"We see so many boys and also girls of our age who lack a plan to move out of the camp," said Shafia, adding, "not everyone [in the Geneva camp] thinks as our parents or plans like us."
Although Biharis gained citizenship rights in 2008, getting a passport is a different issue. If the passport applicant uses Geneva camp as their address, it raises concern and all these four female teenagers say they have heard of applicants being rejected because of it.
The only way forward, it seems to them, is to build a life outside the camp.
We were afoot again. Simran led the way. As the narrow corridors led to wider ones, Urdu still poured out the windows. The mood was relatively festive because it was a Friday, and Simran had an invitation to attend.
"You are late, it is already 4 o'clock. When will we go?," said Simran's mother in Urdu and smiled an infectious smile at her new house guest.
Do you speak Urdu at home? "Our parents do. But they understand Bangla perfectly well and can speak it too. Outside [the camp], we speak Bangla," replied Simran.
One thing was clear after speaking to the four female teenagers and two of their parents, although they are not quite clear about history, they are fully aware of this minority's disadvantages and are aggressively invested to work out a plan to build a better future. But first, they would like to move out of the camp.