People have flocked to thriving cities in search of a better life since the beginning of civilisation. And through the abundant time that has elapsed since, the notion that a capital or at least a city enables better living, has not altered much. The population of Dhaka is irrefutable proof of that.
Capital Dhaka, for all intents and purposes, has topped out. Sadia Rahman, originally from Rajshahi, has worked in the saturated Dhaka for a while as a journalist. Commuting through Dhaka was a drag for her, as it is for everyone else living there. So, she decided to elope the scene and she has, to the distant land of Cox's Bazar. Sadia now works as a Communications Officer for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
Back in August 2017, during the Rohingya influx into Bangladesh from Myanmar's Rakhine state, emergency response from both national and international non-government organisations (NGOs) swept through the area. Camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas are now housing close to a million Rohingyas.
A humanitarian crisis of such epic proportions called for professionals from all over the country to accommodate the Rohingya diaspora in Bangladesh. Sadia responded to the calling only last year, but apparently a whole lot of them have actively been with the programme since 2017.
"I was born and raised in Rajshahi. I even studied in the Rajshahi University. My drive to be in open settings was always there. Only after coming to work in Dhaka did I realise that this city is no place to live and work," informed Sadia with elated animation, which bore proof that she is happy to be working in a part of the country which is considered remote, in essence.
"I wanted to escape not only from Dhaka but also from my family pressuring me to conform to social norms like getting married early on or staying put just because I am a woman," she said, adding, "my work at NRC is dear to me. It has made me independent financially. Now I am not accountable to anyone about what I do with myself. I am much calmer emotionally than I was even sometime ago."
Young professionals like Sadia have now made a home for themselves in the vibrant 365-days-a-year beach town of Cox's Bazar, earning salaries ranging between Tk55,000 to around Tk1,50,000.
Also because the crisis is in that part of the country, it would be near impossible to operate there while working out of lavish offices in Dhaka.
To that end, the town centre of Cox's Bazar has become the locale for NGOs and INGOs to set up offices. Visiting camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf from there becomes more logistically practical.
Around 60 organisations have stepped in to aid the Rohingya crisis so far since its inception, examples include Action Against Hunger, Caritas Bangladesh, Development Initiative for Social Advancement (DISA) Bangladesh, Brac, Oxfam International, UNHCR, WFP, FAO, Welthungerhilfe and many others alike.
A friend and colleague of Sadia's, Tonmoy Rayhan, chimed in with her. Being with this programme for the last three years, he finds that their lifestyle there follows a Western one. What is a Western lifestyle then?
Tonmoy answered with a smile, "Life really is a beach here! On weekends we go out to party with colleagues. On weekdays too, we always find some excuse to hangout on the beach or in any other place we fancy.
Most importantly, we can step out of work exactly when our shift ends. We enjoy our freedom here."
The more Westernised lifestyle and the freedom, however, come with a unique set of challenges as well. Here, each man and woman are left to their own devices. Not only do they need to provide for their every need, they also need to do all the chores themselves. Because their work takes them to remote areas, all the comforts they lived in back at home had to be forgone.
Humarya Tasnim had always lived her life in Dhaka until August of 2021, when she joined the Centre for Peace and Justice, under the Brac University, as a researcher. She had always wanted to work in the Development sector. As ecstatic as she was in the first few days of starting work in Cox's Bazar, her zest quickly wore off when she found out that working in a place where almost all of the amenities found in Dhaka are missing is quite the challenge.
"There is not a single shopping mall in this area or a cinema. And I miss hanging out with my friends or going to a movie with them," Humayra said banteringly. But in her research centre alone, she works with 19 other people who are not locals. Almost all her colleagues there are in the age group of 25 to 35. "Most of us are aged closely, so we could bond quickly. We became friends among colleagues," added she.
It is not uncommon to see these young professionals enjoying amongst themselves even though they know each other through work.
Is that why the youth are being primarily targeted to work there, so that they may enjoy each other's company?
"Not really… our work here is physically demanding as well. Young people like us can do the grinding hard work. The people we are helping in the camps are aged like us too. Our age similarity helps us to know them and help them better," Humayra answered.
"Above everything else is that what we do here touches lives; we help make a difference. Otherwise, working here would be suffocating." she added.
A new subculture; the sense of self-fulfilment
Farzana Farid Lucy had returned from London some time ago, having resided there for seven long years. Living all by herself in cosmopolitan London has taught her the art of living on her own means quite effectively. Conversely, her life in Dhaka as a journalist was not going to her liking. All the amenities of Dhaka were failing to outweigh her monotony and the rush she felt there.
It was then she decided to apply in the rapidly expanding development sector in the Cox's Bazar area.
"It's a ready-made opportunity to live freely. Once here, you're in charge of your own life. I work through the whole week, the workload is felt but on weekends we 'unwind' with our bosses and colleagues. I could not imagine that in Dhaka, but working here I feel as free as I used to feel when I lived by myself back in London. I am answerable to none but myself," Farzana explained.
Although they live on the coast of the longest sea beach in the world, the sea to them is overrated as they hardly ever visit it. But Farzana feels the seasons changing right in front of her, living there. "The wind will tell you the next season is on its way," she exclaimed.
But is it the same with everyone else working there?
One Abdullah Fuad, working for Caritas Bangladesh as Head of Programme, had just recently married while working in Cox's Bazar. He has tied the knot with another migrant like himself working there, only some months ago.
"This place has little to offer for people looking to settle here. Our jobs starkly resemble government jobs – we need to move around a lot between jobs," Fuad said.
"These jobs are all contractual, meaning we will work one contract at a time and be also on the lookout for another contract before one ends. This city is already expensive to live in; a married couple to thrive here would require a paradigm shift. Sure, our paychecks are hefty but what happens when a contract ends and one of us can't find another? And we just cannot imagine our children studying here," exclaimed Fuad.
In the last couple of years, infrastructural developments in the Cox's Bazar district has been second to Dhaka only. However, that needs to get even better if this place is to be considered an alternative to Dhaka, Fuad fiddles with the thought.
Travelling back and forth between Dhaka to Cox's Bazar is a staggering 8 to 12 hours ride on a bus. Fortunately, there are domestic flights to aid that. Flights only take 30 mins both ways and cost flyers around Tk3,000 to Tk6,000, depending on the timing of booking the tickets.
"I have seen some of us flying to Dhaka on the weekend and be back before work resumes, three or even four times a month! That is not cheap but our pay scale allows for that, if one wishes. Why do they? Life here has not really caught up with Dhaka's pace of living. Those who want to live the best of both worlds, fly frequently between the two cities," Farhana added later on.