I left Dhaka for Toronto in 2014 – having a privileged childhood and the backing of my family, I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto and decided to get a job here. This is where I stand as an expat. However, my story is incomplete without recognising the remarkable impact of being born in a country in which generations before mine struggled tirelessly to free its future generations from the whims of foreign oppression.
I am not a member of the expat community of brave working-class heroes whose industrious efforts abroad sustain and develop the Bangladeshi economy through inward remittances. The reality is that I am part of a young, fortunate, privileged, elite and private school educated minority – a minority that has undoubtedly been chief benefactors of Bangladesh that our founders and freedom fighters freed from persecution.
Therefore I ask this question – as a carrier of outward capital flight and a representative of the brain drain away from Bangladesh, what does 50 years of an independent Bangladesh truly represent for me? In this piece, I reflect on this question through the lens of people who have had a similar experience to mine. In other words, through the perspectives of those who have had the opportunity to fully benefit from the economic and social progress stemming from the struggles of 1971.
Whether it be Bengali restaurateurs in the United Kingdom, or the presence of BRAC and Professor Yunus across academic journals, Bangladesh's global reputation has been on a steep rise in recent years- stemming from achievements from both within Bangladesh and additionally, from pockets of Bengali-driven immigrant communities around the world.
Issa Nibras Farooque and Dameer Khan have captured the attention of the ever-growing indie fan base in Bangladesh due to their recent musical endeavours. Both expat artists have contributed in providing an interesting vein of dynamism to the progress seen across Bangladeshi diasporas.
Candidly suggesting that his aim is to contribute to the "constant advancement of Bengali culture by adding our touch as a new generation", Farooque highlights that 50 years of independence and the opportunity to represent Bangladesh internationally is a matter of enormous pride. For Khan, who currently lives in Ghana, the story of Bangladesh remains in its infancy. As an expat artist, he takes "responsibility to develop and export this story" and with time, exporting this story has surely become easier.
When asked by strangers in Canada about my country of origin, I do not get a confused rebuttal of what is Bangladesh. Rather, I see a sense of respect for the country's transition away from a bottomless basket to one where its people are making credible differences every day.
Similarly, other young expats in my community have found creative methods of integrating their passions with a vision to serve the country. New York-based Tahmid Hasib Khan co-founded a humanitarian social enterprise called BacharLorai with his friends in April 2020. They aimed to direct tangible support to the country during the peak of the pandemic. Currently completing his Masters in Public Health from Columbia University and recounting his childhood memories in Dhanmondi, Khan passionately refers to "half a century of our proud distinguished identity" – doing so while getting flustered at the performance of his beloved National Cricket Team in New Zealand.
For a University of Toronto graduate Sakib Shabab, the opportunity for Bangladeshi students to study abroad in the numbers we see today is a "direct by-product of an independent country, free from systematic and institutional oppression".
Today Shabab works remotely from Toronto with a Bangladeshi-based youth development program called NLSM, which is doing a superb job in assisting aspiring soccer enthusiasts to achieve their professional goals.
In more ways than one, expats find a way to circle back to their roots – this is something I can say with certainty, at least in my experience.
Toronto-based HR Professional Mehreen Mustafa poignantly points this out by stating that "an emotion so deep lies within us, that it bridges all these years of being away from home and connects us to Bangladesh no matter where we are or who we have become".
For those who fought in the liberation struggle like Mustafa's father, the ultimate dream was a free, independent and democratic society where future generations would not be treated as second-class citizens. For this, we are obligated to pay our humble homage to the brave Bengalis who sacrificed so much to give today's youth the chance to be born in an independent country that I am proud to miss every day.
To be perfectly honest, my generation did not see the struggles of 1971, and hence we cannot fully comprehend the psychological implications of such on older generations. Reverence to a war is difficult to understand, especially for members in my age group.
In reality, however, for the people I have referred to in this piece, including myself, our childhood in Bangladesh and our subsequent experiences across the world represent the utopian dream forged during the years of struggle that led to independence.
Nevertheless, it is fundamental to recognise that there are expats across the world, particularly our fellow citizens in the Middle East and East Asia, who contribute much more to the Bangladeshi story, rather than being the primary benefactors of independence – unlike me or my friends whose perspectives I have shared. They continue to mobilise the strength of Bangladesh as a growing economy. They are representative of the struggles of middle-class Bangladeshis continuing to sustain the foundations of our society. And as we celebrate our country, it becomes imperative to transition the benefits of progress away from privileged citizens like me, towards those who are truly the backbones of the country.
Political accountability, enhancement of fundamental rights, protection of women's rights and further economic opportunities which can minimise the socio-economic inequalities present in Bangladeshi society, represents the collective vision that young Bangladeshis seek to underscore as we reflect on 50 years of independence.
There is a fine line between informed patriotism and the simultaneous acknowledgement of pointing out systematic societal concerns prevalent during our Golden Jubilee celebrations. By acknowledging that our privilege drives inequality, people in my position can begin the conversation of distributing economic power more equitably so that the opportunities I have had as an independent citizen of a free country can be shared by those who perhaps deserve such more on merit than I ever would or could.
My Grandfather was a citizen of three nations – the British Raj, Pakistan and finally Bangladesh. An independent Bangladesh gave him the opportunity to succeed professionally as a Bengali entrepreneur – generational wealth allowed me to study and work abroad. This is the story of a niche group of Bangladeshi expats. Being part of this group, I take the opportunity during our Golden Jubilee celebrations, to congratulate the tireless group of expats who deserve a bulk of the credit for building Brand Bangladesh – to the labourers in Malaysia, caregivers in Saudi Arabia and construction workers in the UAE, we say thank you.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a Toronto-based Banking Professional. He can be reached at email@example.com
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.