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Zachary Brabazon

Zachary Brabazon – Blog 7: Interview with Mahbubur Rahman Pt 2

Please listen to part one, also on this site!

Thank you.

Zachary

Zachary Brabazon – Blog 6: Interview with Mahbubur Rahman, Pt. 1

Zachary Brabazon – Blog 4: Obstacles in the Discourse: How Conceptions of “Migration” Can Disrupt the Realization of Protection

(Disclaimer: the following is a post centered around my own personal experiences and reflections. Any definitive statements are only worded as such because they save space, and may thus be treated as entirely anecdotal and subjective)

 

What the readership must know before reading the Blog:

I am Zachary, and I am interning with an organization called RMMRU in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Ok, so I need a little extra pre-amble this week. Basically, what happened here, what’s arrayed in 11-pt. font words below, is a reading exercise that got a bit out of control. Over the last two weeks, I’ve been working with a RMMRU associate of mine on a paper focussing on irregular migration. I thought, hey, why not do my blog on this. 

I’m not sure if that was a bad impulse at this point. Given the monstrous hybrid that resulted – again, talking about that baby just waiting a few lines below, which is half-blog, half-essay – I am inclined to think it was a bad impulse. However, I would also like to admit that, in writing this blog, and grappling with the ideas and arguments laid out before me – many of which were fairly new to me – I learned a whole lot.

As well, the whole reason I started this literary investigation in the first place was because I wanted to learn more about the people that my organization, RMMRU, is trying to protect. These are people who, often forced into hard (or nigh-impossible) economic circumstances by environmental volatility, have wound up in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, face-to-face with the ransom demands of human traffickers (See: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32867221). What I learned in completing this blog piece is that, to put it simply, many migrants often don’t get all that much support, whether from the international legal regime, or from the states in which they live. But then again, as I will explore below, there’s always a danger to putting it simply. 

Who Is What Kind of Migrant? And Why That’s Important

Researchers have identified the absence of a clear consensus among the International community on the definition of different types of ‘non-refugee’ migration – namely “climate migrants” or “environmental migrants” – as a major obstacle that hinders protection for a growing number of migrants globally. This “definition gap” is part of a broader inability, within the International sphere, to settle basic questions on human movement, such as what constitutes forced migration and what doesn’t. The smaller ambiguities of definition lead to larger problems, such as impediments to the creation of policies and frameworks that protect migrants whose reasons for moving may make them unable to attain refugee status. Ultimately, the gaps in international legal frameworks regarding migration benefit developed states who would rather uphold the dominant “security discourse” on migration, than risk any change in narrative that might lead to them being held accountable for their disproportionate emission production.

As climate-change continues to provoke greater and greater environmental volatility, the gaps in the current treatment of mobile persons and populations will obviously increase exponentially in coming years. Given that climate-change-related disasters are both predictable and inevitable, what political obstacle(s) could prevent the international community from re-arranging their position on these definitions and protocols? In the following paragraphs, I draw on some of the relevant academic literature, in an attempt to summarize a few problematic misconceptions about migration, as well as identify a few scholarly responses to these.

Problems Definition in the Public Sphere

As I have read through different critical views on climate-change-induced and mixed migration, I have found myself constantly referring back to Chloe Anne Vlassopoulos’s discussion of the nature of “problem definition” in the public sphere:

            …problem definition is an issue of power, since it divides the social and public actors into   winners (who profit from the                     recognition of the problem) and losers (who will lose material or symbolic resources).[1]

To my (admittedly non-expert) eyes, this conception fits much of the current discussion surrounding international and governmental responses to mixed- and climate-induced migration. Somewhat ironically, in this model, the developed states are the “losers,” who see themselves as standing to lose “material or symbolic resources” if the narrative on migration is shifted from the status quo. As the greatest historical producers of carbon emissions, many developed nations might feel that they have a vested interest in ensuring that providing assistance to environmental migrants remains a voluntary, humanitarian action, rather than one dictated by accountability in the form of an international legal agreement.

The Migrant/Refugee Simplification

Referring to the last point above, a major benefit to states looking to avoid taking on accountability for climate migrants is the fact that there is no existing international agreement that addresses climate change-induced or, more broadly, environmental migration.[2] As such, the international legal regime’s existing, de-facto treatment of mobile populations usually involves the rendering of people into categories of “migrants” and “refugees.” It is, in effect, an arbitrary and dangerous binary that ignores the deeper, nuanced reasons that drive people to move. According to Susan Martin, this arbitrary distinction “does not reflect the reality of human mobility; rather, most migration decisions fall somewhere on a continuum between forced and voluntary.”[3] If powerful states and international actors take an overly simplistic view of human migration, as many currently do, this can have dangerous consequences for vulnerable populations on the move.

However, it’s not just populations on the move that suffer from these ‘definition gaps.’ Lauren Nishimura states that “often, those individuals or groups who are unable to migrate are in greatest need of aid but lack the capacity or will to move, creating another obstacle to  protection.”[4] Susan Martin argues that “…research shows, moreover, that trapped populations are in danger just as much as those who move.”[5] Experts also predict that the majority of people displaced by climate change over the coming decades will not cross an international border, and, thus, will fail to receive protection under existing international refugee law.[6] Furthermore, those affected persons who do cross an international border face the prospect of being denied official “refugee” status, which, Judith Kumin notes, carries the risk of “delegitimizing” them, and “having a negative impact on how such persons are treated.” [7]

What all this information should make it clear, therefore, is that the distinctions made in current international frameworks – like the UN Refugee Convention – need serious updating in order to meet the challenges of the coming decades. The absence of an agreement on climate-induced migration is a particularly severe void in protection, but the fact that international law does not extend its protection to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), or to any type of environmental migrants explicitly, seems equally deplorable. Given that many experts consider that climate change will create as many – or even more – internal migrants as it does refugees, it seems that any protective efforts on climate or environmental migrants should include IDPs.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and the Need for a Returned Strategy

Several authors quoted in this piece have also outlined the problems associated with many state-guided “return strategies” for IDPS. In many cases, the damages of climate-induced disasters have been exacerbated when IDPs were returned to their homes too quickly, or when the “return strategy” involved inadequate protection measures. In these types of instances, “returned” populations were then more likely to be displaced a second time.[8]

Lindsey Brickle and Alice Thomas, in their investigation of flood disasters in Pakistan (2010) and Colombia (2011), illustrate the potential harms that can arise when governments attempt to return populations in a hasty or unscrupulous manner. They argue that successful responses to climate-induced displacement require a Returned Strategy as well as a Return Strategy:

            [the] failure of the governments to adequately address the risk of recurrent displacement by allowing people to return to                     flood-prone areas increased vulnerabilities and eroded resilience [in flood-affected Pakistan and Colombia]. In Pakistan,                   flooding the following year displaced  many of the same people a second time.[9]

The key here is that, in both cases, governments failed to “adequately address the risk of recurrent displacement.” To me, this stands out as a critical idea for any framework on migration to be successful. Instead of just protecting those migrants who have been forced to cross an international border, and whose travails are “appropriate” to earn them the “refugee” label, perhaps the international legal community might be better off placing more impetus on addressing mobile populations’ “risk of recurrent displacement,” and seeking to offer protection according to that indicator.

The Security Discourse (Wherein Developed States Avoid Responsibility and Migrants Become Security Threats)

Another major obstacle to protection that has been outlined by scholars is the current preponderance of the “Security Discourse” among developed states, which allows politicians to absolve – or at least shift blame from – those states which have been historically the largest producers of carbon emissions, while at the same time transforming migrants, who need protection, into security threats.[10]

This issue, I would think, is closely related to the frequent lack of complexity and nuance with regards to migrants and drivers of migration observed in international relations. Just as with the too-simple delineations made between “migrants” and “refugees,” the over-simplifications associated with the “migrant-as-security-threat” idea effectively shift policy discussions away from practical measures that might benefit vulnerable people on the move. Even further, the security discourse often involves what Nishimura calls the “degradation narrative,” which actually blames migrants and potential migrants for environmental degradation, while making transnational corporations and international actors the bearers of solutions (development measures, investment, etc.)[11]

Suggestions for Ameliorating Protection Gaps

As most of the scholars quoted in this piece have noted, the causal complexity of climate change also gives a big boost to developed states looking to avoid responsibility, while complicating the efforts of NGOs and transnational advocacy groups who desire to enact greater protection for migrants.[12] Because it is difficult to assign responsibility for specific climate-change-related events to particular states, causal complexity is easily translated into an accountability problem among states, and protection measures for migrants thus continue to lag behind.

According to Alexander Betts, the remedy to this situation is not about “attributing causality to movement, which is both virtually impossible and also irrelevant, but rather identifying the sets of rights deprivations within a country of origin that entitle a person to seek substitute protection in another country.”[13] Betts’s solution is centred around creating protection not just for climate migrants, but for a broader definition of survival migrants, or “persons outside their country of origin because of an existential threat to which they have no access to a domestic remedy or resolution.” In addition, he posits a “soft law framework” as the most practical response to the institutional gaps facing survival migrants, opining that working within existing norms – and consolidating them “in a single nonbinding soft law document based on the IDP precedent” – represents the “most realistic and constructive option.”[14]

Nishimura, however, disagrees with Betts, stating that Bett’s proposition of creating a broader framework around ‘survival migrants’ is too broad and “not tenable” given existing institutional and resource limitations.[15] Nishimura reasons that “a failure to provide protection for all is not a reason to deny protection to some,” and argues for increased support of “localized migration” (as opposed to long-distance, cross-border relocation), increased and improved information dissemination to vulnerable populations at both potential origin and destination locations, and – crucially – more concern on the part of policy-makers for attaining the consent of displaced populations.[16]

Vlassopoulos would appear to agree with Nishimura on the need to not go ‘too broad’ on remedying migration framework, though their argument is focused more on the conflation of the issues of environmental migration and the development-orientated, ‘climate-change-adaption’ framework that has emerged in the international political sphere over the last two decades. They argue that the “evolution towards development-oriented policies which put the emphasis on adaptation to deal with climate change slows down the efforts to define environmental migration as a new global public issue.”[17] For Vlassopoulos, the tendency to overwhelmingly focus on adaption efforts obscures the specific issues that need to be addressed regarding environmental migration. As well, the supremacy of the idea of “climate migrants,” according to Vlassopoulos, represents a restrictive redefinition, involving a “process of simplification that reduces the scope of the problem and makes it more manageable.”[18] In other words, placing all environmental migrants under the “climate change” banner effectively obscures other important migration issues that carry less public currency simply because they have not been expressly linked with the buzzwords of ‘climate change’ and ‘adaption.’

 

A Final Disclaimer

I suppose, following all that madness of quotation and ‘argument-plucking,’ that a few general disclaimers might be repeated here. I am, of course, no expert on any of these issues. For me, this piece represents an attempt to merge some of the research I am doing at work for RMMRU with my monthly duty of blog-making. In all honesty, this started out as a way to game the system – and then turned into probably the most labour-intensive blog yet for me. I guess I deserved it.

My attempt here was not to suggest the above points I have drawn upon represent the ‘best,’ or ‘greatest,’ or ‘most sensible,’ solutions to the challenges of environmental migration – I, of course, am not qualified to perform such things. Neither do I think that I have adequately addressed even a fraction of the relevant literature, and, even now, as I am writing this final paragraph of the blog, I am thinking of which things I should read next. It is possible that, by this time next week, I will have come to completely disagree with all the arguments made by the authors quoted above.

 

 

Sources

  • Vlassopoulos, Chloe Anne. 2010. Institutional barriers to the recognition and assistance of environmentally forced migrants. In , 17-27. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Betts, Alexander. “Survival Migration: A New Protection Framework.” Global Governance 16, no. 3 (2010): 361-82. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/stable/29764952. 

Nishimura, Lauren. 2015. ‘climate change migrants’: Impediments to a protection framework and the need to incorporate migration into climate change adaptation strategies. International Journal of Refugee Law 27 (1): 107.

Brickle, Lindsey, and Alice Thomas. 2014. Rising waters, displaced lives. Forced Migration Review(45): 34.

Martin, Susan. 2015. The state of the evidence. Forced Migration Review(49): 12.

Kumin, Judith. 2014. The challenge of mixed migration by sea. Forced Migration Review(45): 49.



[1] Vlassopoulos, 19.

[2] Nishimura, 108.

[3] Nishimura, 113

[4] Nishimura, 112

[5] Martin, 15

[6] Nishimura, 115.

[7] Kumin, 50-51.

[8] Brickle and Thomas, 36.

[9] Martin, 14

[10] Nishimura, 115.

[11] Nishimura, 121.

[12] Nishimura, 124-125.

[13] Betts, 378.

[14] Betts, 377.

[15] Nishimura, 130.

[16] Nishimura, 113.

[17] Vlassopoulos, 23.

[18] Vlassopoulos, 23.

Zachary Brabazon – Blog 4: Privilege, Mobility, and the Passport

This blog primarily focuses on interpersonal interactions, the kind that hammer reading points home in an emotional way.  I really value the ‘living context’ that these encounters give to all that I read about migration in Bangladesh, and this is why I chose to write what I did. For those eager to know more about the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), my good friend and colleague, Kimberly Copeland, has written an excellent post on the Forum, outlining its history and main aims.[1] I urge anyone interested to read it.

(Disclaimer: the following is a post centered around my own personal experiences and reflections. Any definitive statements are only worded as such because they save space, and may thus be treated as entirely anecdotal and subjective)

What the readership must know before reading the Blog:

I am Zachary, and I am interning with an organization called RMMRU in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Due to the personal nature of some details in the following, the names of certain persons have been altered to respect their anonymity.

               Before beginning my internship in Bangladesh, I was prepared, by pre-departure orientation and through conversation with former interns, for the keen understanding of my own privilege that would confront me daily in my tenure here. The reality of my daily life in Dhaka has not only substantiated this advice, but indeed has proved so pervasive that I am concerned I am becoming de-sensitized to it.

               Every now and then, however, a particular conversation or interaction knocks me out of my numbed state, and I am forced (thankfully) to reconsider the power of the structures that allow me to live how I live, while simultaneously limiting access for countless others. Yesterday, I was fortunate to encounter two such scenarios.

               Just before lunch yesterday, I was chatting with a co-worker about travel. As I was discussing my post-internship travel plans, my friend asked me whether I needed a visa for any of places I wanted to visit. This, in turn, led us to bring up web pages comparing countries that Canadians and Bangladeshis, respectively, can travel to without a visa or otherwise by receiving a visa on arrival.[2] I was, of course, intellectually prepared for the enormous mobility discrepancies between the two passports. And yet, I still couldn’t help linking these realities with the stark contrast that I have experienced between Canadian and Bangladeshi attitudes toward crossing borders.

               Among my community back home, the opportunity to travel is generally considered to an economic consideration, delineated mostly by financial liquidity.  This attitude is due to the fact that Canadian passports bestow great mobility privileges upon their holders, meaning that the biggest border-related worry that most Canadians will face is a long wait in customs. Meanwhile, I have tended to forget that just being stuck in that proverbial customs line is a privilege in itself. A recent study ranked the Canadian passport as the sixth most powerful in the world (tied with Ireland and five others), according to the visa-free access (VF) or visa-on-arrival (VOA) access to 174 countries that it granted to its holders. By contrast, a person holding a Bangladeshi passport has VF or VOA access to only 39 countries.[3]

               The irony here, for me, comes when I think of how much more important it is for Bangladeshis to be able to migrate across borders than it seems to be for many Canadians. To be fair, I am incredibly thankful to have the ability to enrich my life with the experience of living and learning in another country. However, it simply doesn’t seem fair that I have the passport privileges I have when many Bangladeshis, who rely on labour migration to battle poverty, climate change, and other economic ills, would comparatively benefit so much more from such privileges (in my view). Illustrating this fundamental role of migration, a 2014 study done by my host organization, RMMRU, found that the poverty rate among Bangladeshi migrant families was 13% lower than among non-migrant families.

               A second experience drove this point home for me as I was headed home from the RMMRU office after work. Joel and I were sharing a rickshaw ride back to our apartment, and we got talking to our rickshaw-wallah, a kind man named Mahmoud.

               I am loath to admit it, but the truth is that, when I first got in Mahmoud’s rickshaw, I was more fixated on the fact that he had six fingers on one hand than any other aspect of his person. Writing this now, knowing the impact our subsequent conversation has had on me, I feel a little bit of shame at my shallowness. It’s funny how, in my experience, exchanging life details with a stranger causes their striking physical features to fade from my perception, giving way to the rarefied and complicated picture of what lies beneath. I only knew Mahmoud for fifteen minutes at the most, but the story and personality that emerged in that conversation now loom much larger in my head than any aspect of his physical appearance.

               Given our limited abilities in Bangla, our conversation was limited to basic topics – the country we hailed from, the district he came from outside of Dhaka, our names. As we talked, trading details, I was struck by how much Mahmoud’s story lined up with the theme of mobility that had been so stuck in my mind since my earlier conversation with Kamal. Mahmoud told us that he came from Pirojpur, a district in South-western Bangladesh, and that he had a wife and two children. He also described the process of circular migration that he went through regularly: seven days riding rickshaw in Dhaka, two days back home with his family in Pirojpur.

               I asked a co-worker today what they knew about Pirojpur and they responded that “nearly all of Dhaka’s hawkers and merchants come from Pirojpur.” I asked him why this was, and he explained that, at certain times during rainy season, agricultural work dissipates in this district. When this happens, my friend explained, Pirojpur residents come to Dhaka to supplement their income.  “The people of Pirojpur are industrious,” according to my co-worker, “they do not want to spend their time in [idleness].”  

               Last week, Pirojpur bore the brunt of heavy flooding. The Daily Star, a Dhaka newspaper, reported that “continuous heavy rain from Saturday night [Aug. 20] has flooded different areas in seven upazilas of the district, causing damage to fish enclosures, vegetable gardens and trees.” Massive “tidal surges” also proved destructive, according to the article.[4]

               These stories weigh upon my mind. Right now, as I write, I’m thinking of Mahmoud and his family. I’m wondering what happens if, during one of these storms, Mahmoud’s family loses their garden or their fishing equipment. Will his rickshaw earnings be enough to replace it? What if he needs more? Maybe he will be pressed to find work abroad, and, given the difficulties faced in securing formal migration, maybe he will be one of thousands of irregular migrants crossing the Bay of Bengal at great peril. And out there, the sea is not always the most dangerous player.[5] [6]

               Because of conversations like these, I am routinely reminded of how desperately the GFMD needs to get things right when it happens here in Dhaka in December. International labour migration in Bangladesh, as RMMRU’s research papers will tell you, is right now a crucial adaptive strategy for countless people.[8] And with climate-change-induced weather volatility expected to increase in intensity in the coming years, this need is only going to grow.[9]



[1] Kimberly Copeland. “The UN Global Forum on Migration and Development.” Last modified 13 July 2016. http://students.capi.uvic.ca/sites/default/files/capi_internblog_kimberlycopeland_blog2.pdf

[2] Included along with the VOA and VF categories are also countries that provide easy electronic clearance to passport holders.

[3] Oliver Smith. “Revealed: The world’s most powerful passports.” The Telegraph. Last modified 31 August 2016. Accessed: 31 August 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/lists/The-worlds-most-powerful-passports/

[4] “Rain paralyses life in 4 districts.” The Daily Star. Last modified 23 August 2016. Accessed 31 August 2016. http://www.thedailystar.net/country/rain-paralyses-life-4-dists-1273993

[5] “’Thousands’ of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea.” BBC. Last modified 11 May 2015. Accessed 31 August 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32686328

[6] Lipika Pelham. “Enslaved Abroad, Oppressed at Home: Modern Slavery in Bangladesh.” The New York Times. Last modified 29 October 2014. Accessed 31 August 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/30/opinion/linka-pelham-modern-slavery-in-bangladesh.html?_r=0

[7] Siddiqui, Tasneem. “Impact of Climate Change: Migration as one of the adaptation strategies.” RMMRU Working Papers.  http://www.rmmru.org/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/workingpaper18.pdf

[8] Warming Climate to Hit Bangladesh Hard with Sea Level Rise, More Floods and Cyclones, World Bank Report Says. World Bank Press Release, 19 June 2013. Accessed 31 August 2016. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2013/06/19/warming-climate-to-hit-bangladesh-hard-with-sea-level-rise-more-floods-and-cyclones-world-bank-report-says

Zachary Brabazon – Blog 3: One Week In Late July

(Disclaimer: the following is a post centered around my own personal experiences and reflections. Any definitive statements are only worded as such because they save space, and may thus be treated as entirely anecdotal and subjective)

What the readership must know before reading the Blog:

I am Zachary, and I am interning with an organization called RMMRU in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

 

Welcome back, dear readership!

Here’s a thing I think about sometimes: why do people do awful things? Imagine the most awful things done by people. Now try to imagine the thoughts that they used to propel those actions. Maybe each of them had a few ‘crossroads moments,’ or points in time when a certain thought – of empathy, of sympathy, of humanity – might have turned them around from their destructive or abusive path.

The reason I bring this topic up is not to provide a general answer or explanation. In fact, I don’t believe anyone will ever be capable of performing such a feat in this case – the  question at hand is far too abstract, and one would have a difficult time addressing the myriad specific contexts in which people have done despicable things (see: every human context we know about). As well, despite numerous human endeavours, the minds of other people remain a ‘final frontier’ of sorts, a vast unexplored territory that we can only wonder and speculate about.

So, what we’ve got – what this blog is about – is a big, abstract, and silly question that I cannot answer in any general sort of way. However, because I have (at least partial) access to one mind (my own), I think I can distill the question down to a level that might be an interesting starting point for a discussion I believe is quite important. Maybe, hearing my story, you (the readers) might be able to compare my struggles and lessons with some that happened in your own lives. All I’m going to say “here is how I relate to the question,” and hopefully everybody reading this (I’m looking at you, mom) will traipse off on their own wonderful thought-journeys of self-exploration. Or, perhaps more likely, you will view this blog as evidence of the combined negative effects of too much coffee and too little beer. I surrender to either judgement.

Ok, so lengthy preamble concluded – check. Now that we’ve lost half our readership (still looking at you, mom), I will relate the tale of fateful misfortunes that began for me on 28 July 2016.

 

Trauma #1 – I Lose Our Laptops (July 28)

Here’s the gist: I lose both mine and Joel’s laptops in a CNG. It’s my fault, I hate myself, and I can’t do anything about it, because they’re long gone. Furthermore, I lose a bunch of documents that we’d been working on for our host organization, RMMRU, erasing completely about a week’s worth of work (side-lesson: dropbox is our friend).

Response – Reflections from the Fetal Position (July 28-31)

One needs to have a couch when they are depressed. A variation of prone environments becomes highly desirable, as reclining pitifully in bed all day makes sleep somewhat less attractive. As a result, the (decidedly abrasive) wooden couch in our apartment took on a bigger role in my life.

“It’s going to be OK,” I tell myself during these days. “In thirteen months, I will be busy with other things and I will not think about this all that often.”

As I deal with the hard stuff, I noticeably lose patience with my surroundings. I feel less able to handle the challenges of Dhaka City, and I empathize/sympathize less with the people I encounter in daily life. Objectively speaking, there’s no good reason for this. Dhaka is the same as it was when I was maintaining a positive/hopeful attitude, and the people around me are certainly no less interesting or worthy of my attention than they were before. And yet, there’s this obvious power that fear holds over our perceptions; it taints everything. I feel threatened; therefore, I have no energy for anybody else’s problems. I’m sure we’ve all had this experience. I think it’s a natural, ‘fight-or-flight’ response to an unfriendly environment. The funny thing is that, by this process, in order to address an unfriendly environment, I myself become unfriendly. This is where a little bit of reflection came in handy for me.

I want to be clear, here. I was not Mr. Reflective right away when this realization hit me. My condition of  curled-up, self-hugging sadness instead made me more like Mr. Reflexive: weak, easily frustrated, and unwilling to self-examine.

 

Trauma #2 – Trip to do RMMRU Fieldwork Goes Awry (Aug 1-3)

Now, take the mental state that I described above, mix in a 12-hour overnight bus ride to Teknaf, a town in Bangladesh’s southeastern corner, and finish it off with a heavy dose of being told we’re not allowed to be there and must return to Dhaka at once, via another 12-hour night bus.

The above ellipsis is the only thing I can make with my keyboard that comes close to describing the potency of this moment.

To be honest, I’m not sure of the local officials’ exact reasoning for rejecting our right to stay and work in Teknaf, but it’s not really relevant to this discussion. What matters is that I was angry – angry at them, angry at Bangladesh, and just angry at the world in the abstract. Again, Mr. Reflexive needs neither reason nor self-examination.

 

Response – Losing My Sense of Beauty

This is one of those ‘crossroads moments’ that I described before. This was my chance: if I ever was going to hate my surroundings, this was it. All of the beauty I had witnessed in the prior two months – and all of the complexity that eludes my perception – I was going to lose this to a self-centered reaction to frustration and discomfort. This would represent tragic loss of perspective for me, but I shudder to think of the long-term effect this could have upon my words and actions.

Full disclosure: I did lose my sense of beauty for a few days. I lost a lot of my empathy, too, and I stopped caring about the nuanced, complicated picture of the real Bangladesh. It became very easy to simplify my surroundings to easy quarter-truths that matched my angry narrative. I don’t think this type of reaction is unnatural or avoidable. I’m also not saying it’s natural or unavoidable either, I simply state that it happened; it was something I was forced to deal with. High levels of emotion overwhelmed my sensual and intellectual capacities. These were times when it seemed somehow easier to project my frustration onto my surroundings, and, in so doing, put space between others and myself.

These moments are what led me to ask the question at the start of this blog. In this space of horrid self-centeredness, I had this thought: these are the kinds of headspaces that allow people to do bad, destructive things. I became emotional – afraid, frustrated, despairing – and my own need for emotional resolution threatened to outweigh the needs of those around me.

In this way, I wonder, do people transition from bewildered frustration into reductive simplifications that make the pain easier, and from there logically proceed to something worse? Again, I don’t have the answer, but it sure felt like it could have gone that way for me had I not taken time to reflect what it was my thoughts were actually doing.

 

Final Thoughts and Hindsight

I’m being a little dramatic again. I never hated my surroundings, and, while I harbored some resentment for the world around me, I think I was able to re-stabilize and get back my perspective before anything bad happened. That being said, this emotional low-point underlined what I think will be one of the key lessons of my time in Bangladesh: it tested my capacity and commitment to love.

My background – my personal set of ideals and assumptions – centers around a sort of liberal humanism (don’t worry, I’m not fully certain of what that means either). Who I want to be, and how I want to respond to the world, is generally based on the assumption that we (humans, earthlings, etc.) are all in this together, that we’re responsible for each other, that everybody – of all sexual orientations, creeds, genders, and ethnicities – deserves equal and just treatment.

But those views do not work without a commitment to actively loving other people, and that commitment can be challenged when one feels disorientated, alone, and afraid, as I often felt during the week of laptop and bus-ride troubles. I lost a little bit of my capacity to love, even if only temporarily. All kinds of dangerous and harmful attitudes threatened to come into my life.

The way out, for me, was to block out some of the noise and reduce the inner turmoil to a bunch of simple decisions all based around the same question: do I want to go in the direction of hate and fear, or do I want to go where I think healing, love, and acceptance might be?

It took a few days, but it ended up giving me some peace of mind. Of course, there was never any doubt that I would recover. It was a lost laptop, and a three-day trip gone wrong. These are not things that were ever going to derail my life. But what was illuminating about the experience was the glimpse I got of that ‘crossroads moment,’ of that time where resentment, selfishness, and negativity seem to be more feasible alternatives than they normally would be.

 My goal in sharing this experience was, as honestly as possible, to share the internal tumult that I underwent, along with the things that helped me get past it, so that anyone reading this might reflect on similar ‘crossroads moments’ in their own lives. As well, anyone who might be headed to – or engaged in – similar cross-borders experiences might, I hope, use my little tale as a launching point for their own reflections.

That’s all. 

Zachary Brabazon – Blog 2: My Storyteller’s Crisis

Hello dear readership! Thank you kindly for endeavouring to read my first set of reflections on life in Dhaka.

My first post is all about the stresses of sharing my Dhaka experience, and how I might try to mitigate the things that make me uncomfortable. I have always fancied myself a bit of a storyteller, but this facet of my personality has been challenged by a sort of  existential ‘storyteller’s crisis’ that I have encountered while going about assembling this first blog.

‘Storyteller’s crisis’ sounds horribly pretentious, and I apologize for that, but it really gets to the heart of the conundrum I have faced in my first twenty three days in Dhaka. The ‘crisis’ manifests itself in endless questions and self-critiques, largely focused on the absurdity of me, a Canadian newcomer to the city, writing anything worth reading about Dhaka – a vibrant and massively diverse city that is so much more than the little things I observe about it.

How can I write about this city, or its people, without doing it immense injustices? I know so little. My personal methods of understanding, and my ways of explaining, are totally inappropriate to Dhaka’s context. I have no background for what I encounter in Dhaka. When I see something, I see the surface of what is going on; the event-moment only, and none of the mechanisms that created that event. Simply put, my brain has little of the contextual tools necessary for understanding the things it receives through the eye sockets.

So how do I communicate my experiences to friends and loved ones back home? If I write a paragraph on pollution in my blog, do I write two more on the beautiful artwork that graces the countless rickshaws that roam Dhaka’s streets? If I write one on begging, do I write two more on the wondrous shared laughter and joy that occurs when shopkeepers encounter me trying hard to speak Bangla to them? Even if I were to balance negative and positive stories, the same problem would persist, and it is embedded in the very nature of the story itself. Stories are, of course, subjective and one-dimensional by nature, and this is true even when they attempt to incorporate other voices and perspectives. Selection of quotes, for instance, seemingly gives the writer the ability to make others say what they are needed to say.

 

I am making this rant as a sort of preamble for the stories I plan to tell in subsequent blogs. It’s a disclaimer – if you will – declaring the contents of this blog to be far from a comprehensive account of the stories included in it. Dhaka is a city full of unique and rich perspectives – somewhere upwards of 20 million of them – and there is a sort of tongue-tiedness that results from experiencing this grand diversity on a daily basis, and then contemplating writing a reflection of these experiences.

And here lies the dilemma I have so precociously dubbed the “storyteller’s crisis.” I am so excited to share in this blog about my experiences working with the amazing team at the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), but I am respectful of the fact that my stories of them cannot do them, or their work, full justice. Likewise, Dhaka city, and the people I encounter within it, cannot be limited to the keyboard at my fingertips. All of which leads me to ask readers – please, take my words here with several massive grains of salt.

I think the reason this blog became so much about a ‘crisis’ of description is because I am still learning the details of my life here. Everything is still so gestational, and my brain is rushing to keep up with every new development. For these reasons, I worry when I have to share my experiences, because I fear I will miss an important detail and misrepresent a scenario or person. However, maybe by sticking to the basics – and continually referring to those massive grains of salt – I can share a little bit of the very important work that I am so fortunate to be a part of.

RMMRU, as I mentioned before, is up to some really cool things. One focus of their research is the investigation of the relationship between climate change and internal migration within Bangladesh. I have been asked to edit some of these works, and thus have gotten a chance to read the migrant surveys that the organization carries out as one of its primary research methods. The importance of organizations like RMMRU is reinforced for me whenever I read of homes and livelihoods being washed away by typhoons and floods, a bleak reality for many Bangladeshis. On the other hand, the various adaptation practices utilized by these affected peoples highlights their phenomenal agency and endurance in the face of staggering challenges.

Whenever I start wondering about what I am doing in Dhaka, a place so beyond my understanding that I stressfully blog about my inability to describe it, I remind myself that any assistances or partnership that I can provide to RMMRU is, I believe, time and energy very well spent. They are storytellers that matter here – their research tells the stories that will hopefully shift policy – and so my job is to be the best-supporting and most-eager-to-learn intern that I can manage to be. Focusing on that simple fact is currently my most potent antidote for the storyteller’s crises that I have come across.

Until next time,

Zachary

Zachary Brabazon – Blog 1: Intro Podcast with Sidney Moss

Hey everybody!

Here’s my intro podcast, in which I interview Sidney about her goals, fears, and dreams for the upcoming internship.

Warmest of warm Regards,

Zachary

 

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