A new home, that never really feels like home

November 15, 2023
November 15, 2023

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The impacts of the climate crisis are forcing thousands of people from coastal Bangladesh into the cities. They move on with their lives, but it’s never quite the same. For many, they’ll never make enough money to return to their homes, and they lose generations of family, friends, livelihoods – but also culture and traditions. It’s a new home, that never really feels like home.

I went in search of the roof of my house. I found my neighbour’s dead body.

There were corpses everywhere – strewn across paddy fields, lying in ditches, trapped under fallen trees.

It was the day after Sidr in 2007, the deadliest cyclone to strike Bangladesh this century. I was in my village in Barguna, in remote southern Bangladesh.

I was still recovering from the previous night. We reached the cyclone shelter at 2am, after running for half an hour straight. The wind was so strong I thought one of us would be blown away.

Cyclone Sidr was one of the worst climate extremes to hit Bangladesh in modern times. As many as 15,000 people were killed and many more were permanently displaced from their homes. © BRAC 2007

The wind stopped for a few minutes when we reached the shelter. Then, as we peered out of the small square window on the side of the shelter, it picked up again. It was warmer this time, but for some reason it sent a cold shiver down my spine.

That was when I saw my neighbour die.

There was a small group of people and their cows. My neighbour was at the front. They were running through the field to get to our cyclone shelter. They’d just passed a row of mango trees when suddenly, like a mythical sea monster, the six-kilometre wide Payra river next to them swelled up and lurched towards the tiny group, towering over them. A black cloud rose as the crows perched in the mango trees fled.

Minara in her shop in Dhaka, surrounded by the fabrics that saved her family from starving both in Barguna and Dhaka. © BRAC 2023

The wave swept through the field. All I could see was water. Everything was drowned – the mango trees, the people, the cows.

We were pulled away from the window by a huge bolt of lightning, followed by a thunderclap that shook our bones. It was a long, dark night in the shelter. No one slept. We wanted nothing more than to go out and help the people in the field, but the storm wouldn’t let us. The wind and the rain were relentless, lashing the shelter all night. Even the bravest among us knew that stepping outside was a death sentence.

As the sun rose, the wind finally slowed, and the cloak of stormwater receded back to the river. The field was a slaughteryard, strewn with corpses of animals.

We walked back to our house and were greeted with a piece of bare earth. The only thing left was my sewing machine. Even a cyclone wasn’t enough to move that cast iron behemoth. The wind had taken our entire one-room tin house.

I went in search of the roof, the strongest part of the house – a sheet of corrugated iron. This would mark the fifth time in my life I’d searched for it.

The fifth time our house had been destroyed.

Sidr hit differently, though. Last time our house was destroyed, a couple of years back, I started rebuilding it myself straight after, weaving the hogla pata (elephant grass) into mats for the walls. The pattern came out beautifully, a perfect little universe of identical yellow squares. It gave me a little hope.

This time I had no hope left. I didn’t have the energy to rebuild it only to wait for it to be destroyed again. I didn’t have enough for a sixth storm.

Then, as I was looking for the roof, I saw the corpses of my neighbours.

I returned to the empty plot where our house once was, looked at my husband and he said what I was thinking – ‘Enough. Let’s leave this place. Let’s go to Dhaka.’

Life between the storms

I was born on the edge of the Payra river. One of my cousins was a teacher in a primary school and I tried to copy everything he did. I wanted to become a teacher. Unfortunately, that dream was cut short when I finished primary school. My parents got me married the year after. I was 14.

My husband farmed leased land. Two-thirds of the produce went to the landowner and we kept a third. Most years we farmed a quarter of an acre, planting two rice crops and one vegetable crop – usually potatoes. If any of the three crops failed we would have no profit for that year.

We oscillated between surviving and starving, until our first child went to school. We had to take on more work then so we could be sure we’d be able to pay his school fees. I borrowed my sister’s old pedal-driven sewing machine, taught myself how to operate it and started tailoring from home. On a good day I would make BDT 200 (USD 2) – but good days were rare.

Sewing became a lifeline as our farm income declined. It was one thing after another – floods and cyclones battered the rice crops, winter chills killed the chillies, then the beans, eggplant and cucumbers were attacked by pests.

And of course there were the storms which came every other year to blow away our house.

They had a name for me now – A climate migrant

With the decision made, my husband and I and our three kids said goodbye to Barguna. We had nothing except the clothes and a few items we’d taken to the cyclone shelter, and my sewing machine. We took a last look at the river, where the sea monster from the day before had disappeared back into. We borrowed BDT 1000 (USD 10) from a relative to buy five tickets on the next available boat to Dhaka and walked to the ferry dock.

“Once I resumed tailoring, there was no going back. In two years, I saved up to rent a shop that has been running for 13 years now,” says Minara. © BRAC 2023

We had nothing and knew no one in Dhaka. The city seemed to stretch forever. There were people in every alley, sitting on the side of every road, standing in every doorway, leaning on every street sign. Every one of them had something different to sell. It was cruel for the children, who had parents with empty pockets.

Barguna smelt of soil and cows and rain, and was marked by twisting rivers and tall palm trees. Dhaka smelt of dust, sweat and burning plastic, and was marked by drains blocked with rubbish and coils of internet cable hanging overhead.

We stayed at a distant cousin’s home for five days, the five of us bundled in with the three of them in their one-bedroom home. After five days my husband convinced a man who owned a rickshaw van to let him rent it. He paid BDT 200 (USD 2) to the man per day and could keep the profit as long as he had no accidents. He brought home BDT 300 (3 USD) on a good day. If there was any damage to the van – accidents were common on the tiny alleyways – he’d have to pay for all the repairs. We rented a 50 square feet room for the five of us. I started tailoring again, displaying the clothes in a tiny sliver of space on the dusty street outside. It took me two years to save up enough to rent a shop. That shop has now been operating for thirteen years.

People might feel that I am doing better now. My eldest son has started his own family. My daughter is studying to become a nurse. But no one asks me how I feel.

The move took away what I loved most. Those summer evenings when all the women in the village gathered together to tell tales and sing. The winter afternoons where we made pitha (rice cakes) to celebrate the harvest and feasted with everyone around us. I survived – but at the cost of the little joys of life that make it worth living.

In a cruel twist of fate, my daughter is now in Patuakhali, just near Barguna, studying nursing. I had to send her there because we couldn’t afford the fees in Dhaka. I can’t afford to stay on the coast, and I can’t afford to keep my children in the city.

If there’s anything I want now, it’s to return to my village. I would give anything to spend the rest of my days among my people, celebrating the harvest seasons together and weaving mats from hogla pata. But we will never be able to save enough to reclaim the life I was born into.

Bangladesh is the seventh most climate vulnerable country in the world. Four tropical cyclones hit Bangladesh each year on average, costing the country over a billion dollars per year – nearly a month’s income for five million people. Two thousand people migrate to Dhaka every day already, and cyclones are predicted to drastically increase, both in frequency and intensity, as the planet continues to warm.

A climate resilient house/mini cyclone shelter costs $8,000. We know how to adapt, the funding doesn’t. Developing countries are getting 3% of the funding they need, and 6% of projects are locally-led.

Bangladesh is an example that climate adaptation can work, but it needs to be better financed and better implemented. Three principles are crucial – that adaptation is a nexus of development-humanitarian-climate programming, that special attention is given to the most vulnerable communities and that adaptation is locally-led.

Minara Begum is a seamstress who lives and works in Dhaka. Her story is told by Ayan Soofi, a Communications Specialist at BRAC.

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