Why I'm Going Back to Bangladesh (And What I Found There)—Part II

I flew from Kolkata to Dhaka, a short flight, clouds billowing in that way they do near the equator, in great piles. I looked down on this land I'd heard so much about from the plane window, stories from my mom and dad reverberating in the space between land and air. I glimpsed the glint of water, green land, mist, cities brown & chaotic. As the plane descended the land rose to meet me—then the jolt of wheels on the runway. I had made it.


I walk down the stairs from the jet, onto the tarmac, then onto the bus full of standing men and covered women, shuttles us to the terminal. "Welcome to Bangladesh" a sign reads overhead as I enter the terminal. I was walking as through in a dream, groggy from the early wake-up call. I was far from home here, perhaps farther than I'd ever been. I also had a sense I was getting closer to something, my parent's story and my own intersecting with this place, so far from the forests and lakes of Northern Michigan where I grew up. AlI that day I took slow walks through the terminal, shuffling along, trying to get my mind around the fact that I was here. I tried to read while the occasional mosquitoes would land on my arm. I found a coffee shop, next to the in-airport mosque where the shoes of praying men were left haphazardly in pairs outside the door. I ordered another cappuccino and sat there tired but content. I answered emails and wrote.

Airport prayer room

Airport prayer room

I spent the rest of the day savoring this place, reflecting on my journey up to this point, and all at had taken place.

That evening I was tired. I had been in the airport for over twelve hours, waiting for my flight. As I boarded the airplane the flight attendant offered me a newspaper. I grabbed a copy of the New York Times. I sat down, buckled in, and picked up the newspaper.

And then it happened, one of those moments you can neither arrange for nor anticipate, but that nevertheless change the course of your life. Centered on the front page was a picture of a woman seated, her prosthetic leg beneath her. The headline read, "Miseries linger after Bangladesh collapse." I remember thinking, "Huh, how strange to be reading this article while sitting here in Bangladesh."

I kept reading.

The article was following up from a disastrous building collapse that killed over a thousand people the previous April. Now months later, those who'd survived or been involved with the rescue operation were traumatized. Some were hardly able to function. One man who'd helped out for weeks, volunteering to help pull people from the rubble couldn't sleep because of nightmares. He'd wake up hearing the screams of those trapped in the rubble. Another man was in the building and survived, but now wracked with fear when he tried to return to the job in another factory. Going inside the building he was frightened something would happen again. He couldn't work, though his family depended on him for income.

The last paragraphs so poignant I snapped a photo with my phone.

It read,

"Mr. Forkan, 37, spent three weeks helping the fire-fighters and soldiers pull bodies from the rubble. He crawled into the wreckage and freed one woman by cutting an iron rod that pierced deep into her leg.

But when it was over, Mr. Forkan found it difficult to return to this ordinary life.

He is an electrician and regularly works in dangerous situations. But he finds it difficult to concentrate. He deliberately avoids the Rana Plaza site, detouring around it, and his wife often has to wake him when he shouts in his sleep.

'We need proper treatment to return to a normal life,' he said, expressing concern about what would happen to his family if he could no longer work. 'This is my only way to earn money.'"

I sat there on the runway in Dhaka, only miles from the accident site. How unjust I thought—these people were already working in unsafe, poorly managed conditions—now they traumatized and discarded. There were others who would work in their place and the whole system spun onwards.

"This isn't right!"

I felt that in my gut, way deep down.

"Someone needs to do something about this!" Emotion welling up in my throat.

A few seconds pass, maybe minutes.

"Someone." I say to myself. Something like recognition dawning within, like one startled by their own reflection.

"Yeah, like someone with counseling degree." (that's me)

"Someone who has a connection to Bangladesh."

I shook it off, even as something was dawning. That's crazy. I couldn't help. I wouldn't know where to start. Not me. Not here. It was late and I was tired.

My meal came. I ate. I had a glass of wine. I slept. I changed planes and changed countries. Bangladesh was now a blur in the rearview mirror of my travels.

But I couldn't shake Bangladesh from my mind. I'd come all the way around the world, this trip acting as a vast, elaborate labyrinth, and found this. This had been put in my path—I could not miss it if I tried.

* * *

This is the story I cannot walk way from, though most days I wake up feeling more than a little crazy for doing this. Especially now, at the end of over a year now of continuous travel, spending money I do not have, to pursue something I have no idea where it will lead, with no structure or pattern or directions to follow.

But I'm doing it. And that is worth everything to me. Sometimes it's not about how confident you are about something, or about knowing what will happen, but it's about doing it. Trying. Risking. Playing even. It's about moving towards something and seeing what happens.

This is why I felt I had to return to Bangladesh. If I didn't go I would have always wondered what would have happened. I decided I couldn't live with that. I had to go—no matter the cost or the risk.