By: Joyeeta Dutta Ray in Toronto, ON

As Toronto evolves into the world’s most multicultural city, so does its colourful communities, rising as a collective force to overcome challenges. This time, it’s the women who are initiating change. Meet a few dynamic South Asian immigrants who have stepped forward to pull up others in the community in various ways.

If Women Move Forward, the Whole Community Moves Forward

Shiuli Akhtar* (*name changed) stands as a symbol of pride for Sultana Jahangir, Executive Director at South Asian Women’s Rights Org. (SAWRO). She defines what Toronto’s grassroots member-led non-profit organization stands for: helping South Asian women, Bangladeshis in her case, come into their own in Canada.

Shiuli migrated to Toronto from Chittagong, Bangladesh in 2013, two small kids in tow. She had a degree in Chemistry but no work experience to talk of and little English skills. When she approached SAWRO for help, she was first enrolled in an English learning class, followed by a computer course. When her skills grew, so did her confidence. She got a break in a cosmetics firm in December 2014, only to be laid off 8 months later.

Not one to leave anyone stranded in the middle of the road, SAWRO pulled her into COSTI to switch lanes as a medical lab technician. Shiuli rose to the challenge, volunteered in a clinic for 3 months before she was absorbed into a full-time role. 4 years later, she lives her dreams in the same clinic with pride.

Sultana Jahangir, originally from Bangladesh, moved to Toronto from the USA in 2005, where she lived for about 7 years. Having faced injustices as a new immigrant under the Bush Administration, she understood the plight of her people in Canada.

“(Low-Income) women in the Bangladeshi community are very isolated. They are not familiar with writing resumes or Ontario’s employment process. It is hard for them to sustain precarious jobs as they are not protected by working rights. We have policies from the 1930s which do not apply in today’s environment.”

The work environment in Canada is going through drastic change. Full-time employment supported by good wages is giving way to temporary contracts that pay pittance. Women at the lower end of the job spectrum are hit hardest with little benefits and lesser job security. SAWRO helps them by working with labour rights and employment organizations for “systematic change”. Once these women sustain themselves, there is a profound difference. “They first get their voice and recognition in their own families,” says Sultana. 

Today, after 5 years of service, SAWRO supports over 2000 Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Afghani and Indian women. About 346 were assisted with jobs. Plans are on to reach other marginalized groups now. “Every ethnic group has their own characteristics,” Sultana says. There is no one solution for all.

Driving Change by Giving Back

When Harpreet Sodhi migrated to Canada from India in 2001 to seek better opportunities for her family, little did she know that she would end up offering greater opportunities to others in the process. 

A computer teacher for seniors back in India, Harpreet was used to training the mentally and physically challenged. Since she was “lucky to be gainfully employed”, she set about helping others through “Women That Give” - a non-profit group founded in 2016 by Fawzia Khan jointly with  like-minded South Asian volunteers. The mission was to offer weekly workshops to help financially distressed and mentally disturbed women stand on their feet. 

One of their greatest victories was Carol Mckeon, a mentally disabled woman under their care, who rose to take part in the 2017 International Paralympics Softball team, held in Toronto. 

“Social isolation is a big factor that leads the disabled, abandoned and physically abused to depression and financial distress”, says Fawzia. “WTG uplifts these women by building their capacity and helping with job placements.”

“This land gave us the opportunity to grow so it’s important for us to give back,” says Harpreet. “We wanted to combine efforts to make a stronger impact as a unified force”, adds Fawzia.

Helping Women Professionals Fly Higher

For Bhuvneet Thakur, life changed with WINGS (Women’s Initiatives to Nurture, Grow and Support), a Mississauga-based non-profit organization. A student who arrived in 2016 to study at Humber College for a Business Accounting Diploma, Bhuvneet faced a roadblock once she finished her term. It was hard to find entry level jobs in her specialization.

“I realized the importance of connecting with professionals and carrying credible references,” she says. But for newcomers like her, networking is a challenge. “It’s hard to know who to talk with and how to start.” That is where WINGS steps in.

Started by Sanjukta Das, a Humber College Business Placement Advisor and Social Activist, who came to Canada less than a decade back from India, WINGS took flight with an enterprising board of women directors in 2014, to provide networking opportunities to empower women. 

Bhuvneet secured a co-op placement with WINGS, and connected with other professionals, “magnifying her self confidence.” Shortly after, she got the much-needed break at Humber College itself. “I will continue volunteering at WINGS to help others reach their goals,” she states.

WINGS now plans its first Trade Expo on March 18th, 2018 as a tribute to International Women’s Day. It aims to bring together the rising number of South Asian women entrepreneurs and professionals at the Grand Convention Centre in Brampton. Funds from the proceeds will go towards a homeless youth shelter. 

“Volunteering gives the chance to not just change one’s own life but also someone else’s”, says Bhuvneet. Good to see the baton pass on to younger hands.


This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series. Writers interested in participating are encouraged to join the NCM Collective for an opportunity.

Published in Top Stories

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Sometimes, small things point to large changes.

During my short visit last week to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of that country’s leading political scientists to talk about terrorism and PVE – i.e. Preventing Violent Extremism, the newest iteration of CVE – Countering Violent Extremism.

We had a wide-ranging chat in his book-lined office and I also learned that he had studied at Carleton University in Ottawa just before I became a sessional instructor in linguistics at that institution.  Small world indeed. Our conversation was very illuminating, especially when it came to the topic of a shift in Islamic influence in Bangladesh.

So, what was that ‘small thing’?  You may see this as insignificant, but I think it speaks volumes.  There is apparently a tendency in Bangladesh these days to replace the everyday phrase ‘khoda hafez’ (literally ‘may God protect you’ but colloquially used to mean ‘goodbye’) with ‘allah hafez’. 

The difference, of course, is the substitution of the Arabic word for God (‘Allah’) for the Persian one (‘khoda’). 

This tiny shift is nothing less than a sign of the invasion of conservative, intolerant Sunni Islam into the former East Pakistan (more on that later).

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.[/quote]

Bangladeshi Islam has traditionally been Sunni of the Hanafi school with an important influence from Sufi interpretations of the faith.  The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.  Several terrorist attacks and assassinations have been attributed to Salafi jihadists in the past few years. 

The victims have come from communities which the Salafis see as enemies (in truth, a very long list): Sufis, Shia, non-Muslims (Hindus, Christians), gays…  Perhaps the most serious attack – in what has been called Bangladesh’s ‘9/11’ – was the July 1, 2016 massacre of non-Muslims at a cafe in Dhaka, an operation masterminded by a Canadian terrorist from Windsor, Ontario.

The uptick in violence has many Banglas worried.  Everyone with whom I spoke – government agencies, the UN, academics – are all concerned about where this violence is headed. 

And, it is not only among the Salafi jihadis that violence is being promoted.  Political parties too are jumping on the bandwagon.  It does not help that power in the country has been seesawing over the past decade between two female-led parties that routinely gang up on the other once in office.  The current government, led by the Awami League, has also given in to some outrageous ideas by radical Islamists, such as a demand to remove a statue of Lady Justice from the grounds of the Supreme Court. This ‘dalliance’ with extremists is not helpful.

The apparent sanction of violence in the name of religion threatens to lead to more deaths. 

Bangladesh faces a difficult decision in the run up to national elections next year.  The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can continue to do deals with the Salafis in order to court their support, but this will only cause more hardship and maintain the transformation of tolerant Bangladeshi Islam to intolerant Salafism. 

At the same time, the regime has to confront the serious Islamist extremist (i.e. terrorist) threat, but must do so while keeping human rights in mind.  The elite Rapid Action Battalion, a counter terrorism body, has been criticised by some rights groups for extra-judicial killings and disappearances.

Bangladesh was born in a bloody civil war in 1971 when the former East Pakistan split from what we now call Pakistan.  The powers that be in Islamabad were not too happy with the independence desires of the eastern half of a country – geographically separated by India in between – and engaged in a slaughter whose victims are estimated at anywhere from 300,000 to three million people. 

In fact, trials of those responsible for the massacre are still being held these days.  It would be truly tragic if another wave of violence is on the horizon. 

But back to that change in ‘goodbye’.  Salafis hate the Shia more than any other group and believe that the only good Shia is a dead one.  Their intolerance has even extended to rejecting a Bangla phrase that contains a Farsi (Persian) word (recall that most Persians are Shia Muslims) for an Arabic one (NB linguistically this  makes little sense: Bangla and Farsi are related Indo-European languages whereas Arabic is a non-related Semitic language). 

This may sound silly and trivial, but sometimes we do have to pay attention to the small things in life.


Phil Gurski worked in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 30 years.  His latest book, The Lesser Jihads, will be published on September 15.

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 05 May 2016 23:15

How Well Do We Know Our Kids?

Commentary by Hasan Zillur Rahim in San Jose, California
 
Five days after the bodies of Golam Rabbi, 59, and Shamima Rabbi, 57, were discovered at their home in San Jose, California, about three hundred friends and relatives gathered at the Five Pillars cemetery in Livermore on a Friday to bury the couple. With the sun on our back and a brisk breeze blowing, we prayed for their forgiveness and salvation as the bodies were lowered into the grave next to one another while the Imam recited verses from the Quran.
 
Police have charged the couple’s two sons, Hasib Golamrabbi, 22, and Omar Golamrabbi, 17, with homicide. Both pleaded not guilty to the April 23 murders at their arraignment.
 
I knew the Rabbis for over two decades as Bangladeshi immigrants who worshiped at the same mosques. We were members of the Evergreen Islamic Center, where Golam, an engineer, and Shamima, an accountant, volunteered their services. Soft-spoken, humble and generous, they radiated peace. Friends sought Golam’s advice on how to grow the perfect apple or peach, drawing on his extensive knowledge of gardening. He often brought his two sons to the mosque to pray next to him. Although I found them rather reserved, nothing seemed amiss or foreboding.
 
Ever since 9/11, Muslim-Americans have been stereotyped as jihadists and extremists, and found themselves in the cross-hairs of politicians and presidential candidates like Donald Trump, who would stand to gain from such labeling. We have been under siege for home-grown terrorists like those responsible for the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings and the San Bernardino attacks in 2015.
 
But this macabre murder is a darker development in which young people have allegedly turned on their own family. Every parent’s nightmare is that their children will kill themselves due to depression, anxiety, stress, or emotional rage, or get killed in gang fights, or wind up in jail, or most frighteningly, run away to join ISIS, as did a teenager from Virginia last year.
 
Added to these fears now is the fear of violence being turned on the family itself, causing a despair bordering on fatalism.
 
A week after the killings, a few Bangladeshi-American families in the Evergreen area met to try to make sense of what had happened. After a lot of anguished back and forth, we concluded that we only had a superficial relationship with our children, other than constantly worrying about them. We led our lives and they led theirs, with the occasional intersection that didn’t mean much. We didn’t know what animated them, whether they felt alienated from us, or what they wanted to do with their lives. 
 
[quote align="center" color="#999999"][W]e concluded that we only had a superficial relationship with our children,[/quote]
 
In the end, we resolved to be more involved in the lives of our children, not as parents but as friends. And not just with our kids, but with the kids of our community. 
 
It is impossible to fathom what Hasib and Omar had been thinking prior to their alleged roles in the killings. A recent Instagram posting by Omar offers a clue: “I always hated myself. Not sure what I am doing here.” 
 
Another clue scrawled on the wall and the floor of the Rabbi home (police have matched the writings to the brothers) is yet more chilling: “Sorry my first kill was clumsy,” and, “I can’t be like you telling a lie … I can’t love someone without telling them.”
 
While the Quran does not directly address the issue of patricide and matricide, it talks extensively about mercy and forgiveness. “My mercy encompasses all,” says a verse, complemented by a saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “My (that is, God’s) mercy takes precedence over My anger.” Another verse states: “If one is patient in adversity and forgives, this indeed is something to set one’s heart on.”
 
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]In the end, we resolved to be more involved in the lives of our children, not as parents but as friends.[/quote]
 
But while mercy and forgiveness are pertinent for the wider public, it should be remorse and repentance for the alleged perpetrators. The Quran says: “Those who committed evil deeds and then repented afterwards, surely your Lord is forgiving and merciful.”
 
Are the sons feeling any remorse? Are they repenting?
 
We have no way of knowing, unless they themselves disclose what is in their hearts.
 
No matter how noble the instincts of mercy, forgiveness and repentance may be, however, they will not override the imperatives of justice. San Jose Deputy District Attorney Matt Braker has said, “there are some unanswered questions to this case. Police are working tirelessly to answer those questions and to ensure that both of these victims receive justice."
 
So what can we do as we await the trial? Perhaps the answer is contained in one of the verses that the Imam recited after we had buried the Rabbis: “Our Lord! Lay not on us a burden greater than we have strength to bear.”
Hasan ZIlur Rahim is a professor of Mathematics at San Jose City College. He emigrated from Bangladesh to the U.S. four decades ago.
 
− by arrangement with New America Media
Published in Commentary

by Sharif Hasan (@sharifhasan80) in Ottawa

Canadian retailers and governments appear to have learned some lessons following the tragic Rana Plaza Factory collapse in April 2013, but much more is needed to protect the health and safety of garment workers overseas, say Canadian activists.

The accident, considered to be the worst in garment industry history in the world, killed more than 1,110 people and injured around 2,500 in Savar, on the outskirts of the Bangladesh capital city Dhaka. April 24 marks the second anniversary of the collapse.

Some of the Canadian retailers that source their textile products from the factories in Bangladesh came forward to help the victims and their families immediately after the disaster.

The retailers, as well as the Canadian government, have also launched some initiatives to establish a safe working environment for the millions of workers in Bangladesh, but labour and human rights organizations and activists feel that a great deal of work is yet to be done.

Canadian Retailers’ Social Responsibility

Emily Norgang, a senior researcher at the Canadian Labour Congress, the national voice of the Canadian labor movement, says Canadian retailers need to play a more active role.

“All the Canadian brands that import garments from Bangladesh should not forget their social responsibility. They must come forward to contribute to the Rana Plaza fund,” she says.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][O]nly one Canadian company – Loblaws – has contributed to the fund, out of the 130 Canadian retailers that buy garment products from the factories in Bangladesh.[/quote]

After the collapse, an international trust fund was created to support the survivors and the families of those who died in the accident. The fund reached $21 million US, but is still $19 million short of its target.

According to the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund list, only one Canadian company – Loblaws – has contributed to the fund, out of the 130 Canadian retailers that buy garment products from the factories in Bangladesh. 

Bangladesh is the second largest garment exporter in the world. More than four million people work in the apparel sector and 80 per cent of them are women. Most of the workers earn an average of $68 US per month.

Fight for Compensation

Repon Chowdhury is the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation, an NGO dedicated to workers’ rights. He says a lot of money is needed to run the compensation and rehabilitation program.

Almost two years have passed, but the victims’ families haven’t received the compensation money yet. There are more than 2,000 permanently disabled workers who have to be taken care of as well,” he explains.

After the Rana Plaza tragedy, international retailers and labour unions developed two major initiatives to prevent a similar catastrophe.

One is the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the other is the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Both agreements are aimed at ensuring garment products are being sourced from regularly audited and unionized factories.

At present, the Accord includes 166 international retailers, while the Alliance includes 26 from North America.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We have our responsibility towards the workers who make clothes for the Canadians. We must not turn a blind eye to the welfare of millions of workers in Bangladesh.” - Emily Norgang, Canadian Labour Congress[/quote]

The majority of Canadian retailers have not responded to the call of the international labour organizations to join the agreements as well.

Out of the 130 Canadian retail companies with ties to Bangladesh, only Loblaws and Brüzer Sportsgear Ltd have signed the Accord.

“We have our responsibility towards the workers who make clothes for the Canadians,” Norgang says. “We must not turn a blind eye to the welfare of millions of workers in Bangladesh.”

Norgang adds that the Canadian government should step forward to make the retailers behave more responsibly.

“The government has to insist the retailers disclose the names of the factory suppliers and the workers’ safety and welfare related information.”  

Canadians Should Demand Regulations

New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament (MP) Matthew Kellway represents the Bangladeshi-Canadian populated Beaches-East York riding in Toronto and says the government must intervene to establish ethical sourcing of textile products.

Kellway visited the Rana Plaza site last year and was moved by the suffering of the low-paid garment workers.

He tabled a motion in Parliament in May 2014, asking for information with regard to suppliers of garments and textiles imported from other countries.

He says he was surprised to find that more than a dozen federal government departments and agencies, such as the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard had no clue where their uniforms came from.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]There should be laws to monitor the global supply chain of the retailers so that factories without proper safety measures cannot operate. That’s how we can try to prevent another Rana Plaza tragedy.” - Matthew Kellway, NDP MP[/quote]

The government must make a policy that ensures that Canadian retailers and government agencies are not buying any clothes that are made in an unsafe factory or by using child labour, he adds.

“We must ensure there is transparency and accountability in the sourcing of garment products,” he says. “There should be laws to monitor the global supply chain of the retailers so that factories without proper safety measures cannot operate. That’s how we can try to prevent another Rana Plaza tragedy.”

Kellway commends the government’s participation in an international effort to improve working conditions in the ready-made garment sector of Bangladesh, saying it is a good step.

The International Labour Organization is implementing a project jointly funded by Canada, the Netherlands and the U.K. to provide rehabilitation and skills training for the Rana Plaza victims and to also help Bangladesh build its capacity to ensure the factories are safe.

The Canadian government could put pressure on Bangladeshi garment manufacturers and exporters by setting a standard that they must meet if they want to qualify for Canada’s existing tariff concession program, Kellway explains.

Under the tariff concession program, Bangladesh and other developing countries enjoy an 18 per cent duty advantage for apparel export in Canada.

“This is not to put Bangladesh in trouble but to create a pressure on the factory owners so that they make a serious effort to improve working conditions for the workers,” Kellway says.

“This will also give a message to the retailers that the Canadian government wants them to play their part in creating safe and appropriate working conditions in Bangladesh. It’s a long way and we all must act.”


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Published in International
Monday, 26 January 2015 13:55

OPartheeb: In Search of Roots

by Sharif Hasan (@sharifhasan80) in Ottawa

Kicked out of the house where they held jamming sessions because neighbours complained of too much noise. No place to practise. No car to carry the modest number of instruments they had. But none of that could stand in their way.

They are five young musicians, who make up the Ottawa-based Bengali musical band, OPartheeb, and their come-up story is one of passion and perseverance. It drove them to find their roots through music.

Asfin Haidar, one of the band’s vocalists says music has greatly connected them, not only with each other, but also a wider group of Bangladeshi Canadians.

“For me it’s a rediscovery of myself. I don’t want a name, fame or money. It gives me a certain meaning to my life,” she shares.

To date, the band members have not received any payments from any shows, nor have they been able to produce their own album yet, though they are working on one.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Our spirit was renewed by the Shahbag Movement that took place back home in February last year. ... We are now more committed to doing music that upholds our culture and history.” - Salehin Chowdhury[/quote]

One of their tracks, “Roktorin”, has been included on a mixed album titled Songs from Shahbag, which features patriotic songs from Bangladeshi artists and bands residing all over the world. The album’s songs are reflective of The Shahbag Movement, a non-partisan movement carried out by pro-liberation online activists, student bodies and members of the Bangladesh civil society who demand capital punishment for the war criminals of the country’s War of Independence in 1971. Keeping with this theme, Opartheeb’s track, the title meaning “blood debt”, urges the Bangladeshis to wake up once again and fight until the war criminals are annihilated.

“Our spirit was renewed by the Shahbag Movement that took place back home in February last year,” says Salehin Chowdhury, the band’s lead guitarist and vocalist. “We were so moved and shaken by the phenomenon. We are now more committed to doing music that upholds our culture and history.”

Connections through music

OPartheeb’s band members all met while studying at Carleton University, though they were each in different programs. Three of them came to Canada as international students, while the other two came here with their parents as young kids and grew up in Ottawa.

“Music brought us together,” says Syed Ahsan Ali, the band’s bass guitarist, whose younger brother Syed Adnan Ali plays the drums. “I didn’t know them quite well. I saw them on campus occasionally, but we never hung out. One day we talked about music and that changed everything.”

During a cultural event organized by the Carleton University Bangladeshi Students Association in 2008, Ahsan Ali  and Aad-Yean Faisal, another fellow Bangladeshi student, met Chowdhury, who came to Carleton to do his Masters in Statistics; he learned music back home. When Chowdhury first arrived in Canada, he was homesick and discouraged, but music helped change that.

Watch OPartheeb perform at a culture show hosted by Carleton University Bangladeshi Students Association:

[youtube height="315" width="560"]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VKKbSUgtDg&feature=youtu.be[/youtube]

After realizing their like-minded interests in music, the three students decided to form a group. Soon after Adnan Ali joined them.

“We started, but we had nothing,” explains Adnan Ali. “We saved every penny to buy a guitar, a drum set or a piece of equipment. We had to take bus to practice in the basements of our houses. People complained about the noise and we had to shift our locations. It [was] a lot of struggle.”

In addition to their music, they had to juggle the demands of part-time jobs to support themselves and their schoolwork. But they didn’t give up, thanks to their love for music, their language and culture.

“I did night shifts at a gas station and saved money for buying a keyboard for the band,” says Faisal, who is a keyboardist and vocalist. “And it’s paid off. Members of our community want us to play, they want us to promote our culture within the community and beyond.”

Breaking new ground

Today, OPartheeb plays all kinds of Bengali music ranging from folk songs to Tagores to modern day band music, along with the band’s original compositions.

The group took to the stage for the first time in February 2009. The performance at the Bangladesh Student Association’s annual program was a huge hit.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I can’t stop imagining it – playing in front of a crowd of 20,000 people in Dhaka or Chittagong.” - Salehin Chowdhury[/quote]

Since then OPartheeb has done 14 shows, including shows at Carleton and ones organized by various local Bangladeshi social and cultural organizations. The band members agree their appearance at Ottawa’s South Asian Cultural Festival in 2012 has been the biggest break so far.

OPartheeb plans to tour and perform for Bangladeshi communities in major cities across Canada, but it is a shared dream of all the members to be able to perform in Bangladesh one day: “I can’t stop imagining it –,” says Chowdhury, his eyes lighting up as he speaks, “… playing in front of a crowd of 20,000 people in Dhaka or Chittagong.”

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Published in Arts & Culture

by Sharif Hasan (@sharifhasan80) in Ottawa

If the latest spring fashions are not in store to cheer Canadians at the end of yet another dreary winter, little noticed events in Bangladesh could be a plausible reason.

The South Asian country finds itself in the midst of another political standoff in the New Year affecting all economic activities including the export of garments for popular brands.

Trouble began when the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) announced a rally to observe the first anniversary of last year’s January 5 election, which it boycotted, as “Death of Democracy Day”.

The government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party, which was planning a “Victory Day of Democracy” to mark the occasion, responded by banning the protest and locking up BNP leader Khaleda Zia in her office. Violent clashes between activists of the ruling party and the BNP ensued leading to several deaths. 

“It’s so frustrating! We have our family and friends there. Anyone can get killed or wounded anytime,” said Salehin Chowdhury, an employee of Statistics Canada. “The economy was thriving, but the political turmoil is going to spoil everything.”

These fears are justified as the political unrest has been hurting industry badly, especially the garment sector, which has been struggling to meet buyers’ deadlines. Around 80 per cent of the country’s export earnings come from garments.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 put our garments industry into big trouble, but with help from government and other organizations we have slowly recovered. And now this political unrest has created new pressure for us.” - Abu Talib, President of Zubi Fashion [/quote]

The country’s GDP growth was estimated at 6.1 per cent for the fiscal year ending with June 2014, half a percentage point higher than what the Asian Development Bank had projected. For 2015, the projection is higher at 6.4 per cent on the hope that private sector investment will pick up given some political stability.

“If we cannot meet the buyers’ deadlines, we’re going to lose it all again,” said Abu Talib, the President of Zubi Fashion, who lives in Montreal and operates a buying house in Dhaka. “The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 put our garments industry into big trouble, but with help from government and other organizations we have slowly recovered. And now this political unrest has created new pressure for us,” Talib added.

The tragedy Talib referred to was the collapse of a building housing many garment factories that killed 1,129 people. It got prominent media attention here in Canada as many local fashion brands were being produced in these factories.

Economists estimate that a day's shutdown of economic activity shaves 0.9 per cent off the country’s gross domestic product a year at market price. Political unrest, like the current standoff, also affects foreign remittance and foreign direct investment. Last year the economy could have done better, but for 53 strikes and 19 blockades.

History of violent politics

Unfortunately, this year looks no better as both the warring parties seem unable to overcome their history of confrontational and violent politics. The BNP wants fresh elections to be held under a non-partisan caretaker government, while the Awami League insists it will continue in office for its entire term that is to end in 2019.

According to the constitution of Bangladesh, the general election is held after every five years. Following a Supreme Court judgement, the caretaker government system was repealed in 2011 and Awami League remained in power when the election was held in January 2014.

Awami League leaders have been saying that BNP made a mistake by not participating in the election and now will have to wait four more years.

Prime Minister Hasinahas dismissed the possibility of any dialogue with the BNP, saying the party was just trying to save war criminals in the name of a political movement.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]As there are no signs of any moves to solve the political crisis, the people of Bangladesh are bracing for more trouble in the days to come. While the projected economic pickup seems unlikely, Canadians would understand that missed fashion deadlines are of lessor concern under these circumstances.[/quote]

The war criminals issue has been at the heart of the confrontation between the two parties ever since the country’s violent birth in 1971. The unsettled questions include the one about who was on which side in the movement for liberation from Pakistan.

To settle those questions the Awami League government in 2008 set up war tribunals that have dispensed speedy verdicts including the death sentence to several in the senior leadership of the anti-Liberation Jamaat-e-Islami party and life terms to others including BNP leaders. Predictably, these verdicts have proved divisive.

By using the state power, Awami League has so far been successful to foil the political programs of BNP, but it has not been able to restore law and order in the country.

The BNP on its part has failed to convert its struggle into a mass movement and has alienated itself from majority of the public because it is in league with the Jamaat. The corruption charges against its leader’s elder son, Tareq Zia, is another factor against it.

While Awami League enjoys popular support by being the party that helped gain independence, members of the civil society are critical of its handling of last year’s election. With almost all other major parties boycotting the election, the Awami League  won 154 of the 300 parliamentary seats uncontested and went on to form a government for the second consecutive term with two-third majority.

As there are no signs of any moves to solve the political crisis, the people of Bangladesh are bracing for more trouble in the days to come. While the projected economic pickup seems unlikely, Canadians would understand that missed fashion deadlines are of lessor concern under these circumstances.


An M.A. English Literature graduate from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sharif Hasan became a campus journalist while doing his undergraduate degree there. He worked as the Social and Cultural Affairs Editor at the weekly Aajkal, a Bangladeshi-Canadian community newspaper based in Toronto for a year before moving to Ottawa this September. Sharif is now doing his Master’s in Journalism at Carleton University. He continues to contribute to Bangladeshi dailies in English, namely The Daily Sun and Dhaka Tribune.

This commentary was produced under NCM's mentoring program, which pairs immigrant journalists with NCM Editors.

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Published in South Asia

by Our Special Correspondent

Politically-mobilized diaspora communities have the potential to act as “spoilers'” in conflict resolution and post-war reconciliation in their home countries, Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the UN in Geneva has said.

Ravinatha Aryasinha told the first-ever Diaspora Ministerial Conference in Geneva last week that Sri Lanka offered an instructive example, of both the scope as well as the complexities encountered in the nexus between diaspora, home state and host states.

 Aryasinha’s warning came as the International Organisation for Migration said earning the trust of diaspora populations is the singular challenge it put before governments, organizations and others working with these communities.

“Knowledge about diasporas is not sufficient to foster collaboration; the foundation of effective engagement strategies is trust building,” a background paper for the conference said.

The Sri Lankan ambassador said politically mobilized pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora sustain hatred and prevent reconciliation and that meaningful engagement was not possible with groups having such a pre-disposition.

Noting that the transnational political opportunity structures prevalent in host states help shape and sustain such diaspora activism, Aryasinha said countries that continue to condone the hostility and disruptive tendencies shown by such elements are giving a wrong signal.

He cautioned that while in general the diaspora can play significant roles in developing their country of origin, in the case of countries that remain conflict affected or have recently emerged from protracted conflict, the academic discourse clearly demonstrates that diaspora are rarely autonomous actors.

They are known to be compelled by organized networks to fund, arm, engage in propaganda and be electoral vote blocks in host countries, there-by having the potential to act as “spoilers” in conflict resolution and post-conflict reconciliation in their home states.

He said there are ample instances where even when home states might want to end a conflict or pursue reconciliation, diaspora resist such moves, for it is not their sons and daughters who die, and often keeping the pot boiling in the home states helps them retain greater leverage, particularly in their quest to legally reside or gain citizenship in their host country.

Aryasinha said we should recognize the complexity of this challenge, acknowledge the pre-disposition among some diaspora categories to make meaningful engagement difficult, and try to explore modalities through which both home and host states could better influence diaspora in processes of conflict resolution, reconciliation and development in their home states.

Call for Jewish forum

In news about the actual Diaspora that lent the word to describe immigrant communities, the Jewish People Policy Institute recommended in its 2013 Annual Assessment that Israel should establish a forum for regular consultations to discuss matters that could affect Jewish communities worldwide. The Israel-based think tank presented its report in Jerusalem this week.

With regards to Jewish identity, the report states that programs like “Birthright” and “Massa” are having a positive effect on the younger generation, despite the trend of weakening identification of people of Jewish descent with the Jewish people.

“Today's young generation sees the link with the Jewish People and the State of Israel as an option, for them this is a choice of being Jewish," Einat Wilf, one of the reports contributors, said. "Despite the fact that the trend is negative, there are indications that this is changing, we see that the different programs are having an effect."

Diaspora bonds planned

Money talks and bonds people together. The country which attracts the most remittances from its diaspora is planning to issue “diaspora bonds”.

India, which received $ 69 billion in remittances in 2012 [followed by China at $ 60 billion] as per a World Bank report, is considering the bonds to funds its infrastructure sector.

Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi said New Delhi is examining longer-term investment instruments for overseas Indians so that the community can participate and benefit from India's "growth story".

"The bulk of diaspora investments are in portfolio investments of a short-term nature. We are considering longer term investment instruments like 'diaspora bonds' to provide opportunities for overseas Indians," Ravi told the 5th biennial Jamaican diaspora conference.

Overseas Indians worldwide are brand ambassadors and produce an economic output of about $ 400 billion, Ravi said. While India's growth story so far has been driven primarily by its domestic industry, the diaspora holds far greater potential, he said.

"The cumulative Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by Non Resident Indians is a modest $10 billion constituting less than five per cent of the total FDI in India,” he said. Lauding achievements of about 25 million overseas Indians spread across 130 countries, he said the community can serve as an "important bridge" between the "home" and the world.

Visa bonds decried

In news about another kind of bonds, a British proposal to slap £3,000 visa bonds for visitors from targeted non-white Commonwealth countries has attracted the expected flak.

The pilot scheme will initially cover India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Ghana.

“They have been designated ‘high-risk’ countries, from which visitors aged over 18 on six-month visit visas will be forced to pay the £3,000 from November. The countries are being targeted by the Home Office because of the high volume of visitor visa applications and relatively high levels of fraud and abuse,” The Sunday Times newspaper said.

The plan was in disarray Monday after the Liberal Democrats, part of the ruling coalition, denied the policy had been formally agreed and Indian businesses accused Britain of discriminating against them.

The pilot scheme, announced over the weekend by the home secretary, forms part of wider Conservative Party efforts to bring down net migration to less than 100,000 by the next election.

As the coalition quibbled over the status of the policy, Indian business groups and would-be tourists responded with outrage to the idea.

The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) was one of the first organizations to hit out, saying the bond was “highly discriminatory and very unfortunate.”

“The suggested changes are not only discriminatory they are also against the ‘special relationship’ publicised by the U.K. government,” a CII spokesperson said. “We share U.K.’s concern on illegal immigration but surely there are other more effective and non-discriminatory ways to put a check on it.”

On social media, a flurry of angry Tweets from Indians made pointed references to Britain’s two centuries of colonial rule over India, and suggested New Delhi impose a reciprocal measure on British visitors.

“UK wants a bond of £3,000 for a visa. We should do the same. Their citizens often overstay their welcome here,” Ian Pereira, a professional photographer, tweeted. -- New Canadian Media

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