The names of employees in this article have been changed for their protection.
Nobody knows Kawa Avenue in central Duhok, Iraq, like Abhik. He starts sweeping it before dawn, from east to west, so the sun will warm his back as it rises. Abhik says that he can calculate the time of day based on which part of the street he’s sweeping: 6 am at the section between Hamid´s falafel restaurant and Hassan´s hair salon; when he reaches the northern roundabout intersection, it’s probably 7:30 am.
For the past three years, Abhik has watched his hunched shadow lengthen and shorten on the pavement throughout the day as the sun rises and sets. Taking a short break to sip a small cup of sweet tea in the shade of an empty building, Abhik explains how he ended up in Iraqi Kurdistan.
‘In Dhaka I paid $3000 to an agency that promised me a job at Pepsi in Dubai: $500 per month for three years, those were the conditions’, he says. ‘But when we arrived at Dubai´s airport we were told that there was no work, so the company sent us to Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan)’. The 22-year-old says he now earns just $150 a month.
It’s a common story among the hundreds of Bengalis that end up in Erbil, chasing the ‘Dubai Dream’, but ending up in an Iraqi compound that they’re barely allowed to leave.
At 12:30 pm, the street next to the dusty bus station becomes packed with men dressed in fluorescent orange work vests. But Artosh Company’s street cleaners are not bound for Erbil or Suleymaniyah. They're waiting for their company’s bus to take them back for lunch at the compound on the outskirts of Duhok, opposite the amusement park this city is famous for. This part of Iraq's Kurdish Autonomous Region is just an hour’s drive from the Turkish border, but the menu served up to the workers is 100 percent Bengali: beef or chicken depending on the day, but always cooked with curry and accompanied by huge quantities of white rice.
‘The food here is very good,’ says Charbak, 24. The job isn’t what he expected, he says, but at least he doesn’t go hungry the way he used to do in his native town of Bogra, in the north of Bangladesh.
Sitting next to him, Kashi is less upbeat. ‘My parents sold their house to pay the $3000 fee. At $500 per month we would have bought it back in less than a year, but that’s impossible with my current salary’, he complains. He says he manages to put together about $100 home each month to send home. ‘The rest I spend on the phone to chat with my wife and my two children.’
Mainak has just been talking with his wife on the phone. He has been in Duhok for a month, but still hasn’t dared tell her that he’s not a clerk in an office in Dubai but a street cleaner in Iraq.
'How can I tell her? We just got married,’ Mainak says. ‘We had planned that we’d be apart for three years but on my return we could set up our own business and live comfortably’. Like many of his fellow workers, he has spent all of his family’s savings to get here.