“The first time I heard an explosion I cried, I thought that one day I will die, but if I go home, seven people will die.” Mohammed Jaman, young Bangladeshi worker in Kirkuk.
Before the war against ISIL began, huge numbers of Bangladeshis were coming to Iraq for work. Companies from Bangladesh charge anywhere from $2000 to $6000 to fly them to Iraq and find them a job. Before landing the company promises a monthly salary of $600: once work begins, they find the reality is a mere $200 per month. Workers are unable to quit because the money is not what was promised, as the hiring company holds their passport. In Kirkuk, northern Iraq, many find work collecting trash. They live in large compounds and work up to 13 hours a day, 7 days a week for $400 per month.
“I do miss my family but there is nothing I can do, I must make money to help them,” Abdullah Mohammed says, suppressing tears. His story involves four months incarceration as he attempted to leave Iraq for Iran, before managing to enter the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, where he risked arrest because his passport had been lost during his spell in prison. Eventually he paid $600 to be smuggled to Kirkuk.
“Since I am not able to leave, it is impossible for me to get a new passport because the Bangladeshi embassy is located in Baghdad.” The local government in Kirkuk have given him and others in a similar situation permission to remain and work. Abdullah works with a company that cleans the streets.
Kirkuk is famously ethnically and linguistically diverse. Abdullah is Muslim like the majority of townspeople. “It is not easy to live in a complete different city and to deal with different minds. I’ve had to learn several languages and deal with different cultures.” He understands a little of each language spoken in Kirkuk – Arabic, Kurdish and Iraqi Turkmen are the most common, but there are also speakers of Assyrian and Armenian.
“If one day I pass away, at least there might be someone to know about my life story.” Mohammed used to write, recording every moment he spends in Kirkuk, and everything he has gone through to provide money for his family. “In 2014 ISIL got closer, and my fear was that if they reached Kirkuk, we would have been beheaded. They don’t know what our role in Kirkuk is.” After years working on streets, he feels safer in his new job. “I found another job in a restaurant. I have been allowed to stay there.”
“I don’t need a passport, I need money,” says Akbar Ahmed, another trash collector. “The company was not truthful, and I have to continue living in a dangerous place and stay patient. It is painful for citizens of Kirkuk themselves to have fear, how about a person who is new to the city and does not know the language?”
There are around 540 trash collectors in Kirkuk. The work in two groups, and are provided with two communal living areas by their employer. Once a week they treat themselves to their favourite meal of fish, and they keep in touch with their families using messaging apps.
Despite the long hours, low pay and worrying security situation, the Bangladeshis agree that this is the best way to support their families.