On the busy Mirpur Road of Dhanmondi, students mill around outside a standard university building, converted from a shopping mall. Standing out, yet blending in, among the students are several Somali and Nigerians students—a small but growing body adding to foreign students studying at public and private universities in Dhaka.
Far from his home in the northern state of Jigawa in Nigeria, Faisal Muhammad, 26, studies at Daffodil International University (DIU). He has been living in Dhaka since 2015 and has just completed a Master's in public health, specialising in epidemiology. Now, he plans to go on to study for a PhD in health economics at the University of Dhaka. He shares an apartment with four other Nigerians in Mohammadpur.
It was not easy, coming to Bangladesh on a student visa. At the time, there was no Bangladeshi High Commission in Nigeria—Muhammad had to go get a visa all the way from Morocco. When quizzed as to why he decided on Bangladesh, he says, “It is cost-effective to study here as you get good quality education while tuition fees and living costs in Dhaka are affordable. This is why many Nigerian and other African students come here to study.”
Muhammad came to know of DIU through a Nigerian friend who already studied there and who helped him through the application process. Much like Bangladeshi students abroad who help out others apply to their universities in countries in Europe and North America, African students use their networks to apply to universities in Bangladesh, such as DIU, Islamic University of Technology and the University of Information Technology and Sciences. Foreign students are increasingly drawn to private universities over public ones nowadays—according to the latest data available from the University Grants Commission, 1,927 were enrolled in the former and only 355 in the latter in 2016.
Muhammad, for one, does not find the stares and constant requests for photos or selfies in the street, intrusive or offensive. “Bangladeshis love blacks—they're always asking for a picture with me. We are just like celebrities here,” he says, with a laugh. He attributes this to similarities in Nigerian and Bangladeshi culture, such as a shared religion, Islam, and common dietary staples such as rice. When faced with any problems on the streets, Muhammad says a little Bangla ('bhalo achen?') goes a long way. But most of his friends are other Nigerians and Africans, pointing to the fact that for black students, a limited social circle is the norm. Regardless, “Bangladesh is my second home, after Nigeria,” comments Muhammad, who wants to continue to study and work here.
While Dhaka does not pretend to be cosmopolitan, other foreigners, especially Caucasians, are subject to the same stares and requests for photos but, less racially prejudiced. Black people and foreigners from parts of Southeast Asia on the other hand are subject to racist taunts such as “kaula” or “chinku” on the streets of Dhaka. “I have personally seen African football players being harassed on the streets with the words 'kaula' (meaning black, in a derogatory way),” writes a local on an online platform, discussing the prevalence of racism in Bangladesh. For years now, African players have dominated the local football scene, making up a majority of the footballers in the Bangladesh Premier League. But this has failed to change the perceptions of Bangladeshis. Will more and more African students studying here do the trick?
Many locals have a prejudiced view of blacks because African nationals are periodically in the news for police raids searching for those overstaying their visas. This has led to persisting stereotypes of criminality among Africans living in Dhaka. Prejudices abound that black foreigners are more likely to be criminals, illegally staying here, and poorer than their white counterparts. The latter are instead labelled 'expatriates' and thought more likely to be privileged and here legally.
Another Nigerian student at DIU is Ayoola Kehinde Asisat, 26, who has lived in Dhaka since 2013. Sharing an apartment with other students, she has heard of past raids and fears the police here who, she says, do not discriminate between undocumented Africans and innocent students. “We share an apartment so we can split the costs but the police may come at any time to search our place and pat us down,” says Asisat, adding “It makes me afraid to live here.”
African students live like their university counterparts from other parts of Bangladesh, renting apartments near their universities in lower-middle-class and middle-class neighbourhoods—not the 'posh' areas white foreigners are expected to live in. Often up to five or seven in one apartment, they are charged higher rents than usual. Racial prejudice is displayed by landlords and other tenants, reluctant to rent to them.
Asisat and her roommates were told out of the blue by their landlord recently to leave by the end of the month. “He said he's not comfortable with us living there anymore,” she recounts. She is now house hunting.“Yesterday, I went to look at several places in Lalmatia and all of the landlords said they want only married people or families. Or they just say, 'bideshi na', which is what they really mean.” On the other hand, many to-let signs on empty apartments in parts of the city say “Foreigners preferred” but tend to be meant for ‘rich’ whites.
Asisat has had no interaction with her neighbours or locals in the area. “They don't understand English and don't seem to want to talk to foreigners,” she says. But that does not stop them from pointing, staring, gossiping, or laughing at them in the streets. Asisat has encountered this frequently on her way to and from university and the shops, saying that it bothers her that people do not instead just come up and say hello. “If back home, they looked too much, I would just give them a slap. But I can't try that here,” says Asisat wryly.
“Everyone at the university is nice,” she says of DIU where she studies pharmacy. But interaction outside the classroom is limited—she still has no close Bangladeshi friends and her circle, too, is largely made up of other Nigerian students. Prejudices run deep, even among the youth. In Asian countries as a whole, a legacy of European colonialism is perceived as having left lasting impressions of darker skin as indicative of a lower socioeconomic background. Far from the lifestyle of 'expats' for whom there are numerous clubs and restaurants catering exclusively to them, for Asisat, “There is not much to do here. I go to university, study, come back home.” While she says she does not feel unsafe in Dhaka, is she welcome?