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When Hamida Parvin returned home to Bangladesh for a month's holiday from her job as a nanny in Qatar last February, she was excited to see her 17-year-old son after a year apart.

But the COVID-19 crisis suddenly escalated, flights were cancelled and Parvin's holiday joy soon became a nightmare "scramble for survival" as she scoured for ways to ensure her family had enough to eat and a roof over their heads.

"I went mad looking for jobs ... nobody was hiring," the 35-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a small cafe in the capital, Dhaka, where she works as a chef - the family's main source of income as her diabetic husband is often unwell.

Hamida Parvin, 35, who returned from Qatar at the start of the pandemic failed to find a job in Bangladesh and had to spend almost all her savings to support her family. She has been working as a chef since January at a café that hires female migrants impacted by the pandemic in Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 24, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan.

"My husband is sick and he can't work for long hours, so my savings went down to zero. Despite working for so many years, I am not sure if I can even pay the 7,000 taka ($82.50) fee that my son needs to sit for his upcoming school exams."

The cafe in the corner of a training centre for migrants seats about a dozen people. It is run by the Bangladesh Nari Sramik Kendra, a women's rights group that employs women who lost their jobs abroad due to the pandemic.

Parvin fries samosas and puris for breakfast and cooks rice, fish and chicken for lunch for Bangladeshis learning to speak Arabic or fix motors before applying for a job abroad.

"The NGO started this women's cafe to give us a livelihood and also to train us to become better entrepreneurs," said Parvin, the walls behind her dotted with colourful charts with tips on business and how to become financially resilient.

Migrant workers who returned from abroad due to the pandemic receive training from Bangladesh Nari Sramik Kendra (BNSK), a women's rights group that employs women who lost their jobs abroad due to the pandemic in Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 24, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan

"I follow what they say and I don't think I have disappointed any of my customers so far."       

She earns 7,000 taka ($80) a month - less than a third of what she earned in Qatar - but considers herself lucky to have a job as one of some 400,000 migrants who returned to Bangladesh during the pandemic, many without receiving their full wages.

The new coronavirus has devastated the labour force in the south Asian nation - one of the world's largest exporters of workers that is heavily reliant on remittances from abroad. 

Prior to the pandemic, nearly 700,000 Bangladeshis got jobs abroad every year, but that fell to about 215,000 last year according to government data.

Parvin was forced to take a month’s leave from her job as a nanny in Qatar because her son was missing her in Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 24, 2021. But now she is stuck due to the pandemic’s restrictions and is desperately waiting for an opening to head back to the Middle East, where she can earn thrice as much as her present job.Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Mohammad Rakibul Hasan.

For jobseekers trapped at home, the situation has been dire.

Bangladesh's garment factories - which account for nearly 80% of exports - have been hard-hit by store closures in Western countries battling high coronavirus infection rates.

As fashion brands cancelled their orders, thousands of garment workers lost their jobs in Bangladesh, the world's second largest clothes supplier. A recent uptick in order hints at a recovery but work remains scarce and debts are mounting.

Fatima Khatun, 22, was laid off twice during the pandemic. She lost her job as a seamstress in a garment factory in March last year and as a packer in the crab industry a few months later, due to Bangladesh’s falling exports that were hit due to the pandemic’s restrictions, in Satkhira, Bangladesh, February 14, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan

After losing her job as a junior worker at a Dhaka garment factory a year ago, Fatima Khatun returned to her village in southern Bangladesh and found work packing crabs for export.

But the 22-year-old was laid off after three months due to low exports. Unemployed since October, Khatun and her parents and three siblings had to cut down on food to survive.

"We don't have enough money. Now we eat meat just once a month. We rarely buy fish and mostly rely on vegetables," she said.  

Unable to find jobs during the pandemic, many Bangladeshi migrants were forced to cut down on their food intake and relied mostly on vegetables instead of meat and fish in the last year. Satkhira, Bangladesh, February 24, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan

University student Masum Billah, 23, is in a similar predicament after losing his job in a Dhaka factory that exported bags last year.

Billah relied on his salary to buy medicine for his mother who suffers from a skin disease and to fund his degree.

Now back in his village in southern Bangladesh, he is looking for employment in a nearby town.

"I have taken a loan to pay for my mother's medicines ... but I don't know how I'll pay my university fees," he said.    "The situation is driving me insane."

Mohammad Masum Billah, 23, was laid off last year as his company’s sales were hit due to the pandemic. He has been looking for a new job ever since but is yet to be hired. Food is scarce for Billah’s family, which now solely depends on his father, a poor day labourer, for survival, Satkhira, Bangladesh, February 14, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan

Debts are a major worry for returning migrants as well.

Nearly 70% of migrants who returned home during the pandemic were unemployed and 55% were in debt in August, according to a survey of some 1,200 returnees by the U.N. migration agency IOM.

While a follow-up survey in March saw a fall in unemployment to 64%, household debt had increased by 13% and migrants reported borrowing more money to pay back loans.

"Before coronavirus, both my husband and I had jobs. We were content. But things have changed a lot," said Shahnaz Begum, who flew back from Saudi Arabia last April after her contract as a housemaid ended.

A year ago, Shahnaz Begum, who used to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia, had high hopes for her children – both of who are studying in High School and are good students. The pandemic, however, pushed her into taking multiple loans and she is afraid she won’t be able to pay her childrens’ school fees, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 24, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan

Her husband, who works as a painter in the construction industry and gets paid per job, also experienced a drop in income during the pandemic as most projects were put on hold.

"Middle-class families like ours were too ashamed to beg for money and that's why we were worse affected (than poorer families) during the lockdown in April," Begum said.

"There were many days when I didn't eat just so that my children could."

Begum, who now earns 300 taka a day stitching masks for three to five days a week, had to take multiple loans from charities totalling 165,000 taka last year to survive.

She earns less than half of what she used to make in Saudi Arabia and the work is not regular. At this rate, she estimates it could take six years to pay back the money she has borrowed.

"We are constantly worried about these loans and the future of our two children," said Begum, adding that she is keen to return to the Middle East as soon as possible, with a few countries, like Saudi Arabia, starting to recruiting workers.

Begum, who previously worked as a seamstress in Jordan, currently makes masks for a charity on a part-time basis. She hopes to get a full-time job soon, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 24, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mohammad Rakibul hasan.

In a bid to support penniless returnees, the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment offered low interest loans last April to help migrants set up businesses, but the scheme has been slow to take off.

When the pandemic forced cook and father-of-three Mohammad Kamruzzaman, 43, home from Kuwait, he applied for a 200,000 taka loan in July to open a small shop.

"It would have been good had I received the money soon after I arrived," he said, standing in front of the tin and bamboo stall in outer Dhaka where he sells food, tea and cigarettes to locals, earning about 400 taka a day.

Mohammad Kamruzzaman, who used to work as a cook in Kuwait, returned home last year after his visa expired and started a small shop in outer Dhaka where he sells tea, chips, cigarettes and fuchka, a food item that’s a favourite among locals in the evenings. He took multiple loans from NGOs and the government to set up the shop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 15, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan.

"But they needed a trade licence and many other documents which I couldn't immediately provide," he said, adding that the delay meant he had to borrow the money from a charity until the government money finally arrived in February.

"I had to use one loan to pay back the other," he said.

Although disbursement of loans was slow initially, the rate has picked up and many migrants are now receiving loans, said Shamsul Alam, a senior officer at the Ministry of Expatriates.

"Many migrants I spoke to say that they either don't know the steps to avail the government loan or that they find it hard to meet the requirements," said Shakirul Islam, head of the migrants rights group Ovibashi Karmi Unnayon Program.

"There needs to be more awareness on this."

Kamruzzaman works on his farm in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 15, 2021. After spending many years in Kuwait as migrant worker, Kamruzzaman returned to Bangladesh during the COVID-19 pandemic. He now produces vegetables, fruits and poultry on a friend’s land and also runs a mini grocery shop beside his farm to adapt to the adverse economic conditions. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan

Despite the difficulty he faced getting the business started, Kamruzzaman said he was happy with his new life.

He also grows eggplants, melons and tomatoes on a plot of land belonging to a friend, and hopes to cash in by selling them at a good price during Ramadan in April when demand is high.

"If this investment works out, I don't think I'll be returning to the Middle East. I am old now and I want to spend some time with my family," he said.

Kamruzzaman stands in his farm in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 15, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan

But Parvin's cafe job is too poorly paid to allow her to stay in Bangladesh with her teenage son and sick husband.

She is looking for a new job in the Middle East via recruitment agencies and want to fly back as soon as possible.

"My monthly salary in Qatar was 25,000 taka," she said.

"I will never be able to earn that much with my education background over here."    

This photo essay is part of the series “COVID-19 The Bigger Picture” supported by the Omidyar Network. Photographers of the Livelihoods in Limbo series are winners of a competition to capture the most powerful images of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on everyday people. To find out more about the photographers and competition click here.

($1 = 84.8000 taka)

Reporter: Naimul Karim
Photographer: Mohammad Rakibul Hasan
Text editing: Katy Migiro
Producers: Amber Milne and Dan Phillips

Photography byMohammad Rakibul Hasan

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