In the last three decades, about 10.8 lakh female workers migrated to different countries. Many wound up working as domestic help in the Middle East and are often subjected to abuse and exploitation. Beli Begum’s story is, perhaps, an outlier. A female migrant who lived through jobs in ME, but found a way to Athens and became a haleem entrepreneur.
In an alleyway known as ‘Bangla Goli’ in Athens, Greece, the strong aroma of haleem fills the air from 3 pm to 11 pm every day. It happens the moment when Beli Begum, a Bangladeshi vendor, removes the lid of her haleem pot to generously serve her paying customers.
Haleem, essential to the Ramadan menu in Bangladesh, is Beli Begum’s ticket to a better life albeit far from her homeland and family. After a difficult and uncertain journey crossing borders through the Middle East, 47-year-old Begum seems to have found her calling and respite selling haleem in Athens for the last three years.
Bangla Goli, true to its name, mirrors the streets of Dhaka. Makeshift shops, vendors and eateries with Bangla names have mushroomed on this street over the years. Even the walls have Bangla leaflets plastered on them.
Beli Begum’s customers are mainly Bangladeshi migrant workers like herself but she often gets Greek, Albanian and other European customers as well.
“I am happy with whatever the Almighty has given me in Greece. In the mornings I cook, [and] then I sell the haleem till late at night and then go home. Nobody tells me what to do or how, I am my own boss,” said Beli Begum.
From her tiny room in Athens, in a video call over IMO, she shared with The Business Standard how she ended up in Greece and her future plans; her only wish is to go for Hajj once she saves up enough money and returns to her village in Faridpur, Bangladesh.
Beli Begum’s life is a glimpse into the lives of hundreds of migrant workers who work hard for the families they left behind in Bangladesh. They swarm the streets of foreign countries, hoping to find work and earn enough to send money back home.
Bangladeshi migrants currently send home about $98.22 million in remittances from Greece every year.
A road less travelled
This is not Beli Begum’s first time as a migrant worker, she has worked in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon as domestic help. The political and social conflicts in Lebanon caused her to leave and her owner was paying her small amounts in Lira (Lebanese pound), which did not help much.
But she has finally settled into a life, which does not include any forms of abuse or exploitation.
According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), this year alone, 76,579 women have gone overseas for jobs till August, with an average of 9,572 migrations per month. And between 1991 and August this year, about 10.8 lakh female workers migrated to different countries, according to BMET.
Most female migrants wound up working as domestic help, especially in the Middle East and often are subjected to severe abuse and exploitation.
But Beli Begum’s story is different, perhaps an outlier.
Beli Begum lives alone in Athens. Her neighbour is a Bangladeshi family with children, who could be heard in the background during the video call. The rent is around Tk30,000 to Tk35,000 every month.
Back in Faridpur, she has a large family of two sons, a daughter and a swarm of grandchildren. Her husband has been suffering from mental illness for a long time, prompting her to leave Bangladesh and find income sources to run her family.
“Happy women do not leave their homes and fly all the way to a different country for work. I worked so many jobs over the years that I cannot remember them all. I had no option other than to come abroad. This is how I raised my children and now they are all grown up,” she shared with us.
She came to Greece via Lebanon three years ago in 2019 and it cost her around Tk6 lakhs to pay the agents (dalal). “From Lebanon, I came to Greece by road. Sometimes I walked, sometimes I rode a car.”
At first, she worked at the homes of affluent Bangladeshis for a few months. “No matter where I went, I received a lot of warmth from fellow Bangladeshis. They helped me in any way they could and they still do,” she said.
After discussing with her brother, who has a haleem-selling business in Faridpur, she thought of doing the same in Athens. “He shared with me the recipe, told me how to cook proper haleem and with Allah’s blessings I began,” she said.
If a bowl of haleem costs Tk50, the making cost is around Tk20 and she can keep the other 30. She buys the ingredients fresh from local Bangladeshi shops and cooks them every day. She said her sales volume is fairly good now for her to get by.
She generally has the most sales on weekends. Beli Begum works every day. Only when it rains or snows, she stays home because the streets become empty.
It is still difficult for her to manage everyday things because she is yet to become fluent in Greek. “Learning Greek will help me communicate with locals and just improve my overall situation,” she said.
Although she has learnt to live away from home and away from people she loves, she still misses them on Eids and special occasions. One person, however, she cannot forget is her mother who died a few years ago.
Before coming to Greece, she stayed in Faridpur only for her mother who, like her husband, became mentally unstable and required constant care.
“I can adjust to any kind of hardship in life but when I think of my mother, I cannot stop crying,” she said while wiping tears from her eyes.
At present, there are approximately 30,000 Bangladeshis living in Greece and half are believed to be without legal status, according to the Bangladesh embassy in Athens.
On 21 July this year, Greece decided to legalise at least 15,000 undocumented Bangladeshis residing there and annually recruit at least 4,000 workers.
Beli Begum is now anxiously waiting to get a call from the embassy. She has submitted her papers for legal documentation.
Once she gets the legal papers, she will be able to go to Bangladesh, something she has been longing for. With a work licence, she can open up her own food shop and expand her business. “I want to open a small shop and sell all kinds of Bangladeshi street snacks – fuchka, chotpoti, shingara etc.”