I stood on the stone steps in front of the now gray-ish lake in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, and took in my surroundings. “Why can’t we swim?” I asked my cousin. She replied, “It’s too high. Too dangerous. Besides, what fun is it if there’s no one here with us?”
As a South Asian girl growing up in New York City, I have heard the stories of my immigrant parents and the members of my community on what their immigration process to the United States was like. New York City is a haven for Bengalis who seek a life filled with success and stability, something they couldn’t obtain back home in Bangladesh. My parents grew up in the rural parts of Narayanganj, just an hour commute from the capital, Dhaka, where I would visit every summer. When I would visit Narayanganj I was excited to swim in the nearby lake with my family, an opportunity I never had in urban New York City, until eventually this activity I looked forward to was taken away from me.
I asked my family later on why I could no longer swim. They said that it was unsafe due to its rising sea levels. With an estimated 50 cm rise in sea level, Bangladesh could potentially lose 11% of its land by 2050, possibly affecting 15 million people living in rural areas like my own. The village had a history of floods as well, one that I never entirely grasped until I had heard about the aftermath through late-night phone calls: the floods ruined the crops my family members grew, which was their entire livelihood. Agriculture is an integral part of the Bangladeshi economy, Narayanganj has already suffered large yield losses and significant price reductions due to climate change.
Many immigrated to the United States as a result – sponsored by other Bengalis who immigrated before them. The reality, however, is that what many presume to be a better life here in America is rather an unsettling fate filled with dissatisfaction and trauma.
Losing your home often creates a sense of detachment from your native country. Especially when you are unprepared and end up having to quickly settle into a completely new environment. For many Bengali families, success requires togetherness and comfort — something they had back in Bangladesh but were forced to let go of. My uncle, who moved in 2015, experienced just this. His hometown, off the coast of Bangladesh, had been flooded and ultimately destroyed. The lack of job opportunities and a struggling economy in Bangladesh made his life harder to the point where he eventually had to move to the United States to join my father here. His life had been turned upside down: once a skilled farmer who made a steady income, now a taxi driver for Uber, a job that required English literacy and speaking skills — skills that he lacked. He has had to move homes multiple times as New York City had its own rental issues, ultimately affecting his mental health, knowing that despite moving through so many different homes, his original home is the one he can ever return to.
Bangladesh is exceptionally vulnerable to climate change. According to the EJ Foundation, “It has been estimated that by 2050, one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change. Up to 18 million people may have to move because of sea level rise alone.”
Despite feeling the effects, the average person from Bangladesh only emits about 1/6th of the carbon dioxide equivalents per person compared to the average person on the globe, which is only 1/30th of what the average American emits. Displacement has been more apparent now than ever before, so many lives are in danger because of this tumultuous period in time. Climate change doesn’t just exist in the form of floods in rural areas, but within droughts, cyclones, erosions, and even drinking water contamination.
My story has two sides. One being from a young city girl’s perspective, completely ignorant of the change going on to her family who was secretly struggling as the years went by. The other seeing the devastating effects of climate change in the place my family calls home. Sadly, I am not the only one. I am certain that my story is replicated amongst thousands of other young people whose families have been displaced due to climate change.
Bangladesh will continue to suffer if we do not look at the climate change issues at hand. And ultimately more people will continue to struggle mentally in countries they feel unsettled in. People have fallen into cycles where they feel utterly distraught because they have been forced into a new life unprepared and without a choice. It is not just ruining homes and sacred lands but the mental health of others who have to undergo such environmental trauma caused by it. Climate change affects us all to different extents, for me it was on a much smaller scale, affecting my experience with swimming and a vivid childhood memory of mine, but for the other people in my story, like my cousin, uncle, and other family members, it affects them on a detrimental scale, where they lost an income, stability, and most importantly, a home.
Climate change is not just affecting Bangladesh, but so many other developing communities around the world like Nigeria and Yemen. Take my story as a plea to educate yourself, research, advocate, urge your local leaders to take action, but most importantly find your own story. It is the motivation we get from our own personal narratives that fuel our passion to create change.
Aishah Daiyun is from The Brooklyn Latin School in New York