Like many young men of his generation, Salahuddin Khan dreamt of seeking his fortune in Europe as soon as he passed the HSC exams in 2000.
Seeing prospects of a better future, his parents sold the only piece of land they owned in Munshiganj and gave around Tk 6 lakh to a broker who promised to send Salahuddin to Italy.
“We thought once I started earning Lira [the then Italian currency] and sending home money, they would be able to buy the land back in no time,” Salahuddin told this correspondent.
One fine August afternoon in 2000, Salahuddin left Dhaka for what he thought would be Italy. Seeing that his boarding pass said his destination was Bamako, he first thought it was a place in Italy.
It was only after the plane landed that he realised that he had ended up in a West African country called Mali and Bamako was its capital.
“I soon realised that I was trapped here with very little money,” said Salahuddin, sitting in the comfort of his flat in Bamako where he lives a happy life with his Mali wife and children.
“After walking out of the airport with no idea of where to go, I decided to find a mosque and spend some time there.”
He indeed found a mosque not far from the airport and met the Imam later that night. But neither of them could understand a word the other said.
With help of an interpreter, the imam listened to his story in the morning and told him that he could live in an orphanage near the mosque and look for work.
Within a week, Salahuddin became a labourer in the area, earning considerably less than what a day labourer earned in Bangladesh in those days.
“But I didn’t want to go back to Bangladesh and face my parents.”
As he learnt Bambara, the language spoken in the area, he got a security guard’s job at a local market after a few months.
“I worked there for two years and managed to save some money, with which I attempted to go to Italy via Algeria. I contacted a local trafficker and gave him all the money I had.”
He soon reached Algeria only to find out that he had been swindled by traffickers again.
He along with 20 other young men from different countries were detained by law enforcers.
“I was in jail for four months before I was deported to Gao area in Mali. I was wandering aimlessly a few days later and I asked a young man whether he could help me go to Bamako.
“He asked me about myself. After I told him my story, he took me to his father who was the local commander of police.”
The officer helped him go back to Bamako. I also got the number of his daughter Sajuchi, who was a university student in Bamako.
In Bamako, he got back his security guard job and started saving up again.
Within a year, he was able to open a cigarette shop on the side.
He then began meeting Sajuchi occasionally.
“I liked her when I saw her first and wanted to marry her. But she wouldn’t hear any of that.”
But after a few months, Salahuddin’s wooing bore fruit and they got married.
Meanwhile, seven years had passed since he had left Bangladesh. He had settled in a country where he never wanted to go in the first place.
Eventually, the couple had two sons and two daughters.
“Years passed by, but I didn’t have any contact with my family in Bangladesh. I was still ashamed [of not being able to send the money to buy back the land] and didn’t have the money to visit.”
Bangladeshi peacekeepers started operation in Mali in 2013, Salahuddin remembers.
By sheer chance, he met a few Bangladeshi soldiers on the street one day and started talking to them.
He soon became friends with many Bangladeshi army men working there.
In 2015, the army officers made arrangements for Salahuddin and his wife and children to come back to Bangladesh for a visit. The officers arranged their visas, plane tickets, and even gave them some cash.
“I met my family back home and after I returned to Mali, our soldiers also helped me set up a clothing store here. I later opened another store. I can’t thank Bangladeshi soldiers enough for helping me make a life here for myself.”