The hard road home for young camel jockeys from Bangladesh
By Steve Nettleton
MOHESHPUR, Bangladesh, 18 September 2006 – On a dry rice field that has been transformed into a football pitch, 13-year-old Rubel and his 11-year-old brother Shumon struggle to control the ball against their older and taller adversaries.
But passion for football is one of the few interests the brothers share with other boys in their village of Moheshpur. For although Rubel and Shumon were born here, they grew up far away, racing camels on the sands of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The youths have recently returned, only to find that life in their hometown is no easier than the one they left behind.
Childhood on camelback
Rubel and Shumon moved to Dubai in 1996 with their family, lured by the promise of work. When they arrived, however, there were no jobs. Instead, agents for camel stables came calling, demanding that the brothers work as jockeys.
The agents “said they would cancel our visa and put us in jail,” according to the boys’ mother, Parvin Akhter. “We became scared and gave in to their demands. We are poor people. We did not go there to land in jail.”
Rubel, Shumon and their younger brother Nuruddin spent most of their childhoods on the backs of camels. Rubel still bears a scar on his forehead, a reminder of the dangers of his old job. He says he once watched as a young boy fell off a camel and was trampled to death. Yet for all the risks, he remembers some of his experiences fondly.
“First they showed us the camels,” recalls Rubel. “Then one day they put me on a camel. I was afraid at that time. After a few days I did not have any fear. I enjoyed doing that.”
The challenge of re-assimilation
Camel racing is one of the most popular sports in the UAE. In recent years, thousands of boys – some as young as two years of age – have been brought there from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sudan and other countries to work as jockeys. Many of the young jockeys have been kidnapped from their home countries. Most receive little or no education. Some cannot even speak their parents’ language.
In early 2005, the UAE banned children under 16 from working as jockeys. Since then, UNICEF has been working with the governments of the UAE and Bangladesh to return young camel jockeys to their homes. So far, the organization has helped return at least 168 out of an estimated 250 Bangladeshi child jockeys, and 150 of them have been reunited with their families.
Today, Rubel and his brothers are getting an education with the help of their neighbour, a schoolteacher. However, they may soon return to Dubai. Unable to find work in Bangladesh, their father has gone back to the UAE. Rubel hopes to join him – this time not to ride camels but to find other employment.
As with many returning camel jockeys, Rubel and his brothers have found that the road to re-assimilation is sometimes harder and longer than the trip back home.