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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April, 2005, 04:59 GMT 05:59 UK
Expat cash flows back to Bangladesh

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Sylhet

Mansion in Sylhet
Mansions are a monument to money made overseas
In the villages around Bangladesh's second city of Sylhet, new mansions are rising out of the paddy fields.

Many are holiday homes, built by people who have made their money abroad.

Saleha Ahmed's family are typical of those who have decided to come back.

"My husband and my husband's brother have lots of money," she says, sitting at the dining room table with room for 20 people.

"We wanted to make a nice house. We are coming and enjoying it. It's my country."


The house is a monument to their achievement of running curry restaurants and a frozen food business in Cardiff, Wales.

Saleha Ahmed
My husband and my husband's brother have lots of money. We wanted to make a nice house
Saleha Ahmed

Saleha's family were poor farmers before they left Bangladesh just a few decades ago. Now they are millionaires.

The huge whitewashed building is surrounded by a high wall and the entrance is guarded by wrought-iron gates.

In the garden, fountains tinkle in a large elaborate pond. Inside the floors are paved with colourful marble and the living room is dominated by an enormous flat-screen television.

Sylhet city, and the division that surrounds it, is an impoverished area, but the wealth of people who still think of the place as home presents a major opportunity.

The vast majority of the 300,000 Bangladeshis in Britain come from this small part of the country.

The first large-scale emigration began in the 1950s when British recruitment agents were particularly active around Sylhet.

Over the years, the community has grown as people have joined family members already living in the UK.

In recent years, the restaurant business has been an attraction. Most "Indian" curry restaurants in Britain are in fact run by Sylhetis.

So many people are now in Britain that those left behind have coined a term for them, Londonis.


So far the expatriates' biggest investment in Sylhet has been in shopping centres.

Abdul Aziz
I think we have got to saturation point. We don't need any more shopping centres
Abdul Aziz,
economics professor

The skyline is already dominated by the massive buildings, resplendent in chrome and marble.

More are being built and piles of steel rods, sand and bricks block the already narrow and potholed roads.

Men and women work side by side on the sites, carrying bowls of concrete on their heads as they make their way up rickety bamboo ladders.

Abdul Aziz, an economics professor who works at Shahjalal University and the Metropolitan University in the city estimates soon there will be more than 40 malls.

"Sylhet is not a very big city," he says. "I think that we have got to saturation point. We don't need any more shopping centres. That will not help the economy of Sylhet."

Professor Aziz believes the Londonis choose to put their money in shopping centres because they are perceived as being safe.

Like the rest of Bangladesh, Sylhet has a major problem with corruption and extortion.

But shops provide few jobs. Unemployment here is high and the literacy rate is comparatively low.

Studies have shown 70% of people rely to some extent on money sent by relatives living abroad.

The busy streets are thronged with bicycle rickshaws, their skinny riders looking anxiously for the next fare.

The mayor, Badar Uddin Ahmed Kamran, is trying to persuade Sylhetis living abroad to look beyond shops and set up factories.

"The poor people - they have no scope to work," he says.

"If the investors invest in a productive way, I mean to say in industry, they will have a chance to work and maintain their lives nicely."

For decades Sylhet's biggest export has been its people.

Now is the time it could pay off.

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