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OPEN LETTER TO COLLABORATORS

Abdul Kalam Azad, Majuwara Mullah, Kazi Sharowar Hussain & Wahida Parveez

We are rooted in our communities and in our struggles. Feeling backed up against a stone wall is our perpetual state of existence. We do our work (and the work for you) fully cognizant of the risks that come with it. Our work, our very existence is seen as a threat by dominant groups and by the state. We do not get government jobs; even when we do, it is hard. We do not receive any aid from the state. Gatekeepers do not open the gates for us. We are at constant risk of criminal cases and charges of sedition brought against us. We still do this work because there is no other way. 

When people come to do research in these circumstances, they should have some responsibility towards our people. If you want to get together with us, with our people, with community workers, it cannot be project-based. It must not be the kind of work that ends with the funding cycle. For us, there are no deadlines or end points; this is our full-time work, our life’s work. Our people are some of the most persecuted communities of our times. The scale of our persecution is immense. The state and many factions of civil society are aggressive in their agenda to dehumanize us, harass us, disenfranchise us, and incarcerate us in detention centers. To collaborate with us, you must be prepared to work with people in active struggle. This work will yield little material benefit and you must be prepared to be courageous and share the risks. How can researchers stay here for one or two months, even six months, and presume to understand our experience and write about us? That is not possible. It is not that easy to grasp our realities or our lifetime’s worth of experiences. 

It is all our responsibility to write in ways that do justice to people’s experiences and the way they tell their stories. It is always a challenge to capture the complexity of people’s lives. We may not be able to do it well or we may end up excluding some things. What does it mean when we leave things unsaid, or remove something from another’s narrative? Perhaps those were as important as the things we do say! We must constantly contend with these tensions and learn from them. We must not assume knowability; we must not take the easy path. We should feel the weight of discomfort, remorse, and responsibility so that we do things differently the next time. These are ethical imperatives when representing the stories of people in struggle. 

At times, you receive accolades for presenting stories and images of our community’s suffering. But never assume that you are doing us a favor or charity. That is disrespectful. Respect and dignity are foundational to our work. We do not work for people; we work with and alongside our fellow community members. We do not just do our work and leave. 

Researchers often come from different worlds, fortified by their professional tools and theoretical vocabulary. They use these tools to explain what we are going through. When people come to do research in the chars, the assumption is that we do not have the language or vocabulary to articulate our experiences – that someone else needs to tell our stories. They impose their own jargon and sophisticated vocabulary on our experiences and how we understand it[1]. Say you are a researcher, and you must present your findings to your funding agency. Do you really need to describe flooded huts as “swimming pools?” Or describe flood waters as “oceans” if you are a little sensitive? When you come in to conduct assessments in the wake of disasters, how do you quantify the suffering of families huddled in desperation as flood waters rise? We do not need our experiences to be rendered intelligible through your armature of definitions, scales, and criteria or via metaphors that are not our own. We too can speak. We are good enough. As researchers and journalists, honor our vocabulary, our metaphors, and our silences.

We are always open to collaborations, to the possibility of our stories, experiences, and struggles being amplified, however incremental or marginal. We are not saying that you should not or cannot tell our stories, but if you do tell our stories, tell those with human dignity; tell our stories as an act of solidarity.  In fact, it is vital that we listen to and uplift each other’s stories of struggle, resistance, and desire. We see connecting across struggles and learning from each other as important to our work. We believe that people come to work with us with good intentions, but it is our heartfelt request that you do it with authentic respect and dignity.