It is dark when we finally arrive in Chittagong. Mohamed Ismail looks tired. It’s been a long journey home. He’s been away for 18 months. 

Ismail’s family lives high above the city, on a hill, near a swanky country club. They are not rich – far from it – but neither are they slum dwellers. His daughter and niece run out to greet us. The power is off that night and there is very little light. But even in the dark, we can tell he dotes on them. They cling on to him, their eyes shining.

Inside, he introduces us to his wife and sisters. They giggle. He makes his daughter spell out her name to us. T-A-S-P-I-Y-A. She is six years old. He is so proud of her. His wife insists we return for lunch the following day.

But the mood is markedly different when we visit again. Ismail’s brother-in-law unleashes a bitter rant almost as soon as we enter the door. He can hardly contain himself. Why is Ismail back? The family borrowed more than 200,000 takas (nearly S$5,000) so Ismail could pay an agent to find him a job in Singapore. They recently sold their land to pay the interest, but loansharks still want their pound of flesh. What can they do now? While he was gone, they could say he would eventually return with lots of money. Now, he’s back with barely enough to cover half the loan.  They’ve run out of excuses. Why is he back?

Ismail’s wife is in tears. She wants to know how they’re going to survive. There is the rent to pay and Taspiya needs another school uniform. She’s not had a new dress in nearly two years. Why is he back? He looks down. He has no answers.

“It’s not your fault, Ismail,” we yelp. “Tell them it’s not his fault,” we urge our Bangladeshi translator. He attempts to explain, but really, what is the point?

This family, these people thought they were doing the right thing – pooling together their money to send the best person they knew, to a job in a faraway place so they could all have better lives. He was their one big hope. He would come back and make their sacrifice all worthwhile.  But he’s back now, broken, bitter, sad. 

We try to explain that he’s done far better than many others like him. Some people lose everything in Singapore. They get cheated, exploited, abused. Thanks to Ismail’s persistence, he and 13 other men got something back, at least. 

It makes no difference to them. Doesn’t change a thing.  He’s back. What now?