Mohammed Ahsanul is an international student at the University of Wyoming about to complete his Ph.D. in applied mathematics. Once he finishes his degree, he expects to return home to Dhaka, Bangladesh—but not before his family reunites with him for the first time since the pandemic began.
In the latest episode of A Better Life?, Producer Naina Rao joins Mohammed and his family for a trip to see America as she examines the ways a better life in the U.S. doesn’t always mean a permanent stay.
Special thanks to Nargis Rahman for her help with this episode.
Covid has disrupted so many lives. But for Mohammed Ahsanul, it actually made him decide to stick with his plans, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Ahsanul is an international student from Dhaka, Bangladesh who’s studying for his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Wyoming. Initially, he and his wife, Tropa, had planned to return home in the summer of 2020, once he earned his degree. Then the pandemic hit, and they found themselves stuck in America.
Because of Covid restrictions, they couldn’t go back to Bangladesh, and his family couldn’t visit him, as they originally planned before the pandemic occurred. “It was tough. We are away from home. We couldn’t see each other. It’s completely out of the world,” said Ahsanul.
The thing about being an international student is that you’re technically not an immigrant. But people treat you like you are, and a lot of international students think about staying in America even if that wasn’t their original intention. “In my country, people really envy [other] people who are already in the United States, or who have already visited the United States,” said Ahsanul. “It’s kind of a dream place for everyone, you know?”
But it’s the opposite for Ahsanul. He’s envious of them, being back home because they get to be with their families. In the first year of the pandemic, the number of international students who enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities for the first time dropped by 72% compared to the previous year. Students from other countries who were already here couldn’t return home. They were stuck and had to make some tough choices.
It was also during this time that his family decided to give their trip to the U.S. another try. They already had their tourist visas and hoped that by the summer of 2021 the pandemic would subside enough for them to safely visit Ahsanul and finally see the United States for the first time. “I was really eager to have them with me here,” he said.
After many delays caused by Covid restrictions and cancelled flights, Ahsanul and his wife picked up their family at Denver International Airport on May 5, 2021. Their five-week visit included a whirlwind tour that included stops in Los Angeles, Orlando, and Niagara Falls.
Ahsanul wanted his family to “taste this so-called ‘luxurious’ life […] the United States is all about,” and added that “they need to see what we go through […] when we actually stay here,” because his day-to-day life is not a reflection of that luxury, he said.
Those competing visions of life in the U.S. came into focus for Ahsanul at a reunion with a family friend in Detroit. It forced him to confront the question that immigrants have always faced, ‘where do I belong?’ Uncle Romel, a close childhood friend of Ahsanul’s father, pursued the ‘American Dream’ when he immigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh nearly 30 years ago. Uncle Romel settled in a suburb of Detroit, a city with a large and growing Bangladeshi community, and built a life that is financially stable.
“My Uncle actually tried to convince me” to stay in America, said Ahsanul.
Uncle Romel’s life gave Ahsanul a glimpse of what his future could be if he remained in the U.S. after completing his education.
But Ahsanul was not convinced. “To me, a happy life is to spend your life with your family,” he said. “Even if you don’t have enough money, if you have your family surrounded by you, it’s the most beautiful way to enjoy life.”
Feet in 2 Worlds is supported by The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, an anonymous donor and readers like you.