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‘I need to see my wife’

Separated from his wife by New Zealand’s closed borders, social science lecturer and boundary- pushing researcher Kanamik Khan spoke with reporter Jack Marshall about completing a PhD at the bottom of the world, during a pandemic.

Not much gets in the way of true love, but a pandemic and poor timing are exactly what held apart a newlywed doctor and a PhD researcher from Bangladesh.

Last March Nafisha Tasmin was ready to sit her exam allowing her to practise as a medical doctor.

She had travelled to the UK from New Zealand in January because the exams happen more frequently there than the equivalent test in New Zealand.

Then Covid hit and the exam was cancelled.

Without her registration and with months and thousands of dollars wasted, her husband Kanamik Khan bought her a flight back to New Zealand.

“So I'm flying today right?” Nafisha asked him.

Confused about the time difference, he mistakenly booked a flight for the next day, 24 hours later.

“Can you wait for one more day and you'll be flying tomorrow,” Kanamik said.

That night Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced New Zealand's borders were closed.

Before the pandemic, closed borders and QR codes, Kanamik had met his future wife Nafisha on a trip back to Bangladesh after completing his Master of Philosophy in Norway.

He stopped off in his home country for six months as he was flying to New Zealand for his PhD.

On his stopover, the pair fell in love and he proposed.

She said yes, but Kanamik had to leave to start studying for his PhD.

Because they married for love, there was some wrangling to get the whole family on board.

But Kanamik flew back to Bangladesh a year later for his research and they tied the knot.

His doctoral thesis details the healthcare barriers that sexual and gender diverse communities face in Bangladesh, a fraught topic in a highly conservative country where sexual and gender diverse populations experience extreme violence and discrimination.

Researching a subject like this is not common in Bangladesh.

“Sexuality is something you can barely talk about,” says Kanamik.

“I'm a research-minded person. I love to examine things, and you would obviously want to examine something which is least explored, right?”

Kanamik says people are harassed, kidnapped, and murdered for their sexual and gender identities in Bangladesh.

In 2016, two gay rights activists were hacked to death in the capital Dhaka. One of them was the editor of a magazine for the transgender community.

“That shocked me. I value human life and human rights the most. It was a breaking point for me. I thought, I have to do it (the research).

“I wanted to understand what is it like to be a sexual or gender diverse person, particularly as a Muslim living in Bangladesh.”

But the research came with risk.

“You might not be able to go back home,” his supervisor warned. “Because if people find out what you've researched, some people might not be very happy.They might be looking for you.”

Several bloggers, activists and researchers have been kidnapped in recent years.

Some were returned, some were not.

Kanamik spent about six months in Bangladesh for his research.

It took time because the individuals he was trying to interview were understandably hard to find.

He spent months making contact with an anonymous support group for sexual and gender-diverse people.

Initially he was rebuffed, the group believing Kanamik was trying to spy on them. But he won their trust and volunteered for the support group for six months. The group in turn connected him with sexual and gender diverse people he was able to speak with for his research.

It took months before he was able to interview a single person but in the end he managed to conduct 13 interviews.

At times the danger and fear his research participants felt became his own.

At one point after interviewing a participant, he left the office and got on the back of a motorbike he had ordered from a ride share company.

Behind him, someone got on theirs.

“I noticed the other motorbike started to follow us.”

They trailed him for some 45 minutes.

“I was getting anxious — is this guy an informant? An extremist? Is he just following me or is he going to attack me?”

The motorbike eventually left, but the experience left him frightened.

“I realised I felt a similar fear that my research participants feel every day of their lives.”

Apart from not being able to calculate international time differences under stress, Kanamik is clearly very clever.

In Bangladesh he completed his bachelor and master degrees in social work and then won a scholarship for further postgraduate studies in Norway.

He headhunted his dream PhD supervisor and was accepted to the Auckland campus of Massey University with a fully-funded doctoral scholarship.

With a decade of tertiary study behind him, last month he submitted his PhD thesis along with a chapter for an edited book about his fieldwork.

As if that did not keep him busy enough, he has been working at Tairawhiti EIT as a full-time social work lecturer as he finished his PhD and book chapter.

But a plane ticket kept his wife away for over a year which, he says, she still holds against him. However, she has him working to make it up to her.

Kanamik has been helping her submit long applications to hospitals all over the UK in the hope of a job, writing 5-10 applications a day.

In August last year, she was able to fly back to England and attend the exam. She passed and can now practise as a doctor in the UK.

“I am so proud of her for what she's done for the past 12 months — the mental stamina she's had and the resilience she has shown,” says Kanamik.

The applications paid off and Nafisha was offered a job at a hospital in East Sussex, UK.

So she asked her husband, “Why don't you try to get a job here?”

It was time for Kanamik to get practical.

“It seems like New Zealand's borders are not going to be open for her due to this pandemic. I don't know if she is going to be able to return,” he said.

“New Zealand was always our plan A and the UK was plan B but things have changed, now they've switched around.

“I need to see my wife. Money's not everything and there will be other jobs.”

About a week ago he was offered a lecturer position at the University of Essex in the UK.

With no option for his wife to come here he has resigned from EIT.

Now the hard part is not covert research or falling in love.

The challenge is to arrive in England on the same day so they can quarantine together.

Kanamik says this time he is very conscious about the time difference.

“We have to land on the same day. I can't make a mistake this time.”

AT THE OFFICE: With his wife kept away in the UK, Kanamik took a job at Tairawhiti Eastern Institute of Technology while he finished his PhD. Picture by Paul Rickard
WEDDING DAY: Nafisha Tasmin and Kanamik Khan at their wedding four years ago. Picture supplied