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As the welcome wears thin
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have been busy setting up lives in a corner of Bangladesh. They've escaped brutal repression and have dismissed any talk of being repatriated to Myanmar. But their growing presence, especially beyond the camps, is fuelling local tensions and the government in Dhaka is adamant they are only to be temporary residents, people who can't work legally or send their children to school

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Saturday, May 11, 2019 – Page A10

COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH -- Not far from the waters of the Bay of Bengal, Taiyeba begins work at 3 a.m. She arrives with her two daughters, 9 and 12, who work near her, arranging fish to dry on low wooden racks. The three of them will work until 4 p.m., earning a total of $14.27 for their labours, while the rest of the family - four other children, all younger - stay at home.

Ms. Taiyeba, 35, lost her husband in 2017, in the murderous violence in Myanmar that killed thousands of Rohingya, a largely Muslim group treated as invaders in the country they considered home, and drove many more to seek refuge in next-door Bangladesh. The approximately 910,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh now form the most concentrated population of refugees anywhere on Earth.

But Ms. Taiyeba lasted only a few months in the crowded camps and their hilly warrens of narrow pathways where her children sometimes got lost, and where many Rohingya survive on aid rations of lentils, rice and oil. When her children began begging for something better to eat, she gathered them up and left, sneaking past the military check stops meant to keep people such as them inside.

"I was not able to feed them there," she says.

The family now lives in nearby Cox's Bazar, a busy seaside town roughly 40 kilometres northwest of the camps. It is a hardscrabble life, made doubly so by the fact they have no legal right to be here. Ms. Taiyeba lives with the constant threat that authorities will discover her and toss her back into a camp - there are, officially, 34 of them - with the hundreds of thousands of others who are waiting in hopes they can one day reclaim land and a future in the country where they were born.

But it's a life, in uncertain circumstances, that Ms. Taiyeba has herself chosen. "I don't want to go back to Myanmar," she says. "My husband was killed there. If we go back, they will kill us again."

Bangladesh is not yet home. But it has become the place where she wants to stay, a desire that puts her and many others at odds with official rhetoric calling for a speedy Rohingya return to Myanmar - even as the reality in Bangladesh, both inside and outside the camps, points to preparations under way for a lengthy stay here.

Among the government officials and foreign agencies that run the Rohingya settlements, few are willing to so much as utter the word "permanent."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees insists that the Rohingya camps remain far from stable. "We should not become complacent that the emergency phase is over," says Steven Corliss, the UNHCR's country representative in Bangladesh. The best solution, he adds, remains "voluntary repatriation to Myanmar."

Bangladeshi officials, meanwhile, have repeatedly said they intend to send refugees back to Myanmar as soon as possible, and few among those working here - foreign-aid workers, diplomats, local humanitarians - are eager to openly question Bangladeshi policy for fear of contradicting a government that has in many ways rolled out an extraordinary welcome mat for the Rohingya.

Government leaders in Dhaka and refugee authorities alike are also loath to send a signal that the Rohingya are here for the foreseeable future. Such a message risks assuring regimes around the world, Myanmar included, that it is possible to evict large numbers of people without consequence.

Bangladeshi leaders continue to pursue the "voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable repatriation" of Rohingya to their homes - though many of those structures have been reduced to ash. Earlier this week, Myanmar agreed to extend a memorandum of understanding with several UN agencies toward the return of Rohingya, which had been expected to begin as early as 15 months ago. There is little sign of progress. Some observers are now raising the creation of guarded "safe zones" inside Myanmar as an alternative.

But there has been little public discussion of solutions such as opening the doors to Rohingya in Bangladesh, a country of 160 million that, numerically at least, seems capable of accommodating their numbers without being overwhelmed. (Although that, too, is hardly an idea without flaws: Dispersing Rohingya throughout Bangladesh risks their cultural extinguishment.)

At the same time, aid workers privately worry about the camps themselves becoming a tiny, more populous Gaza Strip, surrounded by high fences for the longterm detention of a people at risk of being tainted by discontent and violence. In the areas surrounding the camps, unease is rising among Bangladeshis who fear that Rohingya are seizing jobs, depressing wage rates and bringing crime, even as the government of Bangladesh is pressing forward plans to move large numbers of Rohingya to an offshore island.

Inside the check stops that ring the refugee settlements, meanwhile, a shift is already under way to build for years to come as workers install the foundations - often in literal terms - for a lengthy stay by Rohingya on the muddy, deforested hills that have become their homes.

In some places, technicians are stringing electrical wires to government administration buildings constructed with concrete and glass. Crews are surfacing dozens of kilometres of dirt road with brick and concrete. Children play on metal playgrounds.

Aid organizations are designing more robust homes for refugees, starting with treated bamboo that doesn't rot and require replacement every year, with an eye toward installing sturdier concrete corner posts at the cost of roughly $1,300 a home.

With some 210,000 homes in the camps, the potential cost is enormous. (The budget for operating the camps this year alone is estimated at US$920-million.)

But "there's been a change in thinking to use more concrete and brick," says Peter Guest, emergency co-ordinator for the Rohingya Refugee Response that the World Food Programme is administering in Cox's Bazar. "Last year, it was all sandbags and bamboo. Nowadays, there's a degree of permanence."

Planners, he says, need to "start thinking like it's a city."

The tension in how best to reckon for the future resides partly in the complicated administration of the Rohingya refugees, a group whose care is largely funded by foreign countries - Canada included, with more than $68-million in contributions to date - and administered by international organizations. But the camps, on Bangladeshi soil, fall under the governance of a developing country whose own domestic difficulties are not inconsequential.

Dhaka sets the rules, and they are strict: Rohingya, whom the government here formally refers to as "Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals," cannot work. They cannot open bank accounts. They cannot leave camp. Children cannot study in the Bengali language. Adults, according to the strictest readings of the rules, should not even possess a cellphone in camp.

Beneath the restrictions lies logic. Rohingya refugees are not Bangladeshis and, government officials say, they should not begin the process of integrating into local society. They are visitors, not residents - temporary guests who, the laws demand, must be prepared to return home.

But on the fringes of many of the camp roads today, the grim black and white of the law has given way to the exuberant colour of lively bazaars, where shoppers can buy everything from Bluetooth speakers to live chickens.

Near the back of one alley lined with shops, Shorif Hossain, 42, keeps watch over a small department store's worth of neatly displayed goods. He has for sale wedding dresses, scarves, Mercedes Mandalay Classic Slippers, men's pinstriped formal shirts, soccer jerseys, scented coconut oil, golden bangles, antiseptic cream and German rubberized liquid-fluid ink pens.

Mr. Hossain has been selling almost since the day he and his family arrived in Bangladesh toting $400 in clothing they brought with them as they fled Myanmar, where they had also run a shop. But "at first there was no concrete, no decorations. It was bamboo and tarpaulin," Mr. Hossain says.

In February, he opened a new shop, complete with a tin roof and cleanly swept concrete floor. The renovation set him back nearly $2,000, a considerable sum in a country where $8 is considered a decent daily wage - and even more remarkable given his location in a refugee camp where wage-earning labour is scarce.

But as a businessman, he had little choice. "If the store doesn't look nice, customers won't come. It needs to be beautiful," says Mr. Hossain, who runs the shop with his son Abul Mustafa, 19.

The advent of choosy buyers is just one sign of changing circumstances in the camps, which are surrounded by military check stops designed to ensure that refugees don't filter out and take work in surrounding communities. An increasingly sophisticated economy has emerged, fuelled partly by the resale of food rations and cash paid to labourers who work for international organizations attempting to guide some refugees toward self-sufficiency.

Those who can are cobbling together lives of their own.

Women such as Fatima Khatu, 64, have been provided training - and seeds - to grow gardens. Hers sprouts calabash, spinach, carrot and red amaranth in a tiny vegetable oasis at the foot of a hill crowded with makeshift homes.

It's enough that they can provide at least some of their own food needs. The sight of greenery in the cramped quarters of the camp provides a sense of comfort, too, a visual flourish of peace in the midst of penury. "In Myanmar, we feared the military would come and kill us. Here, we can sleep without fear," she says.

Elsewhere, groups of women attend selfreliance training programs funded by the World Food Program, which are teaching sewing, mobile-phone repair, fabric block painting and other skills. So far, 6,000 women have received the training. Planners hope to nearly triple that number by year's end.

Trainees "are gaining this ambition for a better life and a better future," says Sakheen Akhter, a worker with ActionAid, a Johannesburg-based NGO, who manages a women-friendly space where the courses take place. "They did not get those opportunities in Myanmar, so they are getting opportunities here - which can give them more freedom here."

In Myanmar, authorities barred women such as Nor Halima, 18, from most economic activity. "The military did not allow us to move from one place to another place," she says. In the camps, however, she has learned block painting, braceletmaking and tailoring. She now works two to three hours a day sewing clothes for other refugees.

Another woman, Khunsoma, 20, has earned enough money selling clothes to buy her own sewing machine, a Chinesemade Butterfly brand, which she has installed in a corner of her shelter, where she lives with her family in a tidy dwelling, where clothes hang from lines and sunlight angles in through gaps in the wall.

The only one in her family to make an income, she sits here to make dresses and mend shirts.

She benefits, too, from the money other refugees are earning. "A year ago, people had nothing, so they didn't buy new clothes," she says. "Now they are getting money from different places."

Some of those places are dozens of kilometres away from the camps themselves, such as the rice paddy that covers Abul Boshor's feet in a thick smear of greenish mud as he pulls weeds early one morning.

Mr. Boshor, 35, has six children who live in Hakimpara Camp with his wife, who recently underwent surgery. He now regularly seeks work elsewhere to buy her the medicine she needs and his children the fish whose taste they miss and crave.

Refugees are not allowed to leave the camps, and fear grips him every time he does so, sneaking on foot around the check stops. He can sometimes spend days looking for a job, surviving on a few dry biscuits, at pennies a piece. "No rice meals," he says, "because that costs too much."

The lack of food leaves him weakened while the distance from family weighs on him. "It was cold yesterday, and looked like it was going to rain. I was so worried about my wife and children," he says, shedding a tear. "Our house is made of tarp and the wind can damage it."

Still, there is some satisfaction in earning the $8 he will be paid for a day of working dawn until dusk in the paddies. "When I go back to camp with some money, I'll be able to buy my wife some medicine, and buy fish and vegetables and fruit for my children," he says.

He knows, too, that life could remain like this for some time to come. "We were driven away from Myanmar by the government there," he says. "We are grateful to Bangladesh for giving us shelter. But I'm not sure when we will go back."

The office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner is not an impressive edifice. Its blue-painted concrete walls stand beside a dusty parking lot. Construction has gouged a deep trench around its front entrance.

It's not much of a welcome mat for visitors. But this building is home to Mohammad Abul Kalam, whose position as commissioner makes him the highest-ranking Bangladeshi official directly in charge of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have become his country's most prominent visitors.

It has also placed him at the crossroads of the debate over the future of the Rohingya, a position whose stature is accentuated by photos hung inside the building of his meetings with leaders from around the world.

"We still believe that a solution is achievable," he says in an interview, a reference to repatriating the Rohingya. "It's not possible for Bangladesh to continue hosting them for an indefinite period." He speaks in his office after nightfall on a holiday, a testament to the hours he keeps in managing the crisis.

But Mr. Abul Kalam is also keenly attuned to the continuing violence in Myanmar, where "perhaps the situation has further worsened, in terms of conditions conducive for return or repatriation," he acknowledges. So, he talks about the myriad options to improve life for the refugees: the proposed $1,300 concrete corner posts; the solar streetlamps already illuminating paths at night; the roads whose surfaces are being hardened.

And the classrooms.

Children made up more than half of the Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in late 2017. The need to educate them has brought vexing problems that in many ways, crystallize the dilemma, of attending to refugees for the long term.

Mr. Abul Kalam describes himself as open to helping. Roughly 300,000 children currently receive some sort of education, "so we need to cover another 200,000," he says.

But the government of Bangladesh has barred instruction in Bengali, unwilling to provide the linguistic foundation for new arrivals to remain in the country. Nearly half of the refugee children younger than 12 receive no schooling at all, and even those receiving schooling typically get only two or three hours a day of basic instruction.

It's not much. But "education is education. They are getting to learn something," Mr. Abul Kalam says.

For Bangladesh, the worry is that "to offer anything more around education goes down the road of integration," thus ensuring that the Rohingya will "never go home," says Alex Neve, the secretary-general for Amnesty International Canada, who visited Bangladesh in February.

But, he notes, "when you don't offer any education, you're taking away hope. You're just ensuring that a whole generation is going to live with a greater sense of despair.

And that goes down the road of insecurity, and child soldiers, and criminal elements."

Last year, UNICEF Bangladesh Representative Edouard Beigbeder warned that "if we don't make the investment in education now, we face the very real danger of seeing a lost generation of Rohingya chil- dren." In December, a UNICEF survey found that more than 90 per cent of Rohingya from ages 4 to 14 were at a learning level of Grade 2 or below.

The international pressure has helped to foment a sort of "political game," says Sydur Mursalin, who leads Rohingya childprotection work for BRAC, the Bangladesh-based group that is the world's largest NGO. While the local government bars discussion of long-term options, those on the ground are acting with an assumption that a short-term solution is unlikely.

"I cannot tell if this will be continued for six years, five years, seven years, eight years or two years," he says.

BRAC currently operates 252 childfriendly spaces in the camps where young kids can spend a few hours a day. The organization hopes to double that tally, with the goal of ensuring that every child has access to a safe space, and a place to learn Rohingya songs and rhymes.

But Mr. Mursalin's ability to expand those services is entirely dependent "on government policy," which for now has drawn a red line around formal education.

Muhammad Osman, a Rohingya teacher who is the chairman of Camp 11, has run into that line. The temporary learning centres in the camps at the moment are only for "playing games," he laments.

Mr. Osman's position, to which he was elected by leaders in his camp, allows him to represent some 32,000 refugees. But decision-making power remains with Bangladeshi authorities - who have said no to his proposals for improving services, including his request to build a private school in his camp. He envisioned a place where children could study a full Burmeselanguage curriculum until the 12th grade.

Donors have offered financial support for the idea.

When he asked, however, he was told, "It is not allowed."

It's a response not relegated solely to educational issues, as Bangladeshi authorities attempt to limit any moves that could ease the way for refugees to stay longerterm in the camps.

When Mr. Osman asks to build safer homes that can better withstand monsoon rains or a cyclone, he's told: "That's not allowed."

When men such as Mr. Boshor, the father of six who labours in the rice fields, ask to work outside the camps: "Not allowed."

"You can't cross the road, even," Mr. Osman says.

The government authorities and the men in uniform aren't alone in their concern. One day in February, hundreds of Bangladeshis gathered in an intersection, blocking the main road to the camps for an hours-long demonstration to demand jobs. Amidst the angry gathering, a United Nations car was damaged. Other aid workers turned back. Men surrounded a Globe and Mail reporter until police intervened.

"I think it's clear that this community has been placed under tremendous stress by the number of refugees that have come into this very compressed area," says Mr.

Corliss, the top UNHCR official in the country.

Resentment is visceral among the locals who live near the fish-drying area where Ms. Taiyeba works with her daughters, some 40 kilometres from the camps. Rohingya in the camps, with the rations they are supplied, "eat better than us," says Saleha, 40. "I have a house, but it's empty inside."

Worse, she says, as she sits in the shade with a group of other Bangladeshi women, none of whom have work for the day, "some of the new arrivals have come to work here. Because of them, we are not getting jobs."

Nearby, Muhammad Ismail, 52, uses a bamboo stick to stir a mat of drying shrimps and bait fish. The presence of so many refugees supported by foreign donors has created a thicket of problems, he says. Because Rohingya eat for free in the camps, he says, they are willing to work for just $4.75 a day, 40-per-cent less than local labourers, a figure confirmed by an employer at the fish-drying area. "They are getting help from the international community. Then they come here and just take our jobs," Mr. Ismail says.

The government of Bangladesh has what it has presented as a solution to the problem: move large numbers of Rohingya far from here, to Bhasan Char, a lowlying accumulation of silt in the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the Meghna River that emerged as an island only in the past few decades. Today, when the waters are low, it's roughly 64 square kilometres in size and already home to a US$280-million facility - built by a Chinese firm, and managed by the Bangladesh Navy - designed to accommodate those refugees.

"Bhasan Char Island is being developed to overcome the constraints and limitations we are faced with here," says Mr. Abul Kalam, the Bangladeshi commissioner for refugee relief and repatriation. Although Bhasan Char has been developed to house 100,000 Rohingya, it is roughly 21/2 times larger than the current area occupied by the camps, Mr. Abul Kalam notes, which means "it can accommodate a larger number" of refugees.

Earlier this year, the government of Bangladesh said it planned to begin moving Rohingya to the island by mid-April. Those plans have been delayed until after the May-to-September storm season as aid groups express concern and Rohingya voice opposition - one survey found 98.4-per-cent opposition to the idea, in the camps.

Bangladeshi officials, however, continue to advance the plan. Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen has told UN officials that those "creating barriers" to moving people to the island "should be held responsible" for deaths in the current camps, particularly when heavy seasonal rains arrive, threatening landslides.

International aid groups have raised numerous questions about the plan: How would people move between the island and the mainland, where they may have relatives still in camps? How could people be kept safe in the event of a cyclone, especially given that large portions of the island appear prone to flooding?

Privately, international aid workers call the relocation idea "terrifying." Publicly, they have demanded more study of the idea. Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, visited Bhasan Char in January and questioned "whether the island is truly habitable." Human Rights Watch has called the plan "cruel."

Mr. Abul Kalam sees it otherwise: Moving to Bhasan Char will be entirely voluntary, he says, and "we believe the Rohingya will be volunteering."

"They should be willing to go to the island, because the island will offer them good opportunities for livelihood," he says, with space to fish, raise crops and tend livestock.

For people now living in existing mainland camps, such a plan threatens a tenuous stability that has begun to take hold.

Rates of malnourishment have fallen from 19 per cent to 12 per cent, "below the emergency threshold," according to a February joint report from international organizations. Nearly 90 per cent of refugees are now immunized. Aid groups are expanding an innovative food-distribution program that uses an electronic card to give individual Rohingya a choice of vegetables and spices, rather than only rations of lentils, oil and rice. Children who once drew images of men with guns are now sketching houses and flowers. "That means they were in a traumatized situation, but they are day by day gradually improving," says Mr. Mursalin, the child-protection worker with the development group BRAC.

It is an improving image, far from the horrors that still linger over the recent past in Myanmar, the country that shows no sign of wanting back those who once called it home.

Yet for those here, the prospect of spending years in a refugee camp is also little cause for celebration.

When he arrived in Bangladesh in late 2017, Mohammad Faisal, now 29, was the embodiment of hope - hyperconnected, smiling, juggling two pairs of chirping phones. His home in Myanmar lay just across the river, which meant he had existing connections in Bangladesh, and access, it seemed, to some money. At a time when toddlers were sleeping in ditches, he was dressed in crisp, clean clothes. His cheery ambition made for a striking contrast with the horrors surrounding him.

When he met with a Globe reporter again in May of 2018, he had transformed that ambition into a small digital service shop, with a desk, a computer and a printer. It was located next to a Rohingya-run restaurant, on a perch overlooking a camp entrance. It seemed like good real estate, and Mr. Faisal, who had previously operated a grocery shop in Myanmar, seemed the consummate entrepreneur - warm, canny, uncowed by difficulty.

But on a more recent meeting, dressed in a green hoodie that swallowed his thin frame, he struggled to muster a smile, pointing at his side. "Pain," he said. A doctor had told him he has kidney stones. His mother previously suffered from a litany of health problems, including high blood pressure and diabetes. But "it's getting worse," Mr. Faisal said, "because of the camp conditions. There is extreme heat and dust. Everything is dirty."

The circumstances of his own life have worsened, too. His computer business went under when the customers didn't materialize as expected, leaving him more than $500 in debt and his family reliant upon remittances from relatives in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. He has not been able to shake the shame of queuing for relief supplies.

And although his wife gave birth to a son in the camp, it hasn't done much to dispel the gloom, a feeling that deepens when he contemplates the possibility of staying here for years more. He now has one more mouth to feed, too.

"When I sleep, when I'm at home, all I can think about is my country, what it would be like to be back there," he says.

"There is no hope for me here."

With reporting by Ro Yassin Abdumonab

Associated Graphic

Rohingya refugees work in a paddy field outside a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Officially, the refugees are not allowed to leave the camps, but since arriving in Bangladesh after fleeing Myanmar nearly two years ago, necessity has more of them sneaking past the check points to go out and earn money to feed their families.


In Myanmar, women such as Nor Halima were banned from participating in most economic activity. But in the refugee camps, she has learned block painting, bracelet-making and tailoring. She now works two to three hours a day sewing clothes for other refugees. Another woman has earned enough money selling clothes to buy her own sewing machine.

Shorif Hossain, a Rohingya refugee shopkeeper, shows off wedding dresses at his shop in Cox's Bazar. Mr. Hossain takes pride in the appearance of his back-alley store. 'If the store doesn't look nice, customers won't come. It needs to be beautiful,' he says.

Rohingya children play at the Chakmarkul camp. The government in Dhaka forbids the establishment of schools or education of refugees in the Bengali language, something that might help them set up permanent lives in the country.

Khunsoma has installed her new sewing machine in a corner of her shelter, where she makes dresses and mends shirts. She benefits from camps' growing economies. 'A year ago, people had nothing, so they didn't buy new clothes,' she says. 'Now, they are getting money from different places.'

Mohammad Faisal was the embodiment of hope and an energetic entrepreneur when he arrived at the camps in Bangladesh. Recently, however, his computer business has gone under and he has had health problems, including kidney stones.

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