How I Got Here

Beating the heat

Bushra Afreen stands in mud and stones, rocks, and broken concrete beside an overpass and apartment buildings.

Photography by Fabeha Monir

You could call it a perfect fit. Bushra Afreen used her minor in drama from Queen’s when she co-produced Moshari, a multiple-award-winning live-action short film that follows two sisters surviving a dystopian world devastated by climate change and haunted by sinister creatures at night. 

It’s that combination of creativity and concern about the climate crisis, along with her Queen’s honours degree in global development, that made Ms. Afreen the perfect candidate to take on her role as chief heat officer in her home city of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The country regularly experiences some of the continent’s hottest temperatures. Just this past spring, during a 12-day heat wave, temperatures in Dhaka reached 40.5 C, the highest recorded temperature there in nearly six decades. 

Ms. Afreen, whose work has caught the attention of various international media, is now playing a key role in mitigating the danger of extreme heat in Dhaka and is part of a global effort to protect workers from heat. She explains the “harm chain of climate change” – in which climate migrants, having lost their homes or farmlands, move to Dhaka and must live in informal settlements, which are more exposed to extreme heat than other, planned areas. 

“Women in particular suffer. They cook meals by the fire, do the sweeping and cleaning,” she says. “Heat affects [people in] Dhaka very unequally.” 

Ms. Afreen’s journey to the heat-officer role began when her father’s garment exporting business led the family to temporarily relocate from Dhaka to Mississauga, where Ms. Afreen finished high school and then enrolled in the global development program at Queen’s. In her second year there, the disastrous 2013 collapse of Dhaka’s Rana Plaza became a turning point for her because her father owned a factory back home. There were 1,134 garment factory workers killed in the collapse and 2,500 injured.

The memory of the garment workers stayed with her and when she finished her degree, she returned to Dhaka to work in the family factory. 

However, some of the required state-wide reforms at the factory created heat pockets that made workers suffer. Since she was charged with social welfare and product development, she identified these pockets and made sure to ventilate them fully. She also brought in protocols that gave workers the day off if temperatures hit dangerous levels. Slower business in the hottest months mean those reforms haven’t been needed, but the protocols are in place as a protective measure.

It was this experience that made her a perfect fit for her job as chief heat officer for the Adrienne Arsht – Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Centre, an NGO seeking solutions to climate change’s consequences. 

Under her direction, the municipality of Dhaka North has committed to planting 200,000 trees in two years, 5,400 of which will go to informal settlements thanks to partnerships with the United Nations Development Programme, which has created a group of 17,000 female community leaders who have chosen where the trees should be planted. 

“One of the reasons I took this job is to prioritize interventions to those who need it most,” she says. “[Heat is] such a silent killer, you have to make it visible by talking about it. Nobody was. If I’m able to save one family, one child, one woman and let them know that overexposure isn’t good for them, it’ll be worth it.” 

Her studies at Queen’s prepared her for this job because she studied an interdisciplinary topic. 

“I studied anthropology, culture, rural development, urban development, sustainable development, environmental studies, politics, and economics. A lot of my professors at Queen’s had a huge impact on my life. I miss them,” she says. 

She also travelled to Ghana and Cuba during her studies and both trips were “profoundly influential experiences” for her. 

“People have realized how important it is to prioritize sustainable development alongside economic development.” As a member of an entrepreneurial family, she can see how profit maximization and environmental concerns can be at odds – but she remains optimistic that balance can be achieved. 

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