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The children of the sex workers

Posted by: on Jul 1, 2018 | No Comments

This afternoon we visited a shelter in Narayanganj, the owner of the shelter is Hazera Begum. We call her Hazera Afa (sister). Hazera was a sex worker in a Bangladeshi brothal.

She worked hard to earn money and buy herself out. She now provides shelter for street children and the children of sex workers in Dhaka. At the shelter we meet the 30 or so children for whom she cares and provides education. The children are loving and happy. They are able to interact as you would expect children to, a stark contrast to the street children we met at Kamlapur station.

The shelter consists of two tiny beds rooms with bunk beds and a small communal room. The rooms are no more than two and a half meters by two and a half meters in size. The shelter is essentially a small two bedroom flat on the first floor of an accommodation building.

On entering, the children gather, happy, smiling and waving at us. They say hello and welcome us. When we move away from the front door and into the small communal room a little boy who is very excited reaches out of me. He tries to hug me and tugs at my dress to get me to bend down towards him so he can kiss and touch my face. I am a little taken back as the boy looks very sick, but I can tell that he has a loving nature and cannot resist.

When I ask Hazera Afa about the boy, she says he has autism and is twelve years old. He looks more like 7 or 8. She tells me that she found him on the streets all alone and took him in. He has no mother or father or family in the world. She grabs him and holds him, and he touches and kisses her face as a baby would do with its mother. This is genuine love, I can see the connection.

I can also see that she shares this maternal connection with all of the children. It is apparent that the children are well nurtured.

She tells us that some of the children have mothers who visit them when they can. She runs the shelter by asking the mothers for a small payment for the maintenance and upkeep of the children. Many are unable to pay and some of the children are abandoned. I

this tiny flat the children are protected.

They know that they have mothers and that their mothers work, but they do not know that their mothers are sex workers.

 

The little boy living with autism is called Shojad. Hazera Afa tells us that he fell yesterday and injured his head. She is no longer able to care for him as the environment is unsafe. He will be moving to a special home for autistic children tomorrow. I worry about this as I know what these homes can be like. He is such a loving boy and out of this familiar environment I wonder what life holds in store for him.

There are also two girls at the shelter aged about 11. Hazera Afa has made arrangements for them to begin their secondary school education. They require fees uniform, books, pens and travel expenses.

Our visit today is to provide these children with a special lunch as a treat. As the food arrives the children congregate and sit in a circle on the floor of the hallway. They are excited and ready to eat. We leave with mixed feelings. This happy home filled with healthy children clearly has insufficient space. The home provided by Hazara Afa is filled with love, but resource is lacking.

Over the past ten days we have come to realise the realities of the stories we heard about the street children, the children of the untouchables and the children of sex workers.

We have experienced and participated in the work being undertaken, by organisations and people such as, Jaago, Bottomley House, Pothoshishu, Shudha and Hazera Afa to combat this poverty and provide care for these children. Each of these organisations approaches this issue differently and to differing degrees but all are essential in touching the lives of these children.

On our penultimate day in Dhaka, we sigh a tiny sigh of relief at the thought of flying home to England.

From the Bangladeshi people and children we have met, we have received love, care and warmth, but our realities are very different to theirs and we understand now how fortunate we are.

There is so much more that we can all do…

By Sofena Choudhury and Mohima Shamsuddin

Sister Act

Posted by: on Jul 1, 2018 | No Comments

Hustled by the nuns at our first meeting with them, today we set off to take the Sisters on a day out in Kawran Bazaar. When we first met Sister Bijoya she told us a story of when she once left the orphanage to go out to Old Dhaka to buy shoes for the girls.

This was when Christopher was here and Christopher took her out. But when Mina told her about the street children she described how she desperately wanted to meet them and maybe bring some back to the Orphanage, but she recalls Mina did not take her out. We know we have a busy schedule but on balance we also know we don’t want to end up on the list Mina’s on, so we agree to take the Sisters on an excursion.

There is no better way to describe Sister Bijoya and Sister Protiba than to draw parallels with the innocent sweet sister and the sharp adorable sister from Sister Act. We decided to take them to a Potoshishu Street session.

When we arrive at the session which is scheduled to start at four, ten minutes early, it appears that there is a full class of students excited and ready to get going. As we approach, a tiny girl aged 4 is so excited that she jumps up off the matt and comes running towards us and gives me a big cuddle.

My heart melts.

I have no idea what I could have done to deserve such affection from this gorgeous child. All the school children excitedly wave and say hello.

Today’s session is very different to yesterday’s. The children are all frequent visitors. They come here every week. They do not attend any other schools as they cannot afford to. Two of the girls, called Rubeena and Khadija are about 10 years’ old. They complete the entire session while carrying their baby siblings who are less than a year old. These children are already parents.

We play a game where we stand in a circle holding hands and everyone says their name and where they come from.

I say I’m from London.

The child next to me says she is from the railway station, she is only 4 years old.

After the introductions the lesson commences. The children are taught to identify good behaviour and bad behaviour by drawing around their hands on paper then writing five good things they have done and five bad things they have done, one for each finger. A number of the children are illiterate and require help when it comes to writing, but they are keen to ask for help and to complete the task.

At the end of the learning session the bad things are scrunched up and put in the bin and good things are read out for each child as they stand in front of everyone. Due to the big turn out today the leader of the session runs out of time. The children are offered a choice of either completing the lesson or getting on with the scheduled play time.

They choose to COMPLETE THE LESSON!!

Afterwards there is a little time to play. They have a great time on the space hoppers donated by the Orphan Trust.

When the session is over we head back to the Orphanage with the sisters. We treat the girls to night of takeaway. All the staff and children are involved.

By Sofena and Mohima

Pothoshishu – Kamlapur Station Platform 8

Posted by: on Jul 1, 2018 | No Comments

Pothoshishu, Kamlapur Station Platform 8

A beautiful young boy stood out to us, no more than 4 years old, he was casually walking ahead of us on his own kicking bottles he came across on the floor.

We caught up with him and asked him if he was attending the Potishishu session but he didn’t reply, I don’t think he understood our poor Bengali, so we asked his name which we thought he would definitely understand, but still nothing.

He just stared at us with a little twinkle in his eye and then shrugged and walked off in a real blazé manor. We named him Mowgli. He was so cute that we decided to follow him. Struggling to keep up with his casual stride we were distracted for less than a minute when he disappeared out of site.

We set off to find one of the Potishishu sessions (street schools) in Kamlapur railway station which was an unscheduled visit. We arrived over an hour early, giving us plenty of time to try and find the train station platform, the session would be held on. After a lot of asking, a lot of walking we had finally got a rough idea of where it will be held. So we sat in the very busy train station and just watched.

We noticed mothers intoxicated with drugs as their children sat beside them. A young boy collapsed on a seating area didn’t move an inch in the 2-3 hours we were there. Lots of single women and men asleep with nothing but what they were wearing, on the outskirts of the station pathway. The station staff did frequent rounds with a big stick to wake them and move them on.

Eventually across the platform we noticed mats being placed on the floor. An area was cordoned off with rope and cones and the Potashishu banner was put up on the wall. The volunteers and children began to gather as we made our way over.

The children who attend frequently could be distinguished by their excitement.

They make their best efforts to contain this by sitting cross legged and eagerly on the mats awaiting the session to commence. Slowly more and more children appeared. Some join in out of curiosity. The volunteers go out to collect others who are around. The games began, we sit on one of the three mats crowded with children and start a game of pairs, the excitement in their faces is indescribable.

Then suddenly out of nowhere Mowgli arrives and joins in!

These children are not like the usual children we know and meet in everyday life. The effects of their complete neglect from the adult world soon becomes apparent. Even amongst the older children, their speech and communication is not fully formed. They are also much more naive than would be expected of children who have been left to make their own way in the world.

I sit in on the games sessions, while Sofena is asked to help coordinate first aid.

At Potoshishu, an essential part of the work delivered aside from creating a safe space for the children to relax and play and receive some much needed adult interaction to help their development, is that their basic health and cleanliness is attended to. There is a system for this when the children are in their play group a volunteer will ask if they have any first aid requirements, tickets are issued to those who do and they are called up one at a time.

When handing out the cards I realise that a fair proportion of the children request a card. Each are quizzed on their injury and produce the cuts scraps and grazes that they are walking around with.

One child is slightly confused, but puts his hand up anyway. When asked, he shows us his elbow which has a minor scrap which has already healed.

The card is declined on this basis.

He then insists he still needs one and shows us another injury that has healed, when rejected again he points to his knee and insists he has muscle pain. We giggle and I think back to my childhood days at primary school when receiving a little TLC and from the school nurse made me feel so special and cared for and somehow a plaster could turn a child into a school celebrity for the day.

I wonder if a little affection is what he is really after.

When assisting the first aider I enjoy conversations with the children. Being involved with pruning them, cutting their finger and toes nails creates an automatic nurturing connection. I ask simple things, like their name, their age and how they received their injuries.

They seem taken back that I care to ask, and they smile excitedly and shyly when I try to talk to them. When the camera comes out they are comfortable with me taking a picture though a little surprised that I would want to.

They relax and smile beautifully for the camera.

Their injuries seem minor at first, but as the iodine is applied, puss and blood come gushing out. I’m horrified, but this continues for each child that is tended to. These minor injuries exposed to the dirt and grime of Dhaka’s streets, when the children are sleeping rough and have nowhere to clean and no clothes to change into become infected quickly. Untreated, I see now that these could easily result in catastrophe.

I ask one of the boys how he received his injury. He looks no more than 8 or 9 years old. He innocently tells me a familiar childhood story. Two days prior he was chased by a dog and whilst running he fell and injured his knee. I can see that his jeans are torn at the point of injury and the emotions of the event are relived while telling this story.

A boy with his foot in bandage was carried over by one of the volunteers. His name was Robin, he looked slightly dazed but answered all questions with a smile. He told us his foot was run over by a bus.

He was taken to hospital by the police two months ago where they bandaged it up and then dropped him back to the railway station. He has no Mum and no Dad so was probably given very little attention because he was ‘just a street kid’. The first aider started undoing his bandage which was covered in dirt.

Robin was covered in flies and once the bandage was unravelled…  we became quickly aware that his foot was rotting away.

It was explained to Robin he would have the bandage changed for now but he would have to go into hospital. We offered to take him there but we were told the hospital was closed on Friday. So they made an appointment to collect him at 8 o clock the next morning. We became even more concerned at this point. He needed somewhere to stay for the night as he was clearly scared and sleeping rough in this condition was unimaginable to us. We thought what if they didn’t find him the next day or he missed them for whatever reason. We asked if It was possible for him to go to a shelter-home that very night? The volunteers said they would try but it will most probably be after his hospital appointment. We were horrified by the condition of this boy.

We stocked up on medical supplies for the Potoshishu first aid box then headed back to the hotel. We spent the evening traumatised and trying to come to terms with what we had seen. The thought of this boy being out on the streets scared and so poorly was unbearable.

In the morning we called Brother Lucio, a catholic priest who is the founder of Potoshishu. He told us the boy spent the night in a shelter and was taken to hospital in the morning.

I cannot put into words the admiration I have for the work that this organisation and its volunteers do. They are able to make such great impact with such little resource. They reach out to these neglected and otherwise forgotten or invisible children.

By Mohima & Sofena

Day 4: Jaago Foundation

Posted by: on Jun 29, 2018 | No Comments

Today we visited Jaago Foundation who provide education for the poorest of children in Bangladesh whose families cannot afford to pay for schooling.

They have two schools in Dhaka and 10 schools in villages throughout Bangladesh. The schools in the villages are taught remotely from Dhaka where the teachers are better qualified. Teachers are also employed in the villages to overlook the students learning and development and provide assistance.

The Orphan Trust provide sponsorship for five of the Foundations’ teachers.

The school and its head office in Banani have a fresh and new age feel to them.There are children’s painting in bright colours all over the walls. They are tech savvy and encourage this amongst the children.

Outside the school there are PC work stations available for use by the street children who do not have access to computers. This is designed to encourage them to learn basic IT skills.

We meet with Korvi Rakshand, the founder to check in on how things are progressing. He explains that the first round of graduates from the school which started as a single class of 12 students are due to complete their studies at Jaago in the next month.

He shows us a spreadsheet which maps out the continued support that will be offered to the students through higher education and into university.

The students are split into ability categories, the less able will eventually attend technical collages while the more able will go on to university. Jaago will provide the sponsorship for their future education.

They have also arranged jobs and places at open universities for the two students whose grades did not quite meet the requirements for a technical college. One of the students who has consistently produced exemplary results in all subjects is also being considered for international schooling at a centre of excellence under a scholarship.

By Sofena Choudhury

Day 3 – The hunt for Evian and an impromptu drop in to Bottomley House Orphanage

Posted by: on Jun 28, 2018 | No Comments

While sipping tea on the roof terrace of the YWCA, Mohima’s eagle eye spots a bottle of Evian half empty and sitting on a desk in the classroom of the on site school.

She immediately begins to interrogate the first passer by. ‘Where, where can I buy this’ she asks with sheer desperation.

The young man is very pleasant. He explains that often these bottles are refilled and sold as originals.

‘Be weary’ he warns.

He then povides a low down of the bottled water available in Bangladesh and its quality.

This information is worrying. Non the less on our first day in Dhaka, left to our own devices to spend at our leisure, off we set on the mission to find Evian.

We are armed with the name of a Bangladeshi supermarket…

Out in Dhaka just Mohima and I now for the first time, I feel like a pro. We settle for no less than the local rate and somehow with it just being the two of us we are less prone to looking like lost tourists and being ripped off. Travelling here comes so naturally.

With the assistance of the lonely planet and the GPS map of local knowledge, provided by Christopher I begin to try and understand the layout of the city. With our busy schedule over the remaining stay this seems essential.

I discover that a Bangladeshi supermarket is much like a large ethnic grocery store in London. They have refrigerators, freezers a grocery section, a butchers and a savoury snack section. It quickly dawns on us that the search for Evian has failed. A member of staff at the store explains that the bottled refrigerated water sold at the store is indeed re-bottled tap water. We think back to the sleepy villages, the wells and the satisfaction of understanding the source of the drinking water.

We wonder out on to the streets, speaking to the locals and the shop owners as we walk, purchasing fizzy drinks and snacks at every corner. We quiz them on their knowledge of the city’s layout and modes of transport. We aim to eventually make our way over to Kawran Bazaar from Mohammadpur. In the end we decide to take a CNG (a motorised rickshaw).

We step out in to the road to stop one and immediately a man down the road begins to shout at me, indicating I should stand back. I think he is worried I could get run over, but the traffic on this main road is light (speaking relatively so this makes no sense). He continues to shout and points up. As my eyes follow I soon see a shower of red hot welding debris showering down from the building construction taking place over head.

I run!

There is no hoarding or warning signs, no official person allocated by the building contractor to warn people. The man is just a local who has noticed the activities. It occurs to me that Bangladesh is a dangerous place. Just walking down the road is hazardous. All day we have been climbing over paving slabs and jumping over broken drainage covers without a thought. Now I recall hearing once that people falling into manholes is common cause of death here. I wonder if this could be true…

After haggling with a few rickshaw drivers we establish the going rate and jump in. We are heading to Kawran Bazaar with the intension of locating Bottomley House and taking a leisurely walk back to the hotel to discover the local area.

On arrival we pull up next to a cart where a group of girls appear to be greatly enjoying a treat. We enquire what’s these are and decide it must be worth a go as the stand is so popular. The man serves us a plate of mini puri’s filled with daal and topped with onion and lime rind salad in dressing. They are delicious. We’ve never tried these before. When the treats are all gone, we look up to discover we are outside Bottomley House Orphanage and decide that we should casually drop in as we are there.

We knock on the big heavy metal gate of this compound. Sometime later a person arrives and let’s us in. They explain that the sisters are attending church.

We say we will wait.

The person disappears and we sit in the tranquil court yard which feels a million miles away from the world beyond. A group of young girls appear and curiously watch us as we wait. We can hear laughter and we watch as the older girls walk freely and happily through the corridors.

At our meeting with the nuns they explain that they are very thankful for our visit and have been eagerly awaiting our arrival. They express gratitude for the donation of the desks, tables, beds and bedding provided by The Orphan Trust. They say that they are now struggling to meet the running costs of the Orphanage and would be grateful for any support that we could offer to purchase basic items of food.

Later we meet the girls in their classroom. They welcome us warmly and show familiarity and excitement at the mention of Mina. Their happy carefree and polite nature becomes contagious and we are filled with a sense how lovely a sanctuary this orphanage is.

By Sofena Choudhury

Day 2 – The villages of Sirajganj and distribution of clothes

Posted by: on Jun 28, 2018 | No Comments

We have been in Bangladesh for less than 48hrs and so much has happened on very little sleep. We feel ill prepared for the long day ahead. The day starts in the usual Bengali fashion, a breakfast of daal and puri in a local cafe where there is bench style seating and we sit and eat with the locals. Already Mohima and I have assimilated well into the eating culture. Easy to do when the offerings are so good throughout the day.

We visit the sleepy villages of Shampur, Chilgacha, Kuraliya, in an 8 seater vehicle. We have a driver, the project manager in Sirajganj and our hosts from Shudha escorting us. The villages are set against a lush and vivid backdrop of rice paddies and lakes. Communities gather around the wells. These are as much a place of social chit chat for the villagers as they are a place for the children to play and wash and drink.

The wells are beautifully built and presented as a monument, and the people and children are proud and thankful for the gift. The wells cost only £150 to build and provide a source of fresh water that prevent the children from drinking from the lakes.

On route we distribute clothes to local traveller communities and the Hindu untouchable communities consisting of Sweepers, Dooms and Muchids. It is along day and at night we travel back to Dhaka on a bus. This is dangerous as the roads in Bangladesh are treacherous, this particular road is still under construction and accidents are frequent.

That night as I snuggled up in bed after taking a shower in our palatial room at the YWCA, the sheets which I treated as suspicious on our first night in Dhaka feel luxurious.

By Sofena Choudhury

The Room – Part 2

Posted by: on Jun 27, 2018 | No Comments

Whilst Saf and I walked upto our bedroom we decided after such a lovely evening with the villagers of Sirajganj, we could possibly stay the 2 nights as planned in room we had been given.

Before going to bed Bristi, Sofena and I decided to organise the clothes we wanted to distribute, into categories.

This would make it easier for us to hand out the following day.

Once completed we sat on our bed and instantly I saw an expression on Bristi’s face as if she had seen something she really didn’t want to see. (The frozen stance, big eyed stare and the noise you hear from someone who has seen something bad)

Whilst my heart skipped a beat both Sofena and I looked over to where Bristi was staring.

Three huge cockroaches about the length of more than half my face and 2cm wide were having a party on the cabinet in our room. (At the time it felt like they were moving at 100mph)

The next minute or so consisted of us all screaming pushing and running to get out the room.

This startled many of the neighbouring rooms who came out to see what the commotion was all about. Once they got to the  bottom of what was going on many laughed and re-entered their rooms. The owner of the hotel got us to clear our  belongings into Bristi’s room so he could spray pest killer around the room to exterminate the abnormally large creatures.

Surprisingly Sofena seemed more content than me at this point… I was twitching and jumping at everything because I thought it was one of them coming for me.

Some time later the man came to Bristi’s room and told us he had sprayed the room and they were all gone. We opened the room door with caution about an hour later and as we stepped in there was yet another huge cockroach running towards us. We ran back out screaming. Our host from Shuda told us to wait in his room whilst he would go to the shop and buy a big can of good quality pest spray. We told him he didn’t need to but he very kindly insisted anyhow.

Whilst we walked into his room Sofena closes his room door and yet again I see that oh so familiar look on Bristi’s face… before I could look Sofena begins screaming and running out the room.

Our host ran in and instantly killed it.

I am pretty sure they were trying to chase us out the building and they would have, had we had alternative accommodation. Being so late this was not the case. We eventually bravely returned to our room. We push our beds together and covered the crack between the mattresses with the travelling sheet that Christoper gave us incase of an emergency.

We created a den with a mosquito net and kept the light on all night and talked our way through to the morning. Our host knocked on our door at 7am and was surprised to learn we had not slept at all through the night.

He decided it would be best for us to squeeze everything into the next day and leave to return to back to Dhaka that evening…

By Mohima Shamsuddin

The Untouchable Colony

Posted by: on Jun 27, 2018 | No Comments

After check in we visit a local colony of Doom and Sweeper families. We now understand that in the caste system Dooms are used to clear dead carcasses and perished deceased bodies or to dig up graves for purposes of enquiries that follow burials. The sweepers are toilet cleaners.

The colony is a tiny slum area made up of a cluster of tin houses with mud walls all located in very close proximity to one another. It is based in the town of Sirajganj.

On entering we meet a women outside the communal temple. She is very praising of god and proudly points towards the temple. We continue down the alleyway and past a couple of tin houses to an opening, this tiny court yard surrounded by four building appears to be a community hub area. There is a pump well located outside a building which is essentially one room. We are told this is the school.

A young lady appears, she is introduced as a former student, her name is Jinook, now aged 22 she has completed her studies in Political Science BA Hons and is looking for work in a related field. She is of the Sweeper community, an untouchable. As we stand there, more and more people appear, the children gather. At first they are a little shy. Our host appears with a camera and we all gather for photographs. After this we are invited into the school.

We meet Chadni who is 16, she has just finished her studies at the school and requires sponsorship to continue with her education. I later discover what a bright and articulate young lady Chadni is, when she succinctly, articulately and politely makes a case for funding the girls education at a meeting with community head, the men of the village and our host from Shudha who provides some of the sponsorship.

As a welcome the schools teachers also from the community and the children put on a meet and greet session for us. They sing us a song to welcome us, then we all set off for a wonder around Colony. People empty their houses to welcome and join us on the tour. Each house is made up of two rooms and a kitchen. The kitchen is located in a separate building away from the house, the toilets and showers are communal. We hear that a Swedish charity have recently committed to building a separate showers for the girls. After the tour we are presented with flowers and asked to join a village meeting. It is held in one of the houses.

The house is clean and well presented, and although a single room accommodates an entire family the feeling of love and warmth from this community stretchers through the four walls of this home. The villagers gather around the house, looking in through the window as the meeting commences.

At the meeting we hear that the community have been given 50,000tk by the government to help a project which aims to refurbish the school. The tin building has become dilapidated and is dangerous for the children (see picture).

Shudha have pledged 25000tk for the project. Due to the lack of funding the project will take place in phases. The rear wall of the school will be rebuilt to begin with, and once more money is available another phase will take place. Bristi one of our hosts explains that the school are desperately in need of books for their library (see pictures) which is currently a single cabinet consisting of a single self of books. She says that the teacher hope that one day they can have a separate room with a reading area as the library.

It occurs to me that if rebuilding a single wall of school costs £750 the cost to supply the school with some books, more sufficient shelving units or perhaps even a separate room as a library and reading area cannot be very much. This project would continue to serve a community who with education are already beginning to work their way out of poverty.

At the meeting we learn that sponsoring Chadni and the other girls who have reached 16 in the village into higher education would cost only £12 per student per month. It is acknowledged that the advancement of girls in this community will greatly contribute to the advancement of future generations.

I remember the conversation with Bristi on the night of our arrival. She described that commonly children and particularly girls from this community are at risk and can quickly become destitute following the marital break up of parents or a bereavement. They can be drawn into brothel communities like Daulatdia (see link, this a a must watch)!!!

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JYPyI1agpiw&feature=youtu.be

Now that I have met these loving people who are so happy, generous and attentive I find this vulnerability hard to swallow. I can see that this is a strong community who work together. I therefore find it all more difficult to comprehend.

By Sofena Choudhury

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