Making a Difference

Friday, 14 January 2011
Author: Syed Zain Al-Mahmood and M Ishtiaque Hossain

When was the last time you stopped to help someone in need? For most of us, our fast paced lives allow little scope to do anything for the homeless man in the corner, the hungry child selling flowers in the street, or the grieving widow in need of counselling. Or so we tell ourselves.

Bangladeshi society, riddled with corruption and lacking basic safety nets, is in desperate need of people who will extend a helping hand where government machinery does not reach. Fortunately, there are some determined individuals who have taken time out to make a difference.

Whether they are counselling a battered wife, rescuing an accident victim, feeding a homeless family or giving an illiterate child an education, these individuals and the organisations they built help thousands of Bangladeshis each day.

For Korvi Rakshand, the journey started in Sylhet in 2005. “I was still a student back then and I was doing a survey on the condition of under privileged children,” says the suave University of London law graduate. “I met a few kids playing by the dumpster. I ended up spending an entire day playing with them, got them lunch and snacks. At the end of the day when I had to leave, one of the little girls grabbed my arm and asked me to be her dad. Her exact words were “Tumi ki amar baba hobe? Amader sathe thakbe?”
That was the moment Korvi decided to do something for underprivileged children. He went on to establish Jaago Foundation, a non-profit youth-based organisation that aims to bring about a substantial improvement in the lives of disadvantaged children with special emphasis on their literacy and nourishment. In November 2010, Korvi won the International Mosaic Talent Award in recognition of his outstanding work in breaking the cycle of poverty through education.

Says Korvi: “I never found those kids at the dumpster later on, but that was a defining moment for me, a turning point in life you may say; when I first thought of creating Jaago.”

Today Jaago operates a free of cost English Medium School that provides education of international standard to the impoverished children coming from the slums of Rayer Bazar and also conducts programs concerning woman empowerment; employment creation; superior health and hygiene. But the journey has not been a smooth one. There was initially a lot of skepticism from friends and peers.

Korvi says: “Initially when I wanted to start Jaago, I had a meeting at a restaurant in Banani road 11. There were more than 70 people that day, the owner of the establishment couldn’t find enough seats. When I actually got down to the slums, the number went down to only 7 people. Not a single person was supportive of the idea that slum children could study in an English medium school. Now that I look back, their reaction only fuelled my flame. I thought if we can learn English, then so can slum children. They just haven’t because no one has given them the opportunity to study in a proper English medium school. I never gave up on my vision, and now you see kids at JAAGO speaking perfect English, reciting nursery rhymes and being a child just like every other normal kid.”

Like every other young man, Korvi faced pressure from his family to pursue a conventional career. His parents were not happy when they learnt he was planning to leave a promising career in law to help poor children get an education.
“There was the usual reaction of “How will you earn a living? Where will you stay?” just like any other parent would react if their son told them he was leaving a career in law to help slum children. But the answer to your question would be no. I have no regrets about leaving everything for JAAGO, because JAAGO is not just an organization, it’s my baby and we’re a family. I’m going to be a cliché and say money gets you a lot of things but it can’t get you unconditional love and respect. A security guard at an MNC will salute his superiors but he will rarely do it out of love and respect. I used to live in a 4000 square feet house, now I live in a slum in 10 feet x10 feet tiny little room. Before I used to wake up to my mom’s voice, now I wake up every morning to the sound of nursery rhymes. So yeah, absolutely no regrets.”

Korvi soon found out that doing good in Bangladesh is no cakewalk. “If you’re trying to run a racket no one will stop you but if you’re trying to run an organisation that helps people then you’re in a very different ball game. I get death threats every other day from local godfathers for taking kids off the streets and putting them in school.”

Local gangsters find they are not making money if a child goes to school rather than selling flowers or popcorn at the intersection and it affects their pool of juvenile delinquents. Korvi has become used to living with their threats. The authorities haven’t been supportive either.

Korvi says: “Right after I received the Mosaic award and landed in Dhaka at 6am, I got a call from the detective branch at 9am in the morning, asking me to visit the their head office. When I went there they said, “Apnake onno bhabeo anate partam but apni ekta organization er head tai phone kore bhodro bhabe anlam” (We could have used other means to bring you here but since you’re the head of an organization I called you up and asked you to come politely). Apparently according to them I am a threat to national security and they were trying to find out whether I’m affiliated with criminal activities.”

Korvi believes his work brings its own reward, but hopes the Mosaic Award will help inspire other individuals to come forward. “It was very humbling. I was up against the Jordan foundation, chaired by her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah and Yilmaz Akinci a journalist who has worked for the likes of CNN and Al Jazeera. When they announced my name for the winner I was in shock. Only downside is I ended up spending $350 on a tuxedo.”

At 25, Korvi has no intention of slowing down. “People call it charity, I call it responsibility,” he says with typical determination.

In a country where nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line, there are many vulnerable groups. But one of the most defenseless groups are street-children. A Unicef study estimated the number around 3,80,000, 55 per cent of whom are in Dhaka, with nearly half of them being 10 years old or less. These children have to run a daily gauntlet of violence, abuse and humiliation and are exposed to drugs, alcohol and prostitution as they strive to make those few ‘takas’ to sustain themselves and their families.

In 2006, Anita Aparna Muyeed had settled into a comfortable job as Art and Design Technology Instructor at the International School of Dhaka. She had found out she was pregnant, and helping street children was far from her mind as she planned her own family and career.

“One morning, my car had come to a halt at a traffic light,” says Aparna. “As a group of children came tapping at my window for alms, out of guilt and discomfort, I proceeded to block them out of my vision. But later I remember thinking to myself, “What kind of mother will I be if I can’t look a child in the eye?”.

Aparna says she was inspired by memories of her father’s magnetism and his open-hearted discourses with strangers regardless of age, gender or status. She resolved to do something for the street children of Dhaka.

“They were so resourceful and savvy. I wanted to give them the tools to turn that resourcefulness into a livelihood tool. Educating them was the key,” says Aparna.

The StreetWise Project started off in 2006 with 10 children living on the streets who met for lunch, art, and playtime every Friday. After a year of getting to know the children and their families, in January 2007, StreetWise rented a space in the heart of the children’s neighbourhood in Badda.

According to Aparna Muyeed, at first it was very difficult to retain the children in the program because they had so many burdens to bear and had very little time to spare. They are the main providers and care-givers of their families, and going off to school all day was a luxury they could not afford. The children’s guardians and the community did indeed show doubt, fear and skepticism, in many ways, but the Streetwise founders handled the obstacles one by one.

Aparna hit on an innovative way to retain the children in the project. “By selling reproductions of student artwork from art class in various retail shops (Aarong, Jatra, Bibi Russel’s, among others such as Gulshan Minimart, Radius Center and Libasse), we came up with a simple system whereby our students not only earn an income while in our program, but also contribute to the costs of running the program. In that way, we compensate the parents for their children’s time away from the streets and the income they used to derive from it.”

Aparna says she is hearted by the support she received from friends and family. She believes people will be moved from complacency to action if they are shown how. “StreetWise, has attracted a variety of very dedicated people. So far, it has been run by a group of volunteers working in various areas such as teaching, sales, fundraising, and operations, which spotlights how giving and selfless people, who are willing to make a difference, really are.”

Although she was born and brought up in Paris and educated in the US, Aparna Muyeed says she does not regret deciding to spend her life helping street children in Bangladesh. According to Aparna, the street children have as big an impact on her life as she has on theirs. “The act of helping another is an immense privilege. The helper is equally as transformed as the one being helped.”

Students of universities in the city will be familiar with the tall slender figure of a young woman lugging around donation boxes. The boxes sport handwritten signs such as: “Please Help Aila Survivors!” and “Donate to Save Lives.” For Turfa Tasneem, a student of North South University, helping people she does not know and may never meet is just a way of giving back.

“We are immensely privileged to have a roof over our heads and enough food on our table,” says Turfa. “We have an education. We owe it to society to do something for the less fortunate.”

In a materialistic age, when young people are more preoccupied with the latest fashions and cutting-edge gadgets, Turfa is an exception. She says: “When Aila hit bangladesh I was home with a nasty attack of jaundice. I was bored and would read the newspapers over and over. I used to see the misery of Aila victims making headline everyday. Then in a month the story went from the front page to the back page and soon it was forgotten.”

Turfa says she found out from a follow-up report a few weeks later that the Aila victims were still living under the open and sky and dying of diarrhoea. “At that point I got sick reading the news as I realised that so many of us who are in the city are probably doing the same thing as me, reading the newspaper in a comfortable chair with tea in one hand and the remote in another. So I thought why don’t I try to raise some money but most of all awareness that these people have managed to survive the storm but are suffering more from the aftermath. So that is how the whole thing started and I named my project ASHO which stood for “Aila survivors’ help obligation”.

Turfa says she received an overwhelming response from her peers. Turfa set up boxes at all the main campuses and inside the popular restaurants. “There was initially some scepticism and a lot of apathy. I remember I called my best friend to ask if he could help me and when I explained to him who I was trying to help he asked, ‘What’s Aila?’”

The overall success of her effort has convinced Turfa that ordinary people with the will to help can make a difference. “I have started to teach some children in my area. I give them lessons under the open sky. Some of these kids go to school, but don’t seem to be doing too well. I help them with their lessons. Now many of my friends are joining my little effort.

“You don’t need to be a Rockefeller to help people. The will to help goes a long way. It’s only a small step from complacency to action.”

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