The Ripple Effects of Pebble

Rice paddies stretch across rural Bangladesh like an emerald patchwork blanket, dotted with clusters of small huts. Village life ebbs and flows with the seasons and those who live here are deeply connected to and dependent upon the earth. Few jobs exist for women, so those who are desperate for work must entrust their children to their grandparents care and migrate to the city to work in the garment industry. There they sweat long days, stitching together the clothing many of us wear on our back. They pinch every penny by living in a slum or hostel so they can send as much of their earnings as possible home to their families. Tired, lonely and vulnerable, these women are often taken advantage of in devastating ways. But, there is a growing network of more than 120 Hathay Bunano work centers throughout the rural villages of Bangladesh, where women gather daily to create Pebble toys. These centers are a stark contrast to the garment factories of the cities.

Pebble keeps families together. The women can easily walk to work and take their babies with them. If there is not a preschool in the area, Pebble helps to start one.

Their hours are flexible, so they can come in between household tasks. During busy harvest times, they can take the work home with them to work extra hours in the evening.

The women, many of whom did not have educational opportunities when they were young, are able to send their own children to school. Daughters, who are the first to be pulled out of school during times of financial difficulties, are now able to get an education. In addition, many young women are now putting themselves through college by working for Pebble, creating a new world of possibility in a culture where child marriage is quite acceptable.

Pebble creates safe and happy community. Instead of the loud and often dangerous machinery of the garment factories, the women here sit in a circle, with their bowls of yarn and crocheting needles as the breeze rustles through palm trees and the chickens cluck nearby. Here it is safe to laugh together, cry together, swap stories and help shoulder each other’s burdens.

Pebble does so much more than provide a fair wage for their employees; it brings a dignity that goes so much deeper. In traditionally patriarchal communities, women are gathering as a strong force and are being given a voice.

The future is changing for women in Bangladesh. As brightly colored threads of yarn glide through their fingers, these women are stitching together a future that is bright and hopeful for themselves and generations to come.

Since it’s humble beginning fifteen years ago, Pebble has expanded to employ between 12,000 -14,000 women and is growing daily. For more of the Pebble story, check out this video here.

Pebble is run by an amazing staff, including Rayhan Khabir, the executive director, pictured above.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

 

The People Nobody Wants

I have been following the story of the Rohingya Refugees for quite some time now and have been moved to blog about them here several times before. My dream of one day visiting their refugee camps had finally become a reality. I woke eagerly on Day 3 of my sickness, sure that this would be a better day. I texted my friend, who is a nurse in one of the medical clinics inside the camp, and she confirmed my suspicion that the antibiotics were intensifying my nausea. I put off taking my final pill, in hopes that I could feel more normal for the day ahead. I was able to eat breakfast with my team and we set out for the camp. The road leading out of town was the size of a narrow one-way street, huge holes gaped out of the edges in places, as if a ravenous monster had taken bites of it during the night. We left the town behind and soon the road gave way to lovely views of the ocean on one side and rolling hills on the other. After nearly an hour of driving, we met a sweet Canadian couple who gave us drinks of cold water before catching CNGs (similar to Baby Taxis or Auto Rickshaws) to take us the rest of the way into the camp. As we jostled along the dusty and bumpy brick road, we learn that the road had only been built a few months prior. Before that, it had just been a dirt path, which fast turned to mud during the monsoon. Nearly one million people are crammed into this tiny space that was once a national forest. Now the trees are gone and thousands of tiny huts cluster together on any acreage deemed safe enough for building. I was struck by the organization, the number of blue latrines that dotted the hillsides, and water pumps everywhere.

We passed many NGO centers, women-friendly spaces and even a playing field where kids played soccer together. Many refugees are hired to work at building roads and reinforcing dirt hillsides with intricately laced bamboo in an effort to keep the hills from eroding and turning to mud during the monsoon. Little children greeted us in English as we drove by while Burka-clad women looked on.

It was nearly noon by the time we arrived at the clinic.The heat inside of the tiny metal structure struck me with shocking force, though it was still supposedly the cool season. A tiny pharmacy was located inside along with a waiting room lined with benches, and 4 exam rooms. More benches lined the front of the clinic, to hold the overflow of patient who still had hopes of being seen that day. After finding my friend and being introduced to some of the staff, I was able to be part of one of the exams. An American midwife gently looked into the ears of a two-year-old boy who had an ear infection. He lay asleep in his mother’s lap, made small by her protruding belly which spoke of a sibling soon to be born. Soon the mom was on the exam table, cradling her boy as best she could while lifting up her burka so the midwife could check on her baby. As I perched on my stool in front of the window, I could soon recognize the swooshing song of the baby’s heartbeat. I wondered if I was feeling faint faint from the excitement of it all, or if my traveler’s belly was threatening to do me in again.

I swapped places with one of my team mates and sat outside to try to catch a breeze, but my body just wasn’t having it. They took me to the one empty exam room and I stretched out on the table, rolling up my scarf as a pillow. Nurses fluttered in and out to get supplies while the sounds of crying babies, mothers chatting in one corner of the building, men in the other, all melded together. Sounds and smells collided and bounced off the walls of this tiny life-saving structure that had been carried in piece by piece and put together out of love. I lay, unable to do anything else, on the bed used to diagnose and heal their pain, this pale foreigner, stripped of her strength and left only with an inner kernel of humanity, nothing to give but exhausted love, in much need of rest and healing herself. A tiny speck in a camp of a million refugees, a people no one wants. It was there that I recognized the humanity of suffering and need

The sacred truth revealed that day is with me still. To be human is to be equal. Ethnicity, citizenship, religion, wealth or lack thereof, mean absolutely nothing in the big picture. These categories are lines that we have drawn in the sand, lines that distract us and cause us to miss out on all that life could be if we just remembered this sacred truth. May we actively remember.

To be human is to be equal.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

Traveler’s Belly Continues

Day 2 of my sickness found me collapsed in exhaustion, despite having slept all afternoon the day before and all through night. My amazing team went out, on their own, bought groceries and fended for themselves. They help me pack up and Ramjan, our driver, picked us up to transport us to the airport for our next adventure. Hours later, we found ourselves in the southeast corner of Bangladesh, in Cox’s Bazar. I was completely spent by the time we arrived at our hotel, so once again, my amazing team ventured out on their own. While I slept, they ate at a local restaurant, ordering by gesturing as there were no English menus. They said the place was packed and by the time they had finished eating, their table was surrounded by people who had called dibs on it.

From there, they walked on to the beach, expecting to find a quiet beach front where they could sit and relax. What they found instead was hundreds folks on holiday, enjoying the sand and the water along with the coastal breezes.

Thoughtfully, they hunted down biscuits I could tolerate, bananas, 7-Up, and Orsaline, a local re-hydration drink. As I nodded off that evening, I found myself deeply grateful for such strong and tender female friends.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

Unexpected Kindness

Misery violently took over my night, pushed sleep aside and sent me rushing to the bathroom. The initial relief was short lived and I soon found myself fumbling in the darkness, desperate for the antibiotics the Traveler’s Clinic had sent with me. I gulped down the first giant tablet, determined to be ready for travel by morning. We had a full day planned, including a visit to a hostel for young girls, shopping and then dinner at a friend’s house before returning to our guest house in Dhaka. Yet, morning still found me pasted to my bed, stomach swirling in unreasonable circles. Relief that no one else had caught the same bug and the reality of our next day’s flight out of Dhaka propelled me out of bed, grateful for friends to help me pack up. This was not the way I wanted to say goodbye to Mymensingh, one of my favorite cities on earth, eyes squinted tightly shut to block out the light and hands grasping a plastic bag just in case. As we left the city behind and headed towards Dhaka, we canceled all other plans for the day and I laid back in my seat and willed myself to survive the journey.

It was awful, I’m not gonna lie. Many roads in this densely populated nation feel like a loop in Mario Cart, only there are a million other drivers racing down the same road and the precipices are real. Our driver, Ramjan, who had been nothing but a gentleman since we left Dhaka, was now doing his best to maneuver his way home. It wasn’t long before I found myself squatting on the side of the road, upheaving the remains of my stomach. Ramjan hovered beside me, full of concern, telling my friend to hold my hand and pull my hair back. He even took a long look at my vomit to try to figure out what I had eaten that was causing my insides to have such a mutiny. When I was finished, he motioned for me to hold out my hands so he could pour water into them. He showed me how to rinse out my mouth and wash my face. As I squatted in the dirt by the side of the road and cupped my hands to accept his gift of water, I felt the Divine tapping me on the shoulder and I knew I was taking in a holy sacrament. I saw my Creator mirrored so beautifully in the face of our Muslim driver who shared his water with this tired and sick American woman. Something inside came unglued and it’s a wonder I made it back into the van instead of catapulting down the embankment.

Here is the painful truth – if Ramjan were in my country, he would most likely be arrested or put on a watch list simply based on his appearance and yet he welcomed me,  the stranger. He played the role of protector and host. He was the one who gently taught the first time visitors in our group how to eat with their fingers. In a country where clean drinking water is a commodity, he shared his with me. Dang, he didn’t even avert his eyes from my vomit! It’s the Ramjans that make the world a better, kinder place. In my home country, we tend to judge people like him because of the way they look or the religion they follow. Instead of sharing our water, we build higher walls so those still desperate to come must cross in the desert south of the border, some dying of thirst on the way. We deny place to those who have lost everything because we are afraid they will take something from us. Yet, no matter how high or long we build our walls, how many refugees and asylum seekers we turn away under the pretext of our own safety, we are the ones who lose the most. By diminishing the created, we push away the Creator and Christ is turned away once again.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography and Liga Mullins.

Dignity Restored

The stairway spirals upward. As we ascend, a hum of excitement makes its way downward to our ears. We follow the sound and find ourselves in a room packed with more than forty women, and a whole menagerie of sweet lil’ ones. We exchange greetings and sit on the concrete with them, and soon are enthralled by their singing, their beautiful brown bodies, swaying to tunes unfamiliar, yet universal, in the language of the soul. Wee little ones, arrayed  in bright saris and make up, are joined by tweens and teens, and finally the women themselves join in the song and dance. Then, noise and movement laid gently aside, a hush wraps round us as the women prepare to relate to us the story of their lives, acted out in a powerful drama. With creativity, passion and on their terms, they gift to us a poignant retelling of their story,…

…the story of a mama’s despair and loss when she wakes up to find her child stolen in the night.

…the story of a child’s experience as a servant in a house where she is first adored but then beaten and cast out.

…the story of being sold like an animal to the madam of a brothel, of being used again and again and again until she is nothing but a heap of pain on the floor.

…the story of being scolded and rejected by her new mother figure, the madam, for getting pregnant.

…the story of seeking out her biological mama again, yet instead of a joyful homecoming she is shunned. Her mama will have nothing to do with her because of the shame that follows her through no fault of her own.

…the story of hope, that when all hope seems lost, she meets someone who works at Basha. She comes, hesitantly and distrustfully. She is treated with kindness for the first time in years, the ruin of her life slowly replaced with healing. Her new family has become this roomful of brave and beautiful women who have already taken a similar journey. They show her that she, too, has a place here. Kindness restores her dignity and gives her hope of a good life for her and her unborn baby.

Eyes and cheeks moist with tears, we were stunned into silence, the gift of their bravery acknowledged by the lumps in our throats and the weight of a million more tears we were trying to hold back. How does one leave this sacred moment and not be changed forever? Somehow we manage to pull ourselves together and spend the rest of the morning applying make up together, followed by a photo shoot to celebrate the beauty of our lives as women.

Permission was obtained from the model and the photographer for the use of this photo.

These women radiate from the inside out, proof that healing and transformation is possible. Can you feel it?

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography