Breakfast in the King’s House

We took a brief reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the capital and took a day trip to Sonargaon-Panam City. In 1564, when East Bengal was under the independent Afghan ruler, Taj Khan Karrani, Isa Khan obtained an estate in the area and became a vassal of the Karrani rulers. By 1571, he had expanded his rule and was over the entire Bhati region, with Sonargaon as the capital. He stood up to the Mughal rulers and refused to let them take control of the region. He ruled the area until his death in 1599. Much later, during the British rule in the late 19th century, Panam City was established as a trading centre of cotton textiles. Today, the area is under the protection of the Department of Archeology of Bangladesh.

Sonargaon is also the last stop of the ancient Grand Trunk Road, which stretched 2,500km from there to Kabul, Afghanistan.

There is no beauty like the ancient, no song like the ones that waft through corridors of the past. We sat, in awe, and ate breakfast in the king’s house, tearing off pieces of bread to dip in spicy dal and vegetables, looking around in disbelief. Later we drank tea in the courtyard, surrounded by an ethereal beauty that words cannot describe. The breeze itself seemed alive with stories of bravery and we could feel the strength that still echoed in the empty crumbling rooms of the servant’s quarters.

We walked through Litchi and Mango groves, toured the old town, mouths gaping at the unspeakable beauty of ancient architecture. We toured the museum and posed for hundreds of pictures with crowds of students who were also visiting that day. Our guides for the day, Rayhan and Akik from Pebble, had to practically pull us away when it was time to leave. We headed back to Dhaka with a happy sigh, a bit more history tucked into our hearts.

To read more about the history of Sonargaon and Isa Khan, read here and here.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography

The House of Hope

Basha is one of my favorite places in the world! In short, Basha is a house of Hope, a place where both trafficked women and women at risk can come to find safety, dignity and a place to start over. You can read a more in depth post about Basha here.

Walking in, we are greeted by room after room full of happy, strong, brave and transformed women. Their joy is contagious, their smiles radiate from their hearts and the peace is palpable. We sit with them, watching swift hands quilt vibrant vintage saris into Kantha quilts. We stare, in awe, at deft fingers hammering and shaping copper, brass and silver into beautiful jewelry. Their children play happily in a nearby room while their moms stitch and hammer new chapters of their lives into being.

Face after face reveal to me the truth that healing is possible, even after the deepest tragedy. Life can be chosen after death. Pain does not have the last word. Sitting in that community of women makes me realize that anything is possible. Even my deepest pain and heartache can be walked through because there is more on the other side. Women together, building hope, are an unstoppable force.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

 

Dhaka

My feet feel like they’re floating, carrying me to places I remember, yet don’t, all at the same time. So much has changed and everywhere I see eight years worth of constant tearing down and rebuilding, and yet, the heart of this city has remained the same. Warm friendly greetings call out, curious stares follow us as we meander the streets, trying to find a place for lunch. As my fingers dip into the rice and curry, colors and flavors alive, sliding down my throat, in many ways I am home again in a place that part of me has never left. My traveling companions embrace it all, and I laugh at their red faces, tears dripping, watermelon shake gulping, to try to cut the heat. We meander past tiny shops tucked in between tall apartment buildings, tea stalls, crowds of people standing, waiting, watching. Dogs lay lazily in the warm sunshine near garbage heaps. Buses, rickshaws, lorries, cars, ambulances, CNG auto-rickshaws whiz past us, horns honking as if to mark the constant pulse of this lively city. Sounds, smells and colors  come to vibrant life before my eyes. I struggle to put this city into words, for words cannot contain the life and depth of what I see. Soaring apartment buildings, schools, mosques, markets. People everywhere. 19.5 million in the space of 186 miles or 23,234 people per half of a square mile, with an estimated 2,000 more moving into the city every day.

Somehow it works. If this were happening in any other culture or country, I think there would be a massive war breaking out. The paradoxes I see here continue to amaze me. There is a gentle intensity here. People push and shove and move to the front to grab their place, yet live in a constant state of generosity. They yell and argue loudly, and then sit down for a cup of tea together. Like one extroverted body of people, they are happiest when together and personal space is a relatively foreign concept.

What if true greatness is revealed in the way we co-exist with our fellow humans, instead of our accomplishments, titles and possessions? What if the most important thing, after loving the Divine, was how we treated each other? What if loving each other is how we love the Divine?  What would it look like to truly honor the sanctity of life in others above our own safety? Who, then, would be the greatest nation?

Connected

Friends on Dhaka Street

Utterly exhausted, we stepped out of the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka around 2:30 am, after nearly 24 hours of hopping on and off planes. The driver, who was supposed to pick us up, was nowhere to be seen and I didn’t have a Bangladeshi SIM card for my phone. Thanks to airport wi-fi, I was able to see the name and number of the driver in an email so I approached a young woman to ask if I could use her phone. She was quick to offer to make the call to our driver. Addressing him as her brother, she explained the situation to him and figured out where he was and soon we were able to find him.

One thing I love the most about Bangladesh is that there are no strangers. I’ve traveled a fair bit and have yet to find another culture that is as warm and friendly as Bangladesh. This tiny country, about the size of Wisconsin, is filled with nearly 165 million people. They don’t hesitate, for even a moment, to offer assistance and will place on you the title of “Sister” or “Auntie” or, my favorite, “Bhabi” which means sister-in-law. One of our drivers referred to my husband, whom he has never met, as his brother-in-law.

There is a gentle intensity about the beautiful people of this land. The speed with which outsiders or foreigners are given a place of belonging never ceases to amaze me. Their eagerness to offer assistance to complete strangers is something I want to learn from. Religion, gender and political views make little difference. Bangladeshis seem to see and embrace the humanity inside of each of us as if it were the only thing that mattered.

What would our country look like if we did the same?

Arrived

It was on the third and final leg of our flight to Dhaka that reality sunk in – we were almost there! Only a few white faces dotted the landscape of the large aircraft that carried hundreds of us to our final destination. Exhausted, I could barely keep my eyes open until, near the end of the flight, the din of excited passengers rose and the aisles began to fill with travelers calling out to each other, though I doubt many of them knew each other before the flight. My friends were all awake by now and kept looking around in bewildered astonishment at this happy party bus that was hurtling us through the air. The entire row in front of me was filled with women wrapped in colorful hijabs, passing their passports and landing card to the man across the aisle from us, so he could fill it out for them. The realization that these women were illiterate struck me deep and hard. When they figured out that I could speak Bangla, the woman in front of me struck up a conversation, and showed me snapshots on her phone. What I learned astounded me. She and her friends were returning to Bangladesh from Jordan, where they had spent that last three years working in a garment factory. She had a seven year old son, left behind in her home village of Bangladesh that she had not seen in three years.

Three years! I cannot imagine leaving my baby for three years, to go work in a foreign country. Three years of living among strangers and working long, hard days, stitching disposable clothing for the rich of the West, just so I could send enough money home to support my parents and child. I wanted to curl up in a ball on the floor of the plane, to pound my fist and weep, to bring a little bit of justice to this very unjust reality that this woman, and no doubt the friends accompanying her, were experiencing.

We soon touched down in Dhaka and a few passengers began to stand up before we reached the gate much to the chagrin of the flight attendant who tried, in vain, to get them reseated. As her calls went unheeded, I thought to myself, “Good luck!” These people are among the strongest and most determined people on the planet! And they are coming home. They may have endured hell out there, but they found their way home. Their excitement oozed into me and I felt like I, too, had come home.

To read more about garment factories in Jordan, check out this article and this one too.

When Labels Slip Away

My body feels as if it has been dropped into an alternate reality. The haze I feel goes beyond being hurled through eleven time zones, and dropped back into a land of ice and snow. I shiver, yet my body bears proof of time spent in a place of warmth as my forehead peels and my feet boast scabs from wearing sandals for two weeks. But the shiver is not just physical for the very depth of my being is in shock, though I have gone and returned many times before. You would think I would be used to this by now, or maybe I am just more aware this time of my own prejudice and Western expectations and the labels I am so quick to apply. Each day I was gone, those things were ruptured with a shocking but beautiful reality. My brain struggles to turn these experiences into words that you would understand. I will try, because the brave and beautiful people I met deserve to have their stories told and because we in the West have so much to learn from those unlike ourselves who we label as “other”.

Forgive me if I can’t lay it all out just yet. There is something sacred about being welcomed as a stranger into the story of another, for even a brief moment, of observing utter pain and despair being transformed into the very deepest joy. It’s as if a lifetime of joy and pain have been squeezed into two weeks and there is no language to translate it into.

So I’m holding these stories in my heart, yet they leak from my eyes and I am more than undone. For among the poorest of the poor, I have met the bravest, kindest and strongest souls you could imagine. I saw glimpses of the Creator in their faces, heard whispers of the Divine in their stories. I sat myself down and I listened. Labels slipped away and love was all that was left.

A Different Reality

The whirlwind of January’s blizzard and winter trade shows are finally behind us. I sit, staring at our snow-covered deck, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that next week I will be walking around Bangladesh in my sandals. Here the bare tree branches reach out under a grey expanse but there I will soak up sunshine under a clear blue sky, walk on green grass, smell fresh flowers, sip cups of cha, slap mosquitoes and revel in the warm welcome that only Bangladeshis know how to give. A complete different reality is only a mere 20+ hours plane ride away. A few friends will be traveling with me and we’ve had a many conversations about what it will be like. I’ve tried to prepare them for a different reality, which has been a fairly straightforward task because they all assume that life in another country will be completely different from their “normal”.

But what about my neighbor who immigrated from Germany and still speaks with an accent? What about my other neighbors who are a mixed race couple? Or the Latino family up the alley? Or the single mom at my church? Or the black kids playing basketball at the YMCA after school with my son? Or the queer people I love and care about. Do I assume that their reality is or should be the same as mine? Because the more I listen, the more I learn that right here, in my own back yard, the reality of others is as different from mine as Bangladesh is from America. That is why I have no right to form judgements about or give answers to those who I perceive as “other”. I have absolutely no right to tell them how they should react to the hurdles they face.

My reality as a white American straight female is filled with privilege, choices and status that many people I know do not have. Inside my soul, there is a chair, and I have sat myself down quietly, on that chair. I am listening. Too long have I spoken out of my own reality and placed my own expectations on others. Perhaps in listening I will learn. And if I learn, perhaps I will begin to change and grace will meet us both.

Rootless

On the other side of the world, in a space roughly 7.3 square miles of what was once a forest in the hills of Bangladesh, 700,000 Rohingya refugees huddle under tarps in makeshift homes. They have lost everything once – homes, jobs, possessions, family members, dignity, country – and now, with the storm season starting and the monsoon closing in, they risk losing all again.The tree roots that once held together the clay-like soil, preventing massive landslides, are now gone, leaving the refugees rootless in more ways than one.

While Rohingya refugees have resided in Bangladesh for many years, this group has been pouring in since the ethnic cleansing began in full force by the Burmese Military last August. Among them, an uncounted number of women are quietly preparing to give birth as a result of being raped by soldiers before they fled the country. Pramila Patten, the UN’s special envoy on Sexual Violence views these rapes as a weapon of genocide, a “calculated tool of terror”. Nearly nine months since many of these women have crossed the border, aid agencies are preparing not only for a spike in births, but also for babies abandoned by traumatized mothers who simply do not have the physical nor emotional resources to care for another child.

Last week the UN Security Council sent a delegation to observe the situation first hand and it was no surprise when the report came back that the situation was “overwhelming.” The council visited Myanmar for the first time since the genocide began and traveled to the region where the Rohingya refugees had fled from. Earlier reports from the area, as well as  satellite images show that  many of the villages have been completely burned and bulldozed; homes, cemeteries, mosques, trees, landmarks, everything wiped away. Additionally the Myanmar parliament has approved a $15m budget to build a wall along the Myanmar/Bangladesh border, where the refugees crossed over into Bangladesh.

Of the 500,000 Rohingya who stayed behind in Myanmar, at least 130,000 are being held in  camps where their freedom is greatly restricted and the conditions are appalling.

A fierce anger is stirring in me today. What is wrong with humanity that we spend millions of dollars on walls instead of acknowledging atrocities and doing the real work of healing the gaping wounds? Who do we think we are that we can confine a people group to a specific, tiny piece of volatile land, keeping the best for ourselves? What gives us the right to limit the basic human rights of others –  access to food and water, health care, education including college visits, equal pay, police protection, citizenship, and a country to call our home?

I can’t find it in me to be angry at the Burmese people today. They are simply following our footsteps. From English Colonizers to the Germans in World War II to the United States of America where we continue to live on stolen land and benefit daily from an economy built on the backs of slaves. How many villages have we bulldozed, physically or metaphorically, wiping away the history of an ethnic group and rewriting it to make ourselves look better? How many ethnic conflicts around the globe have we perpetuated because our government has funded one side or the other for our own political interests? How many bodies have bled out on the sidewalks and forests of this country because of racial hate more than anything else? Why are we so afraid of people who are different from ourselves?

I see blood on the hands of the Burmese yes, but I also see it on my own people’s hands. As a citizen of this country, I have to own it. I am part of a nation that has systematically chosen which people group should be treated the best and which others should be treated as less than human. It’s written into the founding documents of our nation and has been fleshed out in courtrooms across the nation.

The silent cries of the Rohinga women wrap around my heart like tender vines, mirroring the cries of pain caused by my own nation and my heart remembers and bleeds and spends itself because only a heart that spends itself like currency is strong enough to push back against injustice.

Wearing People’s Suffering

Her shining eyes beckoned and spoke of stories untold, her voice wrapped in love as she showed me the embroidered scarves her women had made. Opening the book she carried with her, she showed me their faces and the 100 year old loom they used to turn the stands into fabric. I listened, mesmerized, as Nasreen Sheikh told of how she spent her childhood in a tiny room with other girls, forced to spend their days sewing clothing for the garment fashion industry of the West. Her only bed at night was the clothes she was working on and she would often wonder who would wear these clothes someday.

Nasreen was able to eventually escape. She now spends her days tirelessly working so that other Nepali women and girls do not have to go through what she did. She started Local Women’s Handicrafts in Kathmandu, operating on Fair Trade Principles before she even knew Fair Trade was an thing.

As we talked, she mentioned how she had been to Walmart a few days back because she needed to pick something up for her travels and she lamented because the experience was painful for her. She saw a $3 t-shirt. “How can there be a $3 t-shirt,” she asked? I’ll never forget her response to her own question, “We are wearing people’s suffering!”

This tiny, uneducated woman from Nepal who doesn’t even know her own birthday is by far wiser than most people I run into these days. She inspires me to keep spending myself so that women and children around the world can live in freedom. She reminds me to consume less, and when I must buy, to buy carefully. She proves that women have what it takes to change the world.

Five years ago today, the world watched in horror as Rana Plaza collapsed, trapping and killing more than 1,000 garment factory workers in Savar, Bangladesh. Nasreen’s words are like a gentle scarf around my shoulders today and the words hit home. “We are wearing people’s suffering.”

I sit in that lament and hold it tight. I check the labels on my clothing. Top shirt – made in India. Undershirt – made in Bangladesh. Jeans – made in Jordan. I’m wrapped in a connection to these places.

While fair trade or suffering-free clothing is becoming more and more available, for the most part, here in the West, we wear people’s suffering. Let’s be more aware. Let’s own it and then do what we can to change it. Like Nasreen, let’s replace suffering with dignity.

Press for Progress

This is Chonda. The real deal. Not an actor paid to play the part. She is the heart and soul of a change that is gaining momentum in Bangladesh. Her face will tell you a story, if you take the time to let it capture you.

Nestled across the river from the Sundarbans, the world’s largest coastal mangrove forest and home to the Bengal Tiger, is the small village where Chonda and her husband Rabindranath have made their home. For years, Rabindranath caught larvae from the river and sold it in the market to support his family. If he caught enough, the family ate well. If not, they were hungry. When the Bangladesh Forest Department banned the taking of natural resources from the Sundarban as part of a conservation program, Rabindranath had no choice but to become a day laborer. Now, instead of being at the mercy of nature, he is at the mercy of local employers who may or may not need temporary help.

Chonda longed to do something to help. As a woman in a conservative Hindu village, she was not allowed to become a day laborer and no local shops would hire women either. She dreamed of starting a small business in her home but lacked the capital to do so. Then one day she heard about Hathay Bunano, which means handmade in Bangla. Hathay Bunano had started a work center near her, where other women gathered daily to knit and crochet  soft and colorful Pebble toys. Robindranath agreed that Chonda could take the training. During her training, she not only learned how to knit and crochet, she also learned the values of Fair Trade, as well as her value as a woman deserving of equal opportunity. For three years now, she has been working as an equal to her husband in providing for the family. They no longer worry about whether they will have enough to eat. They are able to send their daughter to school, which is significant in a country where schooling is not free and education is not mandatory. Chonda has opened a bank account and has been saving money, instead of living hand to mouth, dependent upon her husband’s earnings. She and her husband are now talking about starting their own business together someday. Chonda has become a powerful voice in her community, challenging other women to realize their value and equality, pressing them towards progress and being a living example of hope and change.