Human First

Two weeks gone in a blink and we are in line at the airport to travel home from Bangladesh. We battle mosquitoes and crowds for four hours, standing in one line and then the next, until we finally board our 3 am flight at 4 am. We miss our connecting flight in Doha by minutes and spend four more hours in line, waiting for new tickets for the next day’s flight and hotel vouchers. Deep thirst drives me to ask for water, having been given nothing since breakfast on the plane some six hours prior. I’m sent to a shop where I begrudgingly bring out the plastic card, cringing at the price this liquid gold is costing me. When I return to the group, I return with a new friend and soon meet another. We share this liquid gold and it is worth every penny. I return to the shop and throw down the plastic again for a pack of biscuits and we share this too. Who knew that airport liquid gold and packaged Marie biscuits could be the holiest of communions. Four exhausted Americans and our new friends – a young Bangladeshi lawyer from Minnesota and a sweet Bengali Auntie from Kolkata who spoke no English.

Together the six of us move forward, a weary cluster of travelers, and squeeze ourselves into the hotel shuttle bus. After check-in and a lovely spread for lunch, we set out with our new friends for the Souq. We walk on clean city sidewalks, past bank after bank covered in beautiful mosaic, we walk in cool but bright sunshine, my new friend asking occasionally for directions. We cross busy streets and turn a corner and there it is, like something out of a storybook. Ancient architecture, paintings, textiles, pottery, jewelry, stalls spilling over with treasures. We forget our tiredness, the long lines of waiting that landed us here and we soak up a girls night out. We buy treasures to tuck into our luggage, sip coffee under pink-soaked clouds and laugh with the thrill of this adventure. Our new Kala (auntie) gifts each of us with a magnet that says Qatar and we insist of buying a bracelet for her, something to keep us connected after the initial memories of this day fade.

We finally pull ourselves away from the Souq to begin the long walk back to our hotel. As we rush to cross one of the busy intersections, I turn back to make sure Kala is still with us. What I see utterly melts my heart. My new Muslim friend grabs the hand of my new Hindu Auntie and walks hand in hand with her for the rest of the journey. It was a reaction of the heart and it moved me profoundly and it makes me want to be more like them and the hundreds of others I met on my journey to the East. This ability to see another as human first blurs the lines of labels and boxes that we of the West cling to so fiercely. What would our nation look like if we saw each other as human first? Imagine if the lines of race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, and education could be blurred enough that we could see straight to the core of each other. Imagine the beauty of looking into the eyes of a complete stranger and seeing your own soul mirrored back?

Human First.

 

Parallel Threads

It was a journey into the sacred. Each step of our pilgrimage of stories led us deeper into the heart and soul of this amazing country.

The constant tension of of beauty and ugliness called something to life within us as we heard story after story with parallel threads of utter pain and glorious triumph. As we walked past piles of raw and putrid garbage, we were also aware of artistically painted, brightly colored rickshaws passing us on a road filled with beautiful people wrapped in colors that brought the city to life on a breezy evening.

We walked in paradox. Endless honking and exhaust from four-lane roads somehow transformed into ten-lane roads contrasted with palm trees, bougainvilleas and dahlias taller than I. A weather-worn 15th Century palace with crumbling buildings surrounded by teenagers taking selfies on smart phones.

A patriarchal society where women are rising up in the best of ways, stitching together a future of hope for the next generation, while young girls learn CPR and basic rescue skills. Discarded women who became leaders and work together to change entire communities. Worn and torn saris stitched into quilts of love by hands that were once held immovable by forces too strong to resist.

A national forest given up to become a refugee camp, swelling at the seams to hold a million of the world’s most unwanted people. Hungry hands reach out to me while vibrant green rice fields stretch from the road, as far as the eye can see. Endless crowds of people and obvious poverty overshadowed by unbelievable generosity. As outsiders, foreigners, we were welcomed and treated as family. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, all treating us as equals with enthusiastic hospitality. Muslims called out to us wishing peace upon us and sharing their food with us. A Hindu friend wrapped me in her arms and asked about my family. Buddhist hands served us tea. Beautiful diversity, woven together with the warmth of Bengal.

How is it that one of the most impoverished nations on earth can be so generous and welcoming of those who are different, while one of the wealthiest nations on earth is building walls and has collectively forgotten simple kindnesses? A famous prophet once said that if you want to be great, you have to become the least and serve others. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which nation displays this type of greatness.

I took my friends to Bangladesh to learn and collect stories. Perhaps one day people from Bangladesh will be able to come here to learn and collect stories of greatness. Perhaps someone will write a story of how the nation that grew powerful on the backs of slaves finally became great by serving others. Perhaps there will be a story about the descendants of immigrants who welcomed other immigrants and together transformed the struggling economy into something vibrant and thriving. I dream that someday a stranger will come, be welcomed and write a story about the land that built hope instead of walls and finally figured out that love is the strongest force of all. I hope that someday my nation will display some of the greatness that I discovered in Bangladesh.

 

Courage Itself

It’s quite possible that you are closer to danger than you know, but you are always closer to courage than you know.

Our plans to spend a second day visiting Pebble work centers fell through, due to an attack on German journalists that happened nearby. Rayhan, our incredible guide, instead made plans for us to visit the Bangladesh Girls and Boys Surf Club . We left the dazzling sunlight of the beach and stepped into a dimly lit storefront, lined with surf boards and gear. As our eyes adjusted to the change of light, we saw and felt a bright force as three beautiful young girls came in to join the young men who were running the club. These girls, who once survived by selling hard boiled eggs and jewelry to tourists on the beach, now master the waves. With spirits too free for desks and classrooms to hold, they are courage itself in this sparkling stretch of beach that cradles Bangladesh where it meets the Bay of Bengal. In a place where most girls marry young and traditionally spend their lives at home, these girls are breaking the mold in the best of ways. They have learned CPR and are proud of their ability to rescue others. They command skateboards and surfboards and refuse to be intimidated by the jeers, leers and threats that constantly come their way.

The water pulled them like a magnet and it wasn’t long before they were gracefully riding the waves. Their courage rubbed off on us and soon they were teaching us how to surf (with the exception of yours truly, who does not know how to swim and decided to let their courage rub off in different ways). These young women are incredible teachers; they are the role models our girls need today. They master the very things society tells them they cannot do and they teach others to do it as well. They will never have to sit around and wait to be rescued, they are the ones out there doing the rescuing. They refuse to let threats and leers from men who surround them stop them from pursuing what gives them life. They hold their heads high. They push through until they can ride the waves again. They are courage itself.

Live what you love, Be what you dream, Conquer what you pursue, Become all you can become!

Visit here for a more in depth story about the girls and the Surf Club.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography and Liga Mullins.

Unconquered

She stands where the water kisses the sky. No longer afraid of the waves that roll over her bare toes or the sand constantly shape-sifting under her feet, she is drawn to the perpetual motion of the sea. An ancient whisper calls her, tugs her further on, lifting her hair as it dances round her shoulders. She listens, her whole body breathing in the movement of air, water, and the gentle kiss of sunset.

For too long she has lived in the darkness, cowering under a blanket of shame that they gave her. Tears her truest language, despair her closest friend. When she cried out, they shushed her and she almost became accustomed to having no voice. Almost.

They almost had her. Almost convinced her that an existence of inferiority, voicelessness and powerlessness was normal. Almost.

But the ancient whisper would not let them have her. It crept relentlessly from the womb of her truest mother, the earth. Like an umbilical cord, it fed her and nourished her and grew her until she could open her eyes and see for herself, her truest self. As she drank from the waters that both healed her and reflected her truth back to herself, she laughed for the first time. For she saw her self as she truly was.

Enough

Powerful

Beautiful

Strong

Brave

Wise

Unconquered

Stunned and afraid, they came running after her with the blanket of shame, desperate to cover her up again. But she refused and left them standing there, left them awkwardly holding their blanket of shame.

She stands where the water kisses the sky. She tilts her head as the wind calls her name and she realizes with deep gratitude that she is not alone. As the names of her sisters are called out, she turn to find them and together they move and change the world.

She is me. She is you. She is us.

 

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

World Fair Trade Day 2019

Today is a day to celebrate!
We celebrate innovations that empower women.
Pebble is giving over 12,000 women in Bangladesh a powerful voice in their communities. Not only are they able to provide for their families, they now help to make decisions and plan for the future.


We celebrate innovations that create economic opportunities.

Pebble is working hard to create equal and fair earning opportunities in areas of Bangladesh where traditional jobs are only available for men. Pebble guarantees these women are paid well above minimum wage.


We celebrate innovations that save the planet.

. Pebble is concerned about the environment and works in areas where natural forests and animals are endangered. By giving the women of these communities an alternative job, the natural habitat of the Bengal Tiger, among others, is now protected.

Pebble toys are handmade, without the use of electricity. The centers are within walking distance of their homes. We order in large quantities and have the toys shipped to us via sea, to keep the carbon footprint at a minimum.


We celebrate innovations in product development.

Jasmine, pictured in green and black below, is one of Pebble’s designers. The founder of Pebble can send her a picture of a new product, and Jasmine is able to quickly create a knit or crochet version of the item and then teaches others how to do the same.

Pebble is only one of many product lines that are changing the world. The Fair Trade Movement has made it incredibly easy for us as consumers, to daily impact the lives of families around the world, by making mindful purchases. You do not need to travel far to make the world a better place.

Happy World Fair Trade Day!

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

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.

 

 

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.

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

 

Sacred Mark

O let me wear secretly…the sacred mark impressed by Your own hand.

Rabindranath Tagore

Sacred Mark began in 2008, as a job creation program under MCC. Austin spent a lot of his time here in their early days, helping to design the packaging for the handmade soap they were making and setting up booths at local fairs. The initial women all came as graduates from Pobitra and held such a special place in our hearts. Leaving Sacred Mark was probably the most difficult part of leaving Bangladesh, when we moved home in 2010, so I was over the moon to be visiting again!

Sacred Mark is run by a dear friend, Deepa. We were welcomed into their workshop and sat down with her to hear how things are going. After a lovely snack of rice pudding and cha (Black tea with lots of milk and sugar), we toured the soap-making rooms and then up the stairs to where they have added Khanta production.

While there were an encouraging number of new faces, it was such a joy to see some of the original women still working there. They immediately started telling some of the newer women about the shenanigans a certain one of my sons used to get into. Good times! You can read more about Sacred Mark here, including the full poem the name comes from. If you are in the US, you can buy Sacred Mark soap here. You can also follow them on Facebook here.

Photography courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

Pobitra

About 120km North of Dhaka, is the smaller city of Mymensingh. Our family lived here for about six months and it holds a very special place in our hearts. I could hardly wait to share it with my friends. Entering the courtyard of Mennonite Central Committee was like entering another dimension of time and space. Gardens and flowers lined the walkways and a fish pond lay just beyond the bougainvilleas.

We were immediately greeted by some happy toddlers, whose mothers worked for Pobitra in the next room.

Pobitra, meaning clean and pure, was begun by MCC as a training program for women who have been trafficked. Some were sold by their husbands, in-laws, or even parents. Bangladeshi women who have been raped or pimped out are nearly always blamed for what happened to them. Even those who are not literally held captive, are socially held captive because they are seen as spoiled goods and have no other options for employment. Pobitra has welcomed more than 150 women since it started in 2008, giving them a safe place to come to during the day and to learn literacy, health care, basic skills such as sewing, and most importantly, they are given back their dignity. It was an honor to sit on the floor with these women and hear Sultana, the program director, speak in her gentle way about the transformation happening in these women. Pobitra enters into dialog with community leaders, and are pushing back on the old ways of thinking so that women who are stigmatized against, may stand a chance of being accepted back into the community. We couldn’t help but buy up stacks of the beautiful Kantha blankets they had stitched together, as well as Holiday Stockings, made complete with the name of the woman who made them stitched onto the border.

Check out this short video here, to get a glimpse of the hope that is so alive in this place.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.