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.

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.

 

 

Glimpses of Truth

I had one of those eye-opening moments on the way to work this morning. An African American woman was approaching cars in front of me as I waited at a red light. I immediately assumed she was asking for money and was weighing what my response would be if she made it to my car before the light changed. As I continued to observe, I realized she was most likely asking for directions instead. My initial assumption was unkind and untrue and I recognized, in that moment, my own implicit bias guiding my actions.

The next thing I observed shook me deeply. As she approached each vehicle, she held her hands in the air to display that she was not a threat. Who asks for help with their hands in the air? What kind of nation are we if people seeking assistance feel the need to put their hands up to display that they are not a threat? It would be very difficult for me to be convinced that racism doesn’t exist here, or that hatred and bigotry are a thing of the past! Try putting both hands in the air the next time you need someone to help you. No one chooses to do this because it is fun; they do it for their own safety.

I saw inequality and injustice played out in front of my eyes, right here in my city today. To the brave woman at the intersection today, I’m sorry I made assumptions about you. You must have been terrified, and I’m sorry for being a part of the system that has given you reason to fear. You are braver than I. Thank you for unknowingly helping me to unpack just a little bit more of my own bias.

Photo 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.

The Irony

I wake up to the bitter taste of irony. I try to shake it off, like a bad dream, but it stays with me. Can one person’s idea of safety have the power to bring destruction to untold numbers?

800,000 people are working without a paycheck or else not showing up for work at all. These are the people who work security at the airports and control air traffic. They staff our parks and museums. They research disease, care for wildlife and oceans. They inspect chemical factories, power plants, and water treatment plants. They inspect our seafood, fruits and vegetables. They facilitate the distribution of food and medicine for women and children on Native American Reservations. They are FBI agents, Border Control agents. They work in prisons, the Coast Guard and Secret Service. They are government lawyers working on cases that have been waiting for years to go to trial: Immigrants who have been waiting for decades for their Immigration Court case to be decided, are now being pushed to the back of the line and may spend another 4 years in detention, just waiting for a new date. They work for the IRS, or did before this government shutdown. Promised grants for programs that help women survivors of violence are on hold. Read more about who these people are here.

Our family has lived through a season with no paychecks. The stress was all-consuming. We continued to work, care for our sons and do what we could do but our brains were constantly cluttered, full of distraction that seemed to make even the smallest of decisions difficult. So my heart breaks for these families and I fear for us as a nation. We are more vulnerable because of this, than for lack of a physical monstrosity to demarcate our border. If the pursuit of safety cripples those who keep us safe, how safe are we?

The good news is that we don’t need to sit around waiting for things to get better. Every day is an opportunity to create a better reality, right here, right now. Here is a link to a practical list of things you can do to help those affected by this shutdown!