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.

The Taste of Love

It was a simple meal of rice, fish curry, vegetable, lentils and salad, but I could feel the love that had been poured into it. We had just left the beautiful women and children at Pobitra and were hungry and a little emotionally drained. There is something about entering raw places with other souls that is both exhilarating and exhausting, and sometimes you need to step away for a moment and nourish your body.

The cook who prepared this meal was a dear friend, well-loved by our family. Seeing his happy smile again nearly undid me. As my eyes took in the spread before us I could feel the love with which he had created each dish.

I sat in the company of my brave female travelers, and our driver. We broke protocol here, as men and women traditionally do not eat together, and drivers most certainly do not eat with their passengers. (I will introduce him later, though I can hardly wait. He deserves his own post!) It was the first rice meal that some of our group had ever eaten with their fingers, and they dug right in. Our driver became the teacher, showing our youngest member exactly how to do it.

Cross Cultural Lesson 101 – Enter into each new environment as a learner. Any culture that is different from ours, has so much wisdom to teach us and beauty to share with us. It is  humbling to have to start with something so basic as learning how to eat, but it put us exactly where we needed to be. We went as learners and came home richer for it.

Photo 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.

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.