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.

 

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.

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

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.

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.

 

The Rohingyan Nightmare

 

Embed from Getty Images

Smoke rises thick and hovers over the jungle like a greedy wraith, never pausing, angrily swirling on and on as proof of the genocide of the Rohingya of Myanmar’s Rakhine Province. Although they have been hunted down and killed by their countrymen and their government since 1948, the genocide has intensified over the last 30 days as more than 400,000 refugees have poured into Bangladesh, the closest country that shares a land border. Many of them have been walking for four days through the jungle, hiding from soldiers with machetes, dodging bullets, running for their lives. Many are mothers with small children, who no doubt put off this journey as long as possible, hoping against hope that something would stop the madness in time to save them. Now, with village after village going up in smoke and machetes swinging in the hands of the very ones who are supposed to protect, staying is most certainly death. So they grab their wee ones and run.

When I read this post today and saw their faces, something inside of me broke a little more and the madness of the world folded in on me. Breathing in the scent of the spices roasting for tonight’s curried lentils and rice, I was deeply aware of the solid floor beneath my feet and the running water in the sink. As rain poured down outside, I absorbed the dryness and safety of my home. Rice bubbling, vegetables frying, more than enough everywhere I look. But inside my soul weeps for those on the run. For the pregnant mother running through the jungle. For the baby born on the outhouse floor. For the terrified little one separated from her family. For hungry bellies fighting for the tiniest scraps of food. For families who have lost everything – their home, their country, their place of belonging.  I store the leftovers from our meal in the fridge and am overwhelmed by the much that I have. Scrubbing curry rings off emptied plates is a holy act as I am humbled to have so much, yet my soul roars within me, praying for this madness to stop.

While I know nothing of the terror they are running from and can only imagine what they feel, I do know what they are running to. Bangladesh is a tiny country, about the size of Iowa, yet it has a population of about half of the United States. Imagine if half of all the US would decide to move to Iowa tomorrow? And then accept 400,00 refugees in 30 days!

Bangladesh is already struggling to deal with the massive flooding that has hit the region, the worst in decades. As a developing country, resources are stretched thin in the best of times. Lack of space and resources are a very real problem.

If there is a family on the other side of the world that has to live in a concrete pipe, or huddle under a tiny piece of plastic while the flood waters rise inches away, can I say, “Be blessed” and scroll on to the next tidbit of news?

Every voice is needed when there is an ethnic cleansing going on. Never think your voice is little or your circle of influence too small. There is always something you can do.

For Myanmar, for the Rohingya, you can pray. You can be aware and share the awareness. You can give. Unicef UK, Oxfam, and UNHCR are all working with the Rohingya.

You can also write to your senators urging them not to support giving aid to Myanmar’s army.

And hug your lil’ ones a little more today. See past the mess of your home to feel the abundance that you have right here, right now. Feel the love, and then give it away.

 

World Fair Trade Day 2017

Saturday, May 13, is World Fair Trade Day. Started by the WFTO in 2004, the second Saturday of May has been set aside as a day to not only raise awareness of Fair Trade but to celebrate the way it has impacted millions of lives.

Simply put, Fair Trade means:

Opportunities are created for the poor to have jobs.

In Fair Trade, the supply chain is accountable and transparent from start to finish. Unlike certain large chocolate chains who say they cannot know for sure where their raw cocoa comes from, Fair Trade chocolate can be traced to the source.

Fair Trade ensures prompt and fair payment for goods. For the Pebble toys we sell, it means we provide advance payment so they can purchase the raw materials and pay wages during their production period.

Fair Trade ensures safe and empowering working conditions. Not only does it insist that working conditions are physically safe, it must also be free of discrimination and harassment.

Fair Trade ensures the rights of children. This means no children are working to make the items in your shopping cart. It means the parents are making enough money to feed, cloth, protect and educate their children.

Fair Trade is kind to the earth. Environmentally sustainable practices are taught and implemented through the entire supply chain.

To sum it up, Fair Trade celebrates cultural diversity and gives a voice to the poor and marginalized. No one is forced to work in slave like conditions. Entire communities are transformed and local economies boosted. In countries that have no Job and Family Services, no Unemployment Benefits, no place to land when they are falling, this is huge. This is dignity for every person. This is loving your neighbor as yourself. This is reason to celebrate!

Lenten Rememberings – The Rohingya

The Rohingya, one of the world’s most most persecuted ethnic groups, are a Muslim people who have lived for generations in Myanmar. Denied the right to vote and given nearly impossible rules for acquiring citizenship, they are hated and looked down on by the Buddhist majority around them.

The Rohingya speak a dialect of Bangla and are seen by many as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many of them can trace their family history in Myanmar for many generations. While they represent roughly 2% of the total population, their Buddhist neighbors fear they will take over and try to make Myanmar a Muslim country. Untold numbers have been hunted down, raped and murdered in a genocide that the Myanmar Government continues to deny is happening. Many have escaped across the border into Bangladesh or by boat to Thailand, Malaysia or the Philippines where again and again they are turned away.

Bangladesh, the most accessible country by land, is currently planning to house them on an uninhabited island that is immersed in water during the monsoon. Many are taking the risk of returning to Myanmar rather than lose their lives to nature. A small number have been accepted as refugees into the US, Canada and Australia but, for the most part, the Rohingyas remain an unwanted and fiercely hunted people group.

Rohingyas eat rice, fish, vegetables, milk and chilis. Meat, such as this Beef Curry is served to guests or for special occasions. We shared this meal family and prayed for a place of belonging and safety for the Rohingyas.

Lenten Rememberings – The Biharis

Bihari FoodThe year 1947 brought about the great split of India. Pakistan was born amidst great upheaval and loss of lives as Muslims and Hindus were divided up into two countries.

It was at this time that many Urdu-speaking Muslims from the Indian State of Bihar escaped into East Pakistan where they lived among the Bengali-speaking Muslims.

25 years later, when East Pakistan won independence from West Pakistan, after a bloody war over language, Bangladesh (literally the country of Bangla) was born. The Urdu-speaking Biharis again found themselves in a land that did not want them.

As Urdu speakers they had not supported this war for independence and about half a million fled into Pakistan. Pakistan, however, would only accept about a third of them so many today are living as stateless Pakistanis. Many who remained in Bangladesh were killed or lost their homes, bank accounts, lands and jobs. Today they live in slum-like, crowded camps throughout the country, where families of up to ten share a one room hovel and up to 90 families share one toilet.

In 2008, the Dhaka High Court gave citizenship and voting rights to 150,000 Bihari refugees who had been minors during the war. Children born since the war were also given citizenship. Life remains hard for them as they try to hold on to their language and customs, while living in squalid conditions in a country that still looks down on them. Many youth would like to leave and get jobs in other countries but passports are not issued to anyone who has an address inside of a camp. As of yet, the UNHCR has not addressed the statelessness of the Biharis.

During our years in Bangladesh, we were privileged to get to know one Bihari woman especially well. She would tell stories of life inside the camp while she scrubbed our dusty floors and share her dreams for her children while she washed the dishes. She was a tiny woman with a big heart and impressive strength.

The Biharis in Bangladesh are famous for their kebabs and fried snacks so tonight we had some friends over and shared Shingaras  (a deep-fried pastry filled with savory potatoes and chilis), Bihari chicken boti kebabs, Parotas (a flat bread fried in a bit of oil), and Shemai (angel-hair vermicelli cooked in a sweet milk spiced with cinnamon and cardamom).

For a glimpse at Bihari life in Bangladesh, check out this video.