The People Nobody Wants

I have been following the story of the Rohingya Refugees for quite some time now and have been moved to blog about them here several times before. My dream of one day visiting their refugee camps had finally become a reality. I woke eagerly on Day 3 of my sickness, sure that this would be a better day. I texted my friend, who is a nurse in one of the medical clinics inside the camp, and she confirmed my suspicion that the antibiotics were intensifying my nausea. I put off taking my final pill, in hopes that I could feel more normal for the day ahead. I was able to eat breakfast with my team and we set out for the camp. The road leading out of town was the size of a narrow one-way street, huge holes gaped out of the edges in places, as if a ravenous monster had taken bites of it during the night. We left the town behind and soon the road gave way to lovely views of the ocean on one side and rolling hills on the other. After nearly an hour of driving, we met a sweet Canadian couple who gave us drinks of cold water before catching CNGs (similar to Baby Taxis or Auto Rickshaws) to take us the rest of the way into the camp. As we jostled along the dusty and bumpy brick road, we learn that the road had only been built a few months prior. Before that, it had just been a dirt path, which fast turned to mud during the monsoon. Nearly one million people are crammed into this tiny space that was once a national forest. Now the trees are gone and thousands of tiny huts cluster together on any acreage deemed safe enough for building. I was struck by the organization, the number of blue latrines that dotted the hillsides, and water pumps everywhere.

We passed many NGO centers, women-friendly spaces and even a playing field where kids played soccer together. Many refugees are hired to work at building roads and reinforcing dirt hillsides with intricately laced bamboo in an effort to keep the hills from eroding and turning to mud during the monsoon. Little children greeted us in English as we drove by while Burka-clad women looked on.

It was nearly noon by the time we arrived at the clinic.The heat inside of the tiny metal structure struck me with shocking force, though it was still supposedly the cool season. A tiny pharmacy was located inside along with a waiting room lined with benches, and 4 exam rooms. More benches lined the front of the clinic, to hold the overflow of patient who still had hopes of being seen that day. After finding my friend and being introduced to some of the staff, I was able to be part of one of the exams. An American midwife gently looked into the ears of a two-year-old boy who had an ear infection. He lay asleep in his mother’s lap, made small by her protruding belly which spoke of a sibling soon to be born. Soon the mom was on the exam table, cradling her boy as best she could while lifting up her burka so the midwife could check on her baby. As I perched on my stool in front of the window, I could soon recognize the swooshing song of the baby’s heartbeat. I wondered if I was feeling faint faint from the excitement of it all, or if my traveler’s belly was threatening to do me in again.

I swapped places with one of my team mates and sat outside to try to catch a breeze, but my body just wasn’t having it. They took me to the one empty exam room and I stretched out on the table, rolling up my scarf as a pillow. Nurses fluttered in and out to get supplies while the sounds of crying babies, mothers chatting in one corner of the building, men in the other, all melded together. Sounds and smells collided and bounced off the walls of this tiny life-saving structure that had been carried in piece by piece and put together out of love. I lay, unable to do anything else, on the bed used to diagnose and heal their pain, this pale foreigner, stripped of her strength and left only with an inner kernel of humanity, nothing to give but exhausted love, in much need of rest and healing herself. A tiny speck in a camp of a million refugees, a people no one wants. It was there that I recognized the humanity of suffering and need

The sacred truth revealed that day is with me still. To be human is to be equal. Ethnicity, citizenship, religion, wealth or lack thereof, mean absolutely nothing in the big picture. These categories are lines that we have drawn in the sand, lines that distract us and cause us to miss out on all that life could be if we just remembered this sacred truth. May we actively remember.

To be human is to be equal.

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.

Unexpected Kindness

Misery violently took over my night, pushed sleep aside and sent me rushing to the bathroom. The initial relief was short lived and I soon found myself fumbling in the darkness, desperate for the antibiotics the Traveler’s Clinic had sent with me. I gulped down the first giant tablet, determined to be ready for travel by morning. We had a full day planned, including a visit to a hostel for young girls, shopping and then dinner at a friend’s house before returning to our guest house in Dhaka. Yet, morning still found me pasted to my bed, stomach swirling in unreasonable circles. Relief that no one else had caught the same bug and the reality of our next day’s flight out of Dhaka propelled me out of bed, grateful for friends to help me pack up. This was not the way I wanted to say goodbye to Mymensingh, one of my favorite cities on earth, eyes squinted tightly shut to block out the light and hands grasping a plastic bag just in case. As we left the city behind and headed towards Dhaka, we canceled all other plans for the day and I laid back in my seat and willed myself to survive the journey.

It was awful, I’m not gonna lie. Many roads in this densely populated nation feel like a loop in Mario Cart, only there are a million other drivers racing down the same road and the precipices are real. Our driver, Ramjan, who had been nothing but a gentleman since we left Dhaka, was now doing his best to maneuver his way home. It wasn’t long before I found myself squatting on the side of the road, upheaving the remains of my stomach. Ramjan hovered beside me, full of concern, telling my friend to hold my hand and pull my hair back. He even took a long look at my vomit to try to figure out what I had eaten that was causing my insides to have such a mutiny. When I was finished, he motioned for me to hold out my hands so he could pour water into them. He showed me how to rinse out my mouth and wash my face. As I squatted in the dirt by the side of the road and cupped my hands to accept his gift of water, I felt the Divine tapping me on the shoulder and I knew I was taking in a holy sacrament. I saw my Creator mirrored so beautifully in the face of our Muslim driver who shared his water with this tired and sick American woman. Something inside came unglued and it’s a wonder I made it back into the van instead of catapulting down the embankment.

Here is the painful truth – if Ramjan were in my country, he would most likely be arrested or put on a watch list simply based on his appearance and yet he welcomed me,  the stranger. He played the role of protector and host. He was the one who gently taught the first time visitors in our group how to eat with their fingers. In a country where clean drinking water is a commodity, he shared his with me. Dang, he didn’t even avert his eyes from my vomit! It’s the Ramjans that make the world a better, kinder place. In my home country, we tend to judge people like him because of the way they look or the religion they follow. Instead of sharing our water, we build higher walls so those still desperate to come must cross in the desert south of the border, some dying of thirst on the way. We deny place to those who have lost everything because we are afraid they will take something from us. Yet, no matter how high or long we build our walls, how many refugees and asylum seekers we turn away under the pretext of our own safety, we are the ones who lose the most. By diminishing the created, we push away the Creator and Christ is turned away once again.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography and Liga Mullins.

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.