Turning Strangers into Family

Bangladeshi BBQ MealToday is Eid al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice. Muslims around the world gather in memory of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

I remember being a young exhausted mother of a wall-climbing toddler, with a second child on the way. We had just moved into a new apartment in Dhaka, Bangladesh and barely had our boxes unpacked. The morning of Eid, our toddler had us up bright and early, as usual. It wasn’t long before we heard a knock on the door. Much to our surprise, seven gentlemen from seven other homes in our apartment building, were standing there, eager to invite us to each of their homes to celebrate the holiday with them.

We were humbled and honored to be their guests. And we did, indeed, visit every one of their seven homes that day. Each family shared their finest feast food with us. We were welcomed to their table, even though we were different. Foreigners of a different faith. Speakers of a different language. Welcomed as family.

I’m sitting here today with a lump in my throat that will not go away. I get goosebumps on my arms as I remember their kindness, their generosity, their welcome. I cannot help but contrast it to how my country is treating those who are foreign, those who are different.

When we lived in a Muslim country, we never spent a holiday by ourselves. We were always treated as family. Here in our “Christian” country, many immigrants never see the inside of an American home. Here we too often treat them as the “less than” and automatically assume they have broken laws to be here. Our “Christian” nation is in a frenzy, trying to rid ourself of those we believe do not belong here, stooping to unspeakable violence and indecency.  Last week in Mississippi alone, nearly 700 people were rounded up by ICE, leaving many children without parents to come home to on their first day of school.

Most of us agree that the system is broken. But any system, broken or not, can only go so far to make or break a country because a country is made up of individuals. As individuals, we can open our doors wide.  We can practice hospitality and turn strangers into family.  My Muslim friends taught me that family is any human being who is near you. So let’s keep an eye out for our family. Let’s make sure they are safe and that they know we see and value their humanity. We don’t have to wait for the system to change to become the change that our country desperately needs right now.

Eid Mubarak. Happy Festival!

 

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.

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.

 

Finding Rest

It was nearing the end of the fourth day of sickness. Each day held more travel and I had pushed myself through a whole lot of crazy. Exhaustion held me in its grip and I felt like my land legs had left me when we stopped our travels for a walk down to these boats. There, walking the sand, with the wind gently pushing me on, I breathed in lungfuls of ocean air made warm with dazzling sunlight. I had pushed my body so hard to get to this point, though there were times when I could not push it any further, no matter how much I wanted to.

“Listen to your body” was a much-used phrase in our house when the boys were little. I still use it sometimes, mostly directed at myself these days. Our bodies are incredibly put together. My body knows when I am under stress before my brain even registers the thought and signals to me in the way I breathe and the muscles that wrap my shoulders. If I am listening, I can be my own best friend. I can step away from the chaos and sit in silence with a cup of coffee. I can do yoga to slow down my breathing and stretch the tension out of my muscles. I can journal or talk to a friend, walk in the park or lean into meditation. I can say no to stressful situations. I can give myself a time out. I can walk barefoot through the grass, feeling life itself push against the dry, cracked skin of winter’s feet.

It’s midday now. The Sampans are docked in the sand, the fishermen have laid down their nets, the morning catch of fish is drying in the sunshine. The quiet wraps around me and I breathe it in. I listen, as my body tells me what it needs.

Photo 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.

 

 

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.