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My heart is pumping.
Adrenaline levels are high.
My life is about to change…with your help.

A few months ago, I noticed Nicholas Kristof’s twitter announcement for the Win-a-Trip 2011 competition where he takes a student with him to Africa on a two week journalism trip. Considering my exciting photography experiences in Dhaka, I decided to give it a shot. With a little bit of heart, a few DSLR photos, and a short (phone) video footage…I made this video.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve been selected as one of the 5 student finalists this year! But this is only the beginning. Mr. Kristof has posted our submissions on Facebook with the hopes of the gaining public input to help him decide. If you liked my submission, my previous Jolkona blog posts, and what I stand for, I ask you to go to this Facebook link and “like” and post a meaningful comment. It only takes 10 seconds and can totally change the course of my life!

I’m very impressed by the other finalists this year. You can check out the full article on New York Times.

Follow me on www.twitter.com/someaunty for all the latest updates!

A few weeks ago, my Nana (maternal grandfather) and I ventured out to Mohammadpur, Dhaka visit BRAC Limb and Brace Fitting Centre (BLBC)- which in case you didn’t know, is a partnering project of Jolkona. Adnan and Nadia were kind enough to extend the offer-so I took on the chance to check it out! We reached the center at about 10 am, a bright, beautiful morning. The center was right across the street form the National Cardiac Institute and surrounded by various orthopedic centers-seemed like the ideal location. Upon arrival, Nana and I were warmly greeted by Dr. Ripon, the director of the center. He lead us to a large outdoor lobby, with seats on the left side, a few handrail structures in the middle, and entrances to smaller rooms and offices on the front and right-side walls. I made awkward eye contact with a few of the beneficiaries, who (understandably) didn’t know how to quite greet the newcomers. After a few nervous smiles and rushed assalamwalaikums,  we were in Dr. Ripon’s office.

Over a cup of tea and biscuits, Dr. Ripon expressed some of the reasons why he started his work at BLBC. To him, there was nothing greaterthan providing individuals the chance to reclaim their lives after a devastating accident or illness. In his own words, Dr. Ripon views his work as a nesha (addiction)-he can’t stop. Many of Dr. Ripon’s patients are financially poor with little hope of regaining the simple chance to walk. Without this ability, there’s no opportunity for self-sufficiency and work-which only asks for poverty. BLBC single handedly provides these very people the right to earn an income through the gift of walking.

We took a tour of the center right after. First, we visited the rooms in which the artificial limbs are constructed. There was an array of tools, plastics, and machines-each being carefully operated by the trained technicians. According to Dr. Ripon, all the technicians at BLBC are trained outside of the country (Thailand) to build quality prosthetics for their patients. Next, Dr. Ripon took us out to the front lobby where patients were practicing how to walk with their newly acquired limbs. At the BLBC, each patient is required to complete a two-week training session to become accustomed to walking. This way, each patient leaves the center fully moving and recovered.

But this is all rather…obvious. I’m not here to blog about what you and I can easily read from a brochure or website. I’m here speak of what I saw next.

Minutes later Dr. Ripon ushered me to the front gate of the building-there was something everyone wanted me to see. First, I an empty rikshaw.  Then I saw a man, presumably the riksha-wallah (the one operates the rikshaw)-a tall man, in his 40’s, wearing the usual shada genji (white t-shirt) and lungi (a cloth worn around the legs-commonly worn by south Asian men). Dr. Ripon pointed at his leg and asked the man to pull up his lungi a few inches, and underneath I saw a beautiful tan plastic leg.

I climbed up on the rikshaw, and minutes later I was outside of the building, the wind blowing gently on my face and hair. The rikshaw-wallah was flawless with his movements, not a grunt, limp, or abnormal maneuvering of his body. He just rode, rode the bicycle with every swift turn of his legs. Of course, I was on the rikshaw for fun…to confirm with my own eyes whether he could actually ride it. But for this man, each push of his leg was food for his family, clothing for his boys, jewelery for his girls, and a sari for his daughters wedding. Each push was a reason to see over the horizon, to hope for possibilities, to climb out of poverty. Each push, each push, both with his real and artificial leg.

“Amra amader Ripon Bhai amader jonno oneg korse”-“our friend Dr. Ripon has done a lot for us,” said the Riksha-wallah as we were heading back to the center. I agree, I can see that Dr. Ripon has done plenty for these people.

I think what I take home from the BLBC visit is it’s 100% successful. The treatment is simple and virtually free of medical complications. I’ve seen hotel sex workers, injecting drug users, HIV/AIDS patients at health clinics where full recovery isn’t this certain. Of course, these centers are no less, but after viewing the trauma, the negative stigma, and the neglect for so many marginalized communities in Bangladesh….the BLBC stories rang music in my ears. There was not a fragment of hopelessness in these patients, not a tear, not a utter of complaint.

But then again, why would they be hopeless?

So I’ve been communicating with Rita Meher and Farah Nousheen (co-founders of Tasveer) lately and it has been confirmed that my photos will be featured in the International South Asian Film Festival 2009 (ISAFF)! I’m excited for this opportunity because I’m eager to share these experiences across borders. As you all may know, Bangladesh has been nothing short of spectacular so far. This summer has been my first opportunity to really venture out and interact with  dynamically rich communities in Dhaka.

I hope to translate my experience to the audience through this visual documentary- a personal hope that they too can venture into Dhaka as I have.

She came to visit the center to receive some STI treatment. Only 15 years old, she has already been in the business for 8 months since she left her home in Shylet. When asked about the most difficult aspect of her work, she cried and could give no answer. But to all who were there, her tears spoke the most truest, purest, and human answer.

She came to visit the center to receive some STI treatment. Only 15 years old, she has already been in the business for 8 months since she left her home in Shylet. When asked about the most difficult aspect of her work, she cried and could give no answer. But to all who were there, her tears brought an understanding greater than the depth of her words.

And for those that are curious about my hotel sex worker visit-I made it safe and sound! Here are some pictures of what I’ve seen. I want YOU to provide your thoughts on what you feel/believe after seeing these images. I’ll leave my comments later! Remember, LEAVE YOUR INPUT. It could be about all of them, or a paritcular one. Questions are allowed too!

"Bhai, I'll only be taking a picture of your body" His response was, "No! Go ahead, take a full picture of me!" This man has certainly raped multiple women and forced them into this trade.

All information, data, and quotes were obtained from “A Synthesis of the HIV Situation in Bangladesh: An Epidemic in Transition” (February 2008)

I was just doing some literature research through FHI reports about the nature of the HIV situation in Bangladesh. Due to the relative lack of knowledge, stigma surrounding these communities, and dense population in Dhaka, injecting drug users and commercial sex workers are at highest risk. HIV rates have reached epidemic proportions among drug users-some communities indicating rates as high at 8.9%. Misti McDowell, the country director of FHI, explained that these high rates can contribute to the concentrating of the disease in the Dhaka area. Commercial sex workers then play the role of dispersing the disease through working with various incoming clients and mobilizing through the country. With regard to commercial sex workers-the heterosexual sex business is the most common and thus bears the highest need for awareness and condom use. However, men who have sex with men (MSMs) and Hijra sex workers are at more risk than other sex workers because they are neglected and difficult to locate and provide treatment. I’m shocked with how well enclosed these communities are-especially the MSMs. I remember coming home one day from a site visit of an MSM integrated health center (IHC). I was explaining to various family members of how MSMs (most of them expressed being gay) find security and community through these centers. My cousin’s first words were, “What? Gay people actually exist in Bangladesh?” I had a good laugh from that one.

Actually, I can’t blame my cousin or anyone else for that matter for denying this fact. Gay culture and identity does not exist in Bangladesh. First of all, it is haram (forbidden) by the predominant religion. And second of all, it is very difficult to detect because of the little free mixing between boys and girls. It is not considered odd to see two unmarried men spending an unusual amount of time together-it’s actually preferred (as opposed to spending time with a woman). But what frightened me the most was the fact that many of these MSMs were married with families. If they were to practice unsafe sex with another man and then have sex with their spouse, it can propose some difficult problems. The fact that these men aren’t and can’t be open about their practices places them at a higher stake for contracting and transmitting HIV.

Furthermore, it’s virtually impossible to receive treatment from a general doctor. In the case of MSMs-once the doctor sees the evidence of anal sex, he/she will discharge them for being homosexual. I personally believe that there needs to be a behavioral change among all facets of the populations-students, politicians, doctors, sex workers, drug users, clients, etc. But the paper necessitates a behavioral change among the risk groups-“The experience from other Asian countries suggests that behavior change may not be rapid enough to avoid an HIV epidemic, unless there is massive scaling-up of existing interventions among the appropriate vulnerable groups.” (page 17)

So in the nutshell, these IHCs are INTEGRAL for preventing Bangladesh from spiraling into an HIV/AIDS epidemic. Bad news? There needs to be more of them AND societal beliefs should start changing.

Good news? FHI Bangladesh just received they’re 4 year funding from USAID! It was party at the office yesterday!

I try not to contemplate over how I got here and who I’ve become. I am who I am, and there’s nothing I can do. Sometimes, when I have courage to reflect, I feel utter shame and revulsion for my existence and for the things I do…and regretfully did. I’m alone, I have no one, no family, no community to seek acceptance. Occasionally, I do find comfort in knowing that my circumstances leave me no choice. But please, Allah, I ask you to not remind me of the past, my foolish youth, my simple, more pleasant life. I know…I know my wrongdoings. Yet all I did was love- too much love I suppose. So much that was blind to the deception that came forth and stripped me of my dignity…disowned from my identity. Oh Allah, I ask you to give me the strength to abandon these harsh memories, for they are unbearable…

I’m sitting in the showroom right now, 10 pm, and business is just about to boom. The room is enclosed with mirrors and pearly white tiles. Girls are teeming in, some young, some old, some fair, some tall, a whole variety. The fluorescent lights are beaming, brightening all our faces in an eerie glow. The room is almost too white to bear, but critical for our appearance. I chose to wear my black skirt and shirt ornamented with crystals.  My hair is pulled back to reveal my silver hoop earrings. I made sure to wear my bright red lipstick glazed with a bit of gloss-it’s my secret charm to so many clients. I hear the jingling of a nupur (anklet)-oh, it’s Shahida walking in! She looks flushed, ah, must’ve been with a persistent client. She gives me a grin, and gently flips out a hefty 500 taka bill and says,“It’s from Bilal. He’s been coming for me every week. The black garment market pays him well…” I playfully kick her in the shin, but it’s true, Bilal has been keen on spending  his nights with her…

I notice a man walking by. Young man, no older than 25 wearing a red shirt and black pants, cigarette in his right hand. Judging from his looks, must be a local cab driver. He’s speaking with the hotel manager…obviously negotiating prices. He doesn’t seem pleased…but now he’s nodding in agreement. I see him drawing bills from his pocket… 100 taka…200 taka…300 taka…400 taka…oh my! The hotel manager gestures him to the glass window of our room. He peers inside, examining each and every one of us…I suppose imagining the possibilities. One by one…one by one. His gaze pauses at the girl next to me-a skinny, flat-chested 13 year-old. He couldn’t possibly want that unattractive rat! But wait-his eyes are now on me! I adjust my posture so he can perceive a clearer view. He stares. Keeps staring…is he alright? His eyes haven’t faltered! Seconds pass, and I notice an ever so slight nod towards to hotel manager, but his eyes remain fixed. The manager wastes no time in his response. He opens the door, looks at me, and points his thumb out the door. “Room 23!”, he shouts. I hastily snatch a few condoms and a packet of lubricant I picked up from the local health center earlier this morning. I’m out the door.

He’s following me down the hall, I can hear his breath and virtually feel his eyes following my spine. Our room is down the hall to the left, just a few meters to go. I quietly slip a condom in his hand. He has 10 minutes with me, and I know he won’t want to waste a moment. A couple more feet to go…I see a cleaner picking up loose condom and lubricant packets from room 20…

We’ve arrived at room 23. A standard room: one bed, one bathroom, and one light bulb illuminating the stained brown walls. Our shadows slip in, silently shifting in the flickering pale yellow gloom. He shuts the door and I feel his hand slip up my neck.

And for the next 10 minutes, I am all his.

 

I started with this monologue because I felt it was critical background in understanding the female hotel sex worker in Bangladesh. Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit an Integrated Health Center (IHC) sponsored by Bangladesh Women’s Health Coalition (BWHC) and Family Health International (FHI). This establishment provides sexually transmitted infection treatment, general healthcare, and HIV testing for women in this profession. I’ll be going back tomorrow and next week to observe more of the healthcare aspect of the institution. My first day was primarily catered to listening to these women’s stories and visiting an actual hotel involved with this business. I sort of culminated this story based upon the stories and attitudes I heard-and also after seeing actual hotel rooms, clients, and sex workers at a nearby hotel. It was nauseating, but an incredibly valuable experience as a young Bangaldeshi woman. The first response the general Bangladeshi population has for this marginalized community is, “I never knew.” I know this for a fact because that is exactly how my greater family responded. Regardless, I hope to gain more information about this phenomenal community and how HIV/AIDS is being combated within its context. I intend to post this blog as a prelude of what more is to come.

I’m looking forward to revisiting these sites in the next few days. Due to tensions with the government (afterall, sex trade is illegal in Bangladesh), I may have difficulty in taking pictures of the actual hotels. But I’ll do my best to negotiate and bring more stories.

Wish me good luck!
A BWHC peer educator-a former sex worker-now spends her time at the fields to find and inform other sex workers of safe sex practices. Pictorials are one of the many ways they initiate their outreach sessions.

A BWHC peer educator-a former sex worker-now spends her time at the fields to find and inform other sex workers of safe sex practices. Pictorials are one of the many ways they initiate their outreach sessions.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ve reached Dhaka safe and sound! Over 24 hours of traveling (19 hour lay over in Singapore, eek!), 5 delicious Muslim meals, 7 carry on bags, 100 pages of President Obama’s autobiography, and one Nikon D40, alas, I’ve made it.

I sort of craved the smog, the heat, the odor of rotting street trash, the erratic harmony of rikshaw bells and car honks, and the monotonous pleas of street beggars. And oh boy, when I got the first whiff of sooty Bangladeshi air, I knew I was home. It was a pleasant reunion.

On the 9th, I had the pleasure of spending my day with Deni Robey, Americans for UNFPA Vice President of Public Affairs and Nicole Paprocki (check out her blog at http://www.americansforunfpa.blogspot.com/ ) to visit a women’s empowerment organization in Bangladesh named Tarango (meaning river waves in Bengali-symbolic of women rising with the waves). Words cannot fully express what I saw and felt that day. I felt hope, I sensed beauty, I saw community, and most significantly, I was surrounded by progressive minded women. The women seeking aid from Tarango are flawless. I use the term flawless because they truly are. They are kind, ambitious, patient, and endlessly warm to everyone around them-with a sense of humor too! But they’re not only women- they’re also mothers, wives, and even grandmothers-incredibly proud ones. From what I saw, Tarango was obviously more than a place to work, it was a haven for women seeking community, friendship, and basic human rights.

Meeting Ms. Kohinoor Yeasmin, the current manager of Tarango, was also deeply influential. She spoke vibrantly about the women in Tarango, the work being done, and most importantly, the work she aspires to accomplish in the future. She’s a modest dreamer. Every time she outlined a potential plan, she always concluded with, “but it’s only a dream right now.” But every reality starts with a dream, and I’m certain that Ms. Yeasmin-with her caliber and passion-can make all her dreams true for the women in Tarango.

On a side note, later that afternoon, Deni, Nicole, and I had the chance to have lunch with Mr. Fuad Chowdhury- a renowned film director in Bangladesh. He gave us a quick tour of his company, United Network Limited, and explained a bit of what he did. His work ranged from directing advertisements, to short commercial films, to even Bangladeshi Sesame Street episodes! But most remarkable of all was his involvement in producing documentary films. He took the time to share one of these films, “Nodeer Mohonai Barisaler Mehndigonj” (Mehendigonj of Barisal at Estuary of Meghna). It was a beautiful short film about how the people of Mehendigonj are seeking national and international aid to stop the river erosion for the rehabilitation of those affected. I brought a copy with me and am hoping to share it with the Seattle community!

It has just been so gratifying to see Bangladeshis empowering minorities at so many levels!

 
 
 
 

 

 

Recently, Semonti, one of our bloggers, visited Tarango – a project in Bangladesh that empowers women by helping them produce fair trade handcrafted products.

Here is a video that Semonti created based on her visit to Tarango

Here is an excerpt about Tarango from their website (http://www.tarango-bd.org): “Tarango works with some of the most marginalized women in the country, and assists them with entrepreneurship development, marketing facilitation, business advisory services, gender rights training, and personal and family health services.”

Semonti will soon follow up with a full-blown blog post about her Tarango experience.

Spontaneity is not how I roll…except for today. My thoughts sort of randomly flooded my brain in the midst of packing, so I’m taking a break.

First of all, packing for any international trip is a wild roller coaster! I fatigue just at the thought of everything I need to accomplish between now and my flight….despite this, I’m still blogging.

Two nights ago I gave my Nanu (maternal Grandmother) a call. It was meant to be a quick exchange of words- a simple “assalam alaikum” and “walaikum assalam” (Islamic greetings), a check on her health, a few stories about school, asking for her du’a (blessings), and then relaying the phone to my mom. It’s the same every week or so, a quick verbal acknowledgement as nanu and nathni (grandmother and granddaughter). It’s not that we don’t care for or think of one another whenever we can, it’s just difficult to find a context of communication over the phone (our primary means of communicating when I’m in the U.S.).

This may be very difficult to conceptualize for those who leave near or frequently see their grandparents. But this is also reality for many second generation men and women born in the U.S. Just think about it-first, in terms of our lifestyles. That morning, I ate cereal for breakfast, I caught the bus to campus, picked up a camera, updated my ipod with new songs/photos, grabbed coffee with my girlfriends, came home, watched a little Bangla TV/CNN with my parents….etc. My nanu most probably awoke with a cup of cha (milk tea) and a freshly prepared Bangladeshi breakfast, read a bit of Prothom Alo (Bangladeshi newspaper), asked the driver to bring in a casket of fresh mangoes, prepared some achar (pickle) for her grandchildren, watched a little Zeetv (Indian channel), chatted with my nana (maternal grandfather), etc.

Very different, yeah? Not only is there a generation gap, but we exist in very different cultures with very different expectations. Despite this evidence, my Nanu and I conversed for an hour that night.

Topics ranged from Barack Obama’s autobiographies, to personal habits, to managing stress, to Michael Jackson’s sudden death, etc. It was sweet to say to least- to finally feel like were bridging that gap. But now that I reflect back, I begin to question whether there really was a gap. There’s an implicit connection between me and my Nanu-one beyond the fact we share my mother as a common relative…or have identical mitochondrial DNA. Furthermore, I think there is an implicit connection between any individual, regardless of age, gender, nationality. It’s part of the human condition.

As I think about the trip to come, and the poeple I’ll sit next to, walk by, run into, and meet throughout the journey, I have to to think about the connections we all implicitly share. In order to communicate, there needs to be a mutual welcoming of that connection within. I’m eager to apply this perspective as I meet new people in a land my family calls home. I hope you’ll enjoy their stories.

Big results from small solutions?

It seems counter-intuitive, but take a look around and notice that some of the world’s most widespread solutions stem from the simplest of ideas. Believe me, I know this-I’m a Bangladeshi. My country, a developing nation with a per capita income of $1400 (as compared to global average of $10,200), has spearheaded the invention of the globally recognized Microcredit and the Sono Arsenic filter. I’m certain the inventors, Dr. Muhammad Yunus and  Dr. Abdul Hussam respectively, along with the world, triumph over the simplicity of these solutions. They really are that simple.

For those unaware, microcredit is the granting of very small loans to poverty stricken communities/people that show potential in repaying it through entrepreneurship. There’s no need to explain the economic implications of such financial innovation because the results speak for themselves. From worldwide women’s empowerment to the sprouting of new industries, microcredit has proven to drastically improve the quality of life for millions of the impoverished. Similarly, the Sono Arsenic filter, with it’s simple design and $40 cost, can filter water of fatal impurities for 2 families. What was once a critical arsenic poisoning crisis in Bangladesh, is no longer. This is incredible! 

Dr. Yunus
Dr. Yunus

 

As my first post, I want to emphasize the importance of small actions inspiring huge results. Sort of like a Jolkona (water droplet) creating ripples in a pool of water. You can be the small drop that brings ripples of change in your community, in your world. Take a look at the projects the Jolkona Foundation has listed on this site, and you might just find your opportunity.

I’m excited beyond belief for my upcoming trip to Bangladesh! I hope to witness more examples of what I call, the Jolkona Effect. What are some other examples that you know of today? How are they simple? How are they widely effective?

But more importantly, what are your ideas and visions of small solutions providing widespread change?  Who knows…maybe we’ll speak of you one day!

GET INVOLVED!