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This post was contributed by Yifat Susskind, MADRE’s Policy & Communications Director. MADRE is one of Jolkona Foundation’s partner organizations. 

Yesterday I had coffee and a good long talk with Yanar Mohommad, MADRE’s partner and the director of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). It was Yanar who first launched the OWFI women’s shelters that MADRE has supported since 2004.
 
She showed me pictures of some of the women and girls at the Baghdad shelter. Two teenaged girls looking up and smiling from a computer. A middle-aged woman in jeans showing off a meal she had prepared for all the other women. I wish I could post the photos here, but it would be too dangerous for the women. The shelter’s exact location and the identities of the women who are there have to be kept secret. These women are still at risk for “honor killing.” For now, the shelter keeps them safe and while they are there, some of them will learn skills to help them relocate, get jobs, and begin to rebuild their lives.
 
Talking with Yanar, I was reminded that the OWFI shelters provide more than just temporary refuge to women threatened by war and violence in Baghdad. OWFI gives the women “a sense of home,” as Yanar said,  “a close network of sisters who are risking their own lives to stand up for other women in Iraq.”
 
Yanar told me the story of Fatin, a young woman who escaped from a Baghdad brothel with the help of an OWFI activist. At 16, Fatin was barely literate. She was physically and emotionally scarred from years of rape and beatings. The code of “family honor” meant she could never go home again. But thanks to Hind, an older OWFI activist who had infiltrated the brothel to reach out to women trapped there, Fatin is free. For now, she is living in the OWFI shelter that this site helps support. She is finishing her studies and working on OWFI’s newspapper, Al-Mousawat, which means Equality. “Fatin is no longer a victim,” Yanar said with a grin. “In fact, I think one day she may be a great journalist.”

Health is a pivotal step towards the economic development and sustainability of communities. For children in many villages in India, health care, particularly preventative care, is almost unheard of and limited to either poorly staffed government health centers or private clinics, usually run by con artists or unqualified apprentices. While there are many ways to prevent and treat malaria, the developing world often has limited access to these technologies. Without bringing these solutions to the people in rural tropical climates, scientific progress completes only half the battle.

Malaria cuts economic growth rates in countries with high prevalence rates and countries ravaged by malaria suffer from a compromised, unhealthy workforce. An increase in malaria prevalence is statistically correlated with a decrease in literacy and school attendance, which limits the potential of each new generation. This health crisis threatens long-run prosperity at the individual, family, community, and national levels.

Bed nets, specifically Long-Lasting Insecticide-treated Nets (LLINs), are one of the most effective daily deterrents to mosquitoes. A LLIN is a ready-to-use insecticide treated mosquito net created in response to low re-treatment rates of traditional insecticide-treated nets.  These nets require no additional insecticide treatment and remain effective for years, even after multiple washes. They are recommended by the World Health Organization and are the preferred choice of mosquito nets for many groups, including UNICEF. A treated bed net can reduce the overall number of mosquitoes that enter the home and can reduce transmission as much as 90% in areas with high coverage rates. LLINs are rarely used in rural areas because of their cost, limited availability, and a lack of knowledge of their importance and existence.

Thus, there are two interrelated problems: lack of knowledge and lack of access. This project aims to address both these problems.

The Barakat Initiative Against Malaria will distribute LLINs to students enrolled in the Barakat schools in Uttar Pradesh, India. Nets will be distributed prior to the next monsoon season, when the mosquito count peaks. Prior to receiving their nets, students and their parents will attend classes on malaria transmission, community prevention, proper use and care of bed nets, identification of early symptoms, and the importance of preventative medicine. Learning about malaria is a key step in order to ensure that the nets are used diligently, and that steps are taken in the community to reduce overall mosquito breeding levels. For example, currently, basic, effective knowledge such as reducing stagnant water and covering water tanks to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds is unheard of in this area.

The Barakat Initiative Against Malaria is now able to purchase LLINs to be shipped to India at a subsidized rate of approximately $5.00 a net. For less than the price of lunch, one can tangibly improve the health of one student. No gift is too small, as just $5 can save a life.

I remember well the first time I laid my eyes on Sengdruk Taktse School. I was sitting on the back of a motorcycle, clutching the jacket of the Tibetan man who offered me a ride from the nearby town of Darlag, as we flew swiftly down the dirt road. Making our way down the road alongside the snake-like Machu River, or Yellow River in Chinese, I kept wondering when would arrive at the school. Finally, as we turned a corner, a large open valley came into sight, and I could see the school sitting at the top of a small plateau nestled into the left side of the valley.

At that time I knew very little about Sengdruk Taktse School except that it was a school for mostly orphans and was started by an influential Buddhist teacher named Khenpo Kunzang. Over the next few months, as I taught English at the school, and spent time with the students and the teachers, I realized that my relationship with this school was going to be something more than just teaching there.

I remember, one cold morning after a night of snow, as I took a short walk outside of the school, I stood for a bit looking back at the school from a distance. I could hear the children of the school, ranging in ages from 5 to 18, beginning their day. I could hear some of the younger students making sounds of joy as they chased one another playfully from their dormitory to the classroom, while some of the older kids sounded like teachers giving orders to the younger students. All the sounds were held together by a common thread of concern for one another, like a close family.

Standing there, I started to think about how great it was that these kids, most of whom are the first ones in their family to ever receive an education, have been given a chance to receive an education. Many of these students not only come from extremely poor nomadic families, but many have also lost one or both parents. Some of the parents have died of natural causes, others have died in accidents, and others have simply not survived the harsh struggle of the life of a nomad on the highest plateau on earth.

As I thought about the students and the education they were receiving I noticed that my expectations for these students was quite low. I realized that disguised within my thoughts of compassion were actually thoughts of pity, as if getting an education here was just some kind of token gesture. As soon as I recognized that mentality within myself, those thoughts turned into something much more genuine and hopeful. I thought to myself, “No, these kids don’t deserve an education that is any less than the education any of us in America would receive. Why can’t this school become a place of unsurpassed, quality education? There is so much potential here!”

It was after I had those thoughts that I finally felt that I was seeing eye to eye with the founders of Sengdruk Taktse School. Their vision for the students and children of the Tibetan plateau is nothing less than to provide the best education possible in order to fully restore the greatness of Tibetan culture and society.

Building upon the vast and profound traditions of the past and uniting them with modern education and science, the students of Sengdruk Taktse are some of the brightest hopes for the future of the people of the Tibetan plateau. This has been proven by the fact that for the past two years, the students of Sengdruk Taktse School have had the highest standardized test scores out of any school in the entire Golok region, an area approximately the size of Austria, located in southern Qinghai Provence, China. The education these students get at Sengdruk Taktse School is unlike any other school in the region.

It is with all these thoughts in mind that the Joru Foundation works to ensure that Sengdruk Taktse School will be able to continue providing quality education for Tibetans inside Tibet. Our primary tool for gathering supporters of our work thus far has been the internet. Never before has it been possible to share your message and goals with so many people from all walks of life and all geographical location, than it is now due to the power of modern technology.

Adnan and the team at Jolkona understand the power of the internet fully well. Not only that, they understand the power of people working together to support each others visions to make this world a better place. This was the initial feeling I had when I first came upon the Jolkona website. I knew that partnering with the Jolkona Team was a win win situation for everyone, so I did not hesitate to join.

It didn’t take long for us to benefit from our partnership with Jolkona. Out of the blue, I received an email from someone stating that they wanted to help our project to support Sengdruk Taktse School. In particular, this individual wanted to sponsor all the girls in the first grade! Through Jolkona, this sponsor was able to make a connection to our project – a connection that will hopefully last a long time. This sponsor has not only shown her commitment by sponsoring the girls of the first grade, but she has also shown her concern for our project by working with us to ensure that a mentorship infrastructure is in place in order to help the girls of the first grade continue their education until graduation.

I hope that visitors to the Jolkona website will offer any support they can, whether it is by telling a friend about one of the many great and deserving projects on this site, or by contributing to a project themselves. We are much stronger when we work together. Projects like Jolkona can help all of our efforts become more concentrated by coming together to achieve common goals. Our project to give education to Tibetans has benefited from this vision, and I hope your project does too.

One of the reasons that I picked the Santiago study abroad program was the Poverty and Development class that it offers.  The class meets once a week for three hours (sometimes a struggle after a morning of commuting and classes, but I try my best) and includes three hours weekly of volunteer work.  There were several sites to choose from, varying from a homeless shelter to shadowing a social worker to teaching classes to middle and high school kids.  I opted for the Centro Abierto de Santa Adriana, a community center that offers runs an after-school program for low-income children, among other things.  It’s located in a poorer neighborhood where many of the kids can only go to school for half the day because of limited resources, so the other half of the day they spend at the Centro under the supervision of the tías.

I go in the afternoons with two of my friends from Notre Dame.  We started about two weeks ago, and the first time getting there was a bit of an experience.  By bit of an experience, I mean we got lost on the micro (bus) for a solid two hours after a random detour sent us sailing past the correct turnoff and onto a tour of an area of Santiago that none of us had ever seen.  In retrospect it was necessary, since the neighborhoods our host families live in are upper-middle class and not representative of Santiago, let alone Chile, where income inequality, a rigid class structure and poverty are significant problems.  We had earnestly set out from the university around one in the afternoon expecting to be at Santa Adriana by two at the latest, but after waiting nearly an hour for what turned out to be the wrong micro, taking said micro to the end of its route, and then prevailing upon a benevolent bus driver to drop us at a micro that could take us back to the metro, we had given up on finding Santa Adriana.  We got on the next micro, resigned to trying again sometime later in the week, and not 10 minutes into the ride one of my friends glanced out the window and, lo and behold, there was Santa Adriana.  Victory!–albeit late, and unnecessarily confusing, but at least we finally made it.

The first day we stayed until the Centro closed at 5:30, getting to know the other tías and keeping the kids entertained.  The kids are absolutely wonderful, affectionate, welcoming and accommodating of our gringa Spanish.  When we arrive they come running up to greet us, then pull us in different directions to play futbol, read stories, or give piggyback rides as the case may be.  In addition to general supervision, we can lead talleres (workshops) for specific activities.  We can decide exactly what we want to do, but popular requests from the kids are sports (especially futbol), music, karaoke, dancing, art projects, and cooking.  Last week we lead a cooking taller in which we attempted to make brownies from scratch with 12 small children.  It was actually pretty successful:  the final product was pretty good, and only burned in one corner–not that this deterred the kids from devouring every last crumb.

I’ve been very impressed at how well-run the program is and how respectful the kids are.  I’ve volunteered at similar programs in the U.S that were really disorganized, with the kids running all over and no one knowing what’s going on.  The tías at Santa Adriana make sure people behave without being overly strict–a good environment for the kids, especially since I don’t know how much structure they really get the rest of the day.  Low-income areas in Chile struggle with many of the same problems as low-income areas in U.S, including drugs, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and early onset of sexual activity (some kids as young as 11 or 12).  I sometimes wonder how much help we gringas really provide, since there’s still something of a language barrier and we’re only there once a week.  But the kids seem to really appreciate the extra attention and activities.  I’m interested to learn more about the neighborhood and get to know the kids and tías better in the coming weeks.

I love this time of year. Enrollment opened on Monday for TAF’s TechStart After-School Program and the steady stream of families bringing in their applications is heartening, to say the least. Seeing the familiar faces of our returning students and families has definitely ramped up the excitement for the coming school year here at the office. It’s a real reminder of one of the impacts we are making in the community – that is, our families see TechStart as so valuable, that they are rushing in to sign up early and bringing along their neighbors, younger siblings, and schoolmates to join, too. Nearly half of our Seattle classes are full after only 3 days of open enrollment. Yep, I definitely love this time of the year.  

 

Another of my favorite times is the rare occasion when I get to substitute as a TechStart teacher (this is not an invitation to call in sick, teachers!). Being in the classroom with our bright, eager kids is so inspiring and a real, front lines kind of confirmation that we are definitely doing right by them. Seeing the students experiment and create animations in the MIT developed program Scratch, for example, or watching them troubleshoot their robot’s program in Lego Mindstorms. I mean, forget the numbers and statistics (for a moment, at least) and imagine Marcutio, one of our Southern Heights Elementary students, plugging away at his Scratch project – a dynamic depiction of the human muscular system. Marcutio raised his hand and said, “Ms. Johnson, I’m done.” Hmmm, I thought. There are two weeks left in this project and he’s done? After a quick conversation and tutorial on a new technique, he was off and running again, now furiously working to improve his project that just five minutes ago was “done.” That’s the power of the technology tools we use like Scratch, Alice (a 3D design program), and Lego Mindstorms (robotics) – they are nearly limitless in their ability to allow each student to advance. Combine that with our Project Based Learning approach to curriculum and dynamic teachers and you have a recipe for success.

 

Seriously, getting Marcutio to dive back in and work to improve his supposedly finished project was that easy? Yeah, it really was. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still a challenge to get every kid to have an experience like his, but it’s one that our exceptional teachers, curriculum team, and staff gladly accept. Who am I kidding? I love every part of the TechStart year.

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?

Sign at the entrance to Villa Grimaldi

Sign at the entrance to Villa Grimaldi

It’s going to be a bit of a serious post today, but yesterday was an intense day for the ND group: a tour of Villa Grimaldi, a detention and torture site during Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, topped off with a visit to the General Cemetery of Santiago. Our guide for both tours was a torture survivor himself, a law student at the Universidad de Chile when the U.S-backed military coupe overthrew President Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1973 and installed a dictator that would last seventeen more years. As a student member of a socialist political group, our guide was detained, tortured, and then exiled to the U.S in 1976, not returning to his native country until 1991. He was visibly shaken recalling details of his experience, but in a country where the horrendous human rights abuses of Pinochet’s government are rarely discussed or taught—they are seen as an embarrassment, an atrocity that many would prefer to forget—it’s easier to understand the desire to bear witness to these crimes, however difficult.

I don’t want to get into too many political details here, but quick and extremely simplified history: Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970 with only 36% of the vote, thanks to the conservative opposition’s inability to organize against him. Because Allende’s government came to power with the support of only a third of the population, implementing its “Chilean road to socialism” proved nearly impossible, leading instead to economic problems, hyperinflation, shortages, and black markets. The opposition began organizing almost immediately, believing that the only way to save free enterprise would be to overthrow the government. They succeeded on September 11, 1973, and General Pinochet took control of the country. With a combination of “antipoliticization” (i.e. politicians are the problem and the military knows best), a heavy reliance on the University of Chicago school of free-market economics and neoliberalism, and a campaign of state terror that crushed dissidents and successfully prevented them from organizing, Pinochet’s regime stabilized the Chilean economy—but also committed some of the most egregious human rights abuses of the decade. In 1988 Chileans voted not to extend his term in a plebiscite, and elected a new president in 1989, thus transitioning successfully back to democracy.

Few people would say that Pinochet’s economic successes justified his oppressive regime, but the details are rarely discussed. My host sister here told me that most Chileans don’t know what Villa Grimaldi is, nor do they know about the other 753 other clandestine torture sites that existed. This was confirmed when her friends looked at me with blank stares when I told them I’d toured Villa Grimaldi earlier that day—I guess it is the domain of classes in Chilean Politics and earnest foreigners.

I couldn’t stop thinking about what our guide told us: that thousands of people were tortured or disappeared (the official count of deaths and disappearances is just over 3,000, and higher for torture victims), that torture ranged from physical (electrical shocks, backing trucks over people) to psychological (confining several people in a cistern so that they lost all sense of space, time, and themselves) to sexual humiliation (rape and forced bestiality)—but the worst part was knowing that this isn’t unique to Chile. Pick any country in the world and you will find cases of abuse of power, torture, oppression, and genocide, whether within their own borders or not. So how do we heal? How do we demand accountability and freedoms from governments, and work for positive change? This testament, at least, is a start:

Translation:  This place that has become a park was just a few years ago a site Mosaic at the entrance of Villa Grimaldiof torture and cruelty.  Its corners serve as a testimony to the anguished memories of the survivor of the ex Villa Grimaldi.  Every flower given with the tears of yesterday is a firm promise that here, never more!  Never more will torture be repeated in Chile.

“It personally helps me to not be dependent on the people who can operate a computer….But when we can do the things by counting on ourselves, we realize that all is easy and possible,” says Manuel, a Roots and Wings International computer lab user. Manuel beams with pride as he and his fellow students learn and benefit from the use of a computer-something foreign to the subsistence-farming community of Pasac, Guatemala, where RWI’s computer lab is located. Manuel is getting an education that will lead him out of poverty, an education he otherwise would not have had if RWI had not flown in with the donated laptops that are the cornerstone of the organization’s education initiative. In Manuel’s village of Pasac, the students are getting a glimpse of our technology-centered world. To date, RWI has flown five donated computers to this little village to deliver a better quality of life.

Two hundred and fifty children currently share the five laptop computers at RWI’s computer lab. Waiting in line is a daily chore, but their turn to get a computer education that will eventually lead them out of the impoverished lifestyles that they currently lead makes the wait worth it! See photos of RWI’s Guatemalan students hard at work in the computer lab.

Fortunately, RWI has received ten additional computers through donations made through the 25Comptuers Campaign in the past few months. These computers are being refurbished to make them ready for use in the lab. Once ready, the laptops will be flown to Guatemala. The generosity provided by RWI supporters will enable RWI to educate a greater number of children and provide a place for more scholars to congregate and learn. If you’d like to make a donation, click http://www.jolkona.org/projects/44.

In the computer lab, RWI directors and tutors see the young students manipulate the keyboard with expressions of awe plastered all over their faces; they calculate numbers, type sentences to learn grammar and complete other standard school work. The older students, our scholars, use these computers to do school work as well. They are working hard to earn stellar grades so that colleges will accept them left and right. And they are! We have many students who attain acceptance at top universities in fields that will enable them to return to their communities and incorporate their knowledge to improve the quality of life for the members of the very community in which they grew up. Overall, the dreams and career aspirations of RWI’s children are no longer bottled up. Their dreams are being put into motion via education.

Monetary donations, aside from laptop donations, are a second way RWI receives assistance in helping the Guatemalan communities. Jolkona, working in partnership with RWI, will ensure that 100% of the donated amount will go toward the cause. Here is a breakdown:

  • 30% will go to paying the computer teachers,
  • 50% to maintaining the computers and purchasing software and
  • 20% to paying for electricity and furniture in RWI’s Guatemalan computer lab.

That is 100% of your donation dollars going directly to help RWI.

So you see, there is no middle-man fee when you donate through Jolkona Foundation. Every penny of your donated dollars goes strictly to helping the cause to which you donated. Now isn’t that a sigh of relief? Thank Jolkona Foundation’s flawless philosophy! You can make a difference. A donation of $25 will go toward purchasing more laptops and help more students in Guatemala’s impoverished communities.

Right now, Jolkona, in partnership with RWI, is raising funds to cover the computer tutoring costs of 20 Guatemalan children. RWI can use your help. Donate online at http://www.jolkona.org/projects/44.

Today, we are excited to welcome our first US partners.

It has been 2 months since we opened up Jolkona Foundation to the public. We are excited to see how well it has been received since then. However, for us to be truly successful in the long term, we need to continue to find ways to enrich the giving experience for our users. For example, what our users want to see is a diverse set of donation options. Today marks a significant milestone for Jolkona Foundation as we welcome our first US partners and launch 3 US projects.

Technology Access Foundation (TAF) brings an innovative approach to help educate children of color in some of the underserved communities in Seattle. Through their projects, you will be able to provide everything from supplying snacks for the afterschool program to sponsoring their field trips.

Washington Community Alliance for Self-Help (CASH) supports individuals with limited financial resources by providing them business training, supportive community and capital. You can support CASH’s activities by sponsoring various business trainings.

They say “Charity begins at home.” Both of these partners are committed to assisting the marginalized communities in our neighborhood. We couldn’t have picked out any better partners to bring Jolkona Foundation to America.

Jolkona Foundation’s goal is to build a platform that not only empowers the donors, but is also available to any nonprofit organization willing and able to show a tangible proof for every donation. The success of a platform is hinged on its popularity with its constituencies. Our platform now supports more than 40 projects in over 25 countries – from USA in the west to the Philippines in the east.

Thank you again for all your support so far. I hope you take this opportunity to support the projects with TAF and CASH or any of our other projects.

As always, your comments are highly welcome and appreciated!

It’s been awhile, I know—the first three weeks I had the legitimate excuse of almost nonexistent Internet access coupled with all-day Spanish classes, but now that I’m settling into the big city it’s time to get to work. To recap, I was in Linares, a small city about four hours south of Santiago that also borders a more rural area (campo). The first week I stayed in a retreat center with the other Notre Dame students, and then we all moved to stay with different host families for the remaining week and a half. Some highlights from the campo include:

  • A night of traditional Chilean music and dance with the community. We learned the cueca, Chile’s official dance, which involves handkerchiefs, cowboy costumes, and dancing in circles—lots of fun. At the behest of my host dad I danced it with an eight-year-old boy who needed a partner.
  • Visiting Chilean high schools to meet the students. They were more than patient with our bumbling Spanish and confused looks—one girl in our group ended up with a stuffed animal and a love letter from an admirer. The visits were a bit overwhelming at first, especially since they were on the first few days we were there, but ultimately lots of fun and great practice talking to younger people.
  • Happening upon herds of cows just hanging out in the middle of the streets in Linares. Along with our bovine friends, the ubiquitous street dogs would sometimes finagle their way inside the parish and join us for Spanish class.
  • Mysterious bug bites that may or may not have been fleas–the other suspect was bed bugs.
  • Pancito (bread that is sort of like a cross between a bagel and a biscuit). Soo much pancito with palta (avocado) and tea.  Those were the three main food groups, and along with more than ample servings of these every gathering, whether a visit to Chilean high school or the local Catholic parish, was an opportunity for celebrating with tea and pastries. Not that I’m complaining—it was glorious.
  • My host dad very excitedly presenting me with a DVD to watch, explaining that it was really good music. Curious, I took him up on the offer, and what do you think it was? Chilean folk tunes? Reggaeton? Spicy salsa beats? Nay, it was a two-hour montage of 80’s video hits. Everything from “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to Michael Jackson to Cyndi Lauper was represented.
  • The ND gringuitas holding our own in a futbol match against the Chilean teenagers.  They still won of course, but I think the final score was 5-3, and both sides played well.

Sculpture by Alejandro de Nirivilo, a woodcarver near Linares

Sculpture by Alejandro de Nirivilo, a woodcarver near Linares

Cueca dancers at our party with the San Antonio parish in Linares

Cueca dancers at our party with the San Antonio parish in Linares

On a more serious note, the threeish weeks spent in Linares started to teach us about the huge disparity between social classes in Chile, as well as the relatively rigid class structure. The contrast between Santiago and Linares is striking. The Santiago host families are all middle to upper middle class—for example, my family lives in a modern apartment, with central heating, hot water, and wireless Internet. The streets are free of trash and stray animals—there’s even a Starbucks a few blocks down. The closest malls are overwhelmingly large and upscale for yours truly ($20 seems like a monumental sum on a college student budge) and are packed with American chains and brands. Aside from the Spanish language, I could be in any European or American city—although English TV and music are popular, so it is unfortunately possible to live here without even having to immerse yourself in a different language.

Linares looked much more like a developing country, with many unpaved roads and trash piling up on the sides. My Linares family lives in a four-room rowhouse. The house was heated with a woodstove that lacked a chimney, and the kitchen was attached in a concrete, garage-style room. My host dad works in the fields earning the Chilean minimum wage ($140,000 pesos per month—about $250 U.S. dollars) while my host mom works unofficially as a maid a few times a week, as she is paid only in cash. Chile has a Socialist government under the current president, Michele Bachelet, and labor laws and unemployment benefits exist but are easily evaded. My host dad’s boss had worked out a deal where he would send his workers to classes, for which he was paid by the government, then contract the workers for about eight months of the year—then fire them and leave unemployed for the remaining months of the year. He would then rehire the same people, collect money from the government, and start the whole process over again. This is a common practice, according to my host dad and one of my Spanish teachers, and I’d like to research this and related issues more since I only got a basic understanding of it.

So much more to say, but this has been a long post so I’ll leave it here for now. My Poverty and Development class and volunteer work start this week, as well as all my classes that were supposed to start last week and just—didn’t. Such is La Católica. But I promise to update more regularly from here on out!

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.

I know! I have been away for some time. Been too busy to communicate to you my thoughts

Well you shouldn’t blame me too much. First, its summer so I have been extra busy, reading writing and putting my life in some form of order. Also, don’t forget that I am also working and we have had a lot of work to do at the World Youth Alliance. I should just tell you about a few of the things I have been up to lately. I have been….

1. Reading certain very important works on international development especially on the subject of good governance, democracy and the like. The two books I am reading concurrently (I know this is crazy but this was how I learnt to read) are War, Guns and Votes by Paul Collier and One Economics by Dani Roodrik. I have learnt a lot from the educated insights of these two men and I would strongly recommend these books to people who are really interested in development. I must note however (being the trouble maker that I am) that Colliers misinterpretes certain aspects of Nigeria’s last elections. For example, he states somewhere in the book that Nasir El Rufai contested elections in Abuja and lost. Well, that never happened.

2. Reading awful and wonderful articles about International Development and Foriegn Policy. I’ll be direct. My worst article about international development over these past two weeks was Nicholas Kristof’s article on maternal mortality. Now before I get attacked or misunderstood by the good readers of this blog. Let me clarify in as few words as possible and then probably write a rebuttal if you rile me up enough. I have been very much interested in Maternal mortality so I have researched it a lot about it. I hated that Nicholas Kristof tried to make the victims family the culprit when the blame should rightly have gone to the UNFPA which has collected about 900 million dollars from donors but still has the worst performing MDG as the one it is responsible for. i.e Maternal Mortality. Kristof’s argument that the family would have earthed out 300 rupees if the baby was a boy hardly hits at the home run issue which is that even the local clinic should have skilled birth attendants who can be easily trained to deal with birth complications. People should have  a right to give birth whereever they wish and still have the appropriate resources available to the,. End of short rant.  My best article was on Jay Z and foreign policy in America. It really has nothing to do with development though. However, let me state my biases. Ether is my favorite rap song ever! (Warning: Explicit content)

3. Working on a personal project called the Cheetah Fund. You follow this blog so you deserve a sneak peek. So I suddenly decided that I was tired of “talking” about development and I was going to do something about what I think are the root problems in development: Lack of Education and encouragement for young entrepreneurs. So the Cheetah Fund, inspired by themes from Africa Unchained by George Ayitteh will basically try to solve both porblems. It will be a micro-credit club  replicated in local schools in development countries for youth between the ages of 16-21. Basically, the kids will be loaned some money to buy shares in companies and then they will be asked to formulate a business plan that will enable them repay the loan (without interest, I’m not gonna go all MFI on kids), make some profit. In the program, they would be given occasional guidance by successful business people in these countries on best practices in business. They would also have to learn about best practices in international development. At the end of the program, they will have to decide which development project to spend 20% of their profits on. The program will be run as a competition amongst these local schools and the winners will be presented with the opportunity to have summer internships with Fortune 500 companies in New York. Its a lot of work and I know we’ll have to start out small and all but I think I’m prepared to face the challenges. Its still in the pipes anyways..so no frets.

4. Finally, I have been monitoring some really importnat debates at the UN where I work for the World Youth Alliance. One of the many sessions I have been monitoring is the UN’s CEDAW review session where I have been learning a lot about the state of women all around the world and what more needs to be done to ensure that discrimination against women is brought to an end. It has been interesting and perhaps it would form the butt of a post on this blog one of these days. The most I can say now is that from what I have heard women in Liberia have it really rough especially with FGM and rural women especially elderly rural women, bear the brunt of discrimination against women in most developing countries. I also monitored the Responsibility to Protect Debate at the UN. Bill Easterly read my mind on this one. He just missed the point about the reform of the security council which I point out here.

5. Having fun. I have been having over different high school friends studying in other parts of America visit me here in New York. I have been forced to resort to “touristy stuff” like visiting Time Square, taking pictures of everything and riding the Staten Island ferry. And yea, parties…never forget the parties!

GET INVOLVED!