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Taylor Corbett is a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA, pursuing a double major in Economics and Diplomacy and World Affairs. This post is part of a series he wrote as part of an internship with BRAC’s Targeting the Ultra-poor program in Bangladesh.

As an American student in Bangladesh I have quickly learned that there is one question that I inevitably face in every greeting. Wedged somewhere between the handshake and friendly smiles slips the question, “What are you doing here?” It’s something I have been asked by customs agents, taxi drivers, chai wallahs, school teachers, businessmen, village leaders, and even friends. In Bangladesh this is a completely justified question. With virtually no tourism industry and monsoon season fast approaching, many wonder why someone would come to their country to tromp around isolated villages for days at a time. The simplicity of my response has, thus far, never failed to solicit a smile. “I have come to learn from you,” I always tell them.

The context of my response can be found eight months prior as I read Nicholas Kristof’s column titled “More Schools, Not Troops.” In his column, Kristof compares the different developmental paths of Bangladesh and Pakistan in the 30 years since their partition in 1971. Pakistan, choosing to spend its aid dollars on military spending has come to face a militarized and divided society. In contrast, Bangladesh has chosen to focus on educational and societal development, which Kristof argues, has led to healthier, better educated, and less radicalized society. He went on to attribute this progress, in part, to an NGO called BRAC for their education and development initiatives. As an international relations and economics major, studying how development organizations can provide effective solutions to pervasive transnational issues (such as terrorism or insurgencies) is my academic dream. Clearly interested, I did what any information hungry American does, I Googled-it.

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This post was written by Tysen Gannon, the Director of Corporate Partnerships here at Jolkona Foundation.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Pacific Northwest Global Donors Conference. One of the central themes that emerged was importance of and benefits associated with giving to projects that empower women. This resonates greatly with the work Jolkona Foundation is doing with our partner organizations around the world, and coincides with women’s history month and Jolkona Foundation’s highlighting women-focused projects.

In her opening address to the international development focused conference, Kavita Ramdas, President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, delivered a direct and inspired call-to-action for philanthropists. Ms. Ramdas highlighted the sweeping changes many grassroots women’s organizations have been able to achieve by connecting with grantmakers willing to take risks in funding small projects and organizations. It is often these grassroots groups organizing around simple needs and injustices that offer the clearest and most efficient path to making a measurable difference. Small projects–such as the Global Fund for Women’s contribution to the EcoWomen group in China which fund education and safer handling of pesticides–have achieved remarkable results for women, their health, and, by extension, their families and entire communities.

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This post was written by Nancy Xu, a member of the Jolkona team. A few months ago, she traveled to Costa Rica and with Astha Gupta, another Jolkona volunteer. They visited a school that benefits from the water conservation program and this is what they learned.

It’s middle of the winter back home, but it sure is hot and humid here in San Jose, Costa Rica. Astha, Maryam and I are on our walk back from the market, and we see Aitor Llodio from Aliarse, already waiting promptly with a cab. We give each other a warm greeting and are on our way. Today, Aitor is taking us to visit a school that has benefited from the water conservation program. Since the school is located in a low-income community, Aitor asked us to pack minimally to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. We chat along as storefronts become less and less dense, as we pass by mountains that are ex-volcano craters, and through coffee farms where groups of young men are catching a break on the sidewalk.

Aitor has been intensely involved in the water conservation initiatives for the last couple of years. The concept of water conservation is not quite on the radar of its citizens, as reflected by the nation’s increasing consumption for water. Since the government is not steering the ship to make any improvements in this area, a number of grassroots efforts like Aliarse’s began in hope of making positive change. They have multiple approaches to address this issue. Today, Aitor is going to show us the education and the infrastructure improvement programs.

The School

We arrive at the school and it seems to be lunch break. The children walk past in their school uniforms, and stare with curious eyes. A few schoolboys are playing a game of foosball by the principal’s office. Some parents are sitting on the curb outside of the school, waiting. Since this school supports a lot of low income families, most of the parents are unemployed. The ones that are registered as employed tend to be street vendors selling scarves and bootlegged movies to tourists.

The principle gives us a tour around the school, and we are all amazed to learn that the school contains many age groups of children. To fit such a variety (and volume) of students into the school, each age group gets 3 hours of the day. This essentially turns the school into a “shift” system.

The Water Conservation Education Program

Now, onto the water conservation education program. This program is architected quite brilliantly. Each school year, Aliarse selects a few schools in the San Jose area to target. From each school, they choose 25 kids between the ages of 10 and 12. Since it is not possible to give an informative course to the entire school, they developed a system where children with the most influence were chosen, and it is up to them to spread the idea to the rest of the school. The 25 children will consist mostly of the smartest kids in school, but a few will be the trouble-makers. It is important to throw the trouble-makers into the mix because if the program can turn their attitude around, the sphere of influence grows further. And the selection of only 25 children gives the program prestige, and helps create excitement.

Classes are over at noon for the elementary school section

Classes are over at noon for the elementary school section

The program consists of 4 modules and runs once a week for 3 months. The first part is an interactive classroom session. The children are taught the value of water, and how our delicate ecosystem and its life forms are dependent upon it. The second part is a class field trip (and kids love this one!) where they visit a local water purifying plant. The plant manager takes them around the facility and explains each of the steps needed to treat the water before it comes out of the tap. The 3rd part of the module is very hands on. The children are taught plumbing basics, and are empowered to help the school report or solve problems such as leaky and rusty pipes. The last module is about ways to reduce unnecessary water usage. The reduction of black water is also one of importance, only 4% of the nation’s black water is treated today.

Overall, this education program has proven to be extremely effective and reduces 20% (and sometimes up to 50%!) of the target school’s water usage after program completion.

Fundamental Infrastructure Improvement

Self-timed tap installed in school to optimize consumption of water

Self-timed tap installed in school to optimize consumption of water

Aitor is also working on another initiative that has even greater impact to water conservation, but comes with a higher investment. This involves a complete upgrade of the school’s water distribution system to make it inherently non-wasteful. For example, the boys’ urinal is an entire wall where a curtain of water pours down constantly from top to drain. This is inherently wasteful. The upgrade consists of tearing down this setup, and to add standard urinals in its place. In their vision of future upgrades, they would like to install waterless urinals instead. Another installation is a self-timed tap. This is common in our public bathroom in North America, but not yet widespread in schoolyards of Costa Rica. Old leaky pipes are also torn out and replaced with the new. These infrastructure improvements achieve 70% reduction of water usage immediately after installation. This is huge.

The government does not have the ability to fund these activities today, which is why Aitor’s organization steps in again. This is a much larger under taking. For this particular school, it has taken 3 months, a crew of 5, and approx. $8K USD to complete, and every school is different.

Luckily, they have one big sponsor backing them up – Coca Cola. Coca Cola consumes 2L of water for each can of Coca Cola. As resources become scarce, trend setting companies are operating in a more socially conscious way. Coca Cola for example, strives to be water neutral. They invest in water conservation efforts across Costa Rica to balance their consumption of water. This is all great, but the funding is still limited and Aitorâ’s organization can only hit 3 to 4 schools each year.

As we drive off after our enlightening visit, Aitor points to the fields behind us.

“That’s where the drug lords from Columbia reside. We do not go there. We lose a lot of kids to that zone. They do not come back.”

Hmm, foreshadowing for the next problem to tackle in Costa Rica perhaps?

“The Red Cross went in there once after a stress call, and the gangsters shot at the rescue van. They do not go there anymore.”

…so we may not be ready to tackle this one just yet. For now, we are loving the water conservation program here in Costa Rica, the Aliarse group and the Amigos of Costa Rica, and really glad that Jolkona gets to be a part of these amazing initiatives.

About the author: Nancy Xu is a multimedia storyteller for Jolkona. She works on video games and gaming gadgets by day, and aspires to make postive social change by night. Nancy is also actively involved with the independent film community in Seattle. She screens and introduces films for local film festivals, and makes documentaries and feature films in the summer. Feel free to check out her personal website, here.

This post was written by Danielle Rind, a member of the Jolkona team.

I was first introduced to Half the Sky by my mother after she attended an event featuring Nicholas Kristof. When I received Kristof’s book I had very recently become involved with the Jolkona Foundation, a non-profit that provides a platform for individuals to donate money to causes and organizations around the world. I quickly learned about Jolkona’s partnering non-profits and the help that these organizations provide. But this was only the beginning of what I was soon to learn regarding the endless needs and human rights violations that exist around world. Kristof’s book helped educate me further…

Each page of Half the Sky was a bigger eye opener than the last. Kristof provides detailed and moving stories of women who have suffered more than I ever dreamed possible.

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 This guest post was written by Yifat, on behalf of Madre, a Jolkona Foundation partner.

Fatima Ahmed, the president of the Sudanese women’s organization Zenab for Women in Development, recently stopped by the MADRE office with exciting news.  The ground-breaking women farmers union led by her organization had harvested a successful crop-and the results are changing people’s lives.
Founded by Zenab in 2006 and supported by MADRE, this project has brought together women who make up the majority of farmers working on small-scale organic farms in Sudan.  Amplifying their voices, they have been able to demand access to seeds, better tools, and assistance in farming.

Women have been able to share knowledge on how to better prepare their land for cultivation and how to manage weeds that destroy the crops. Fatima was excited to share that these women have not only been successful in providing food for their own families but have also been able to provide crops for other regions in Sudan.

Fatima shared with us a story about one village where the women had been denied access to education. With her help and with the resources generated by their successful farming projects, they organized a much-needed adult education program. The women built a center where they could host their school and opened the space for community meetings.

Their improved farming has increased production and has enabled them to generate an income, in some areas even allowing them the chance to bring in electricity.  In yet another village, three women farmers were able to raise enough funds to send their daughters to university, a victory that would have been otherwise impossible.

Together, women farmers are creating new possibilities for themselves, their families and their communities.

This guest post was written by Derya Rose, on behalf of Yachana Foundation, a Jolkona Foundation partner.

Evenings in rural Ecuador are often filled with the familiar whirring of diesel generators, providing a little bit of power to communities off the country’s main electricity grid. When these machines are off, the soft glow of candles fills the night. Families cooking, students studying and children playing – all by candlelight.

Although this environment may seem charming (after all, candlelight often inspires romantic thoughts), it presents a real burden to the rural poor. Families not only pay up to $270 per year for candles, they also encounter frequent burns as well as accidentally set fire to their houses on occasion. Add strained eyes from reading in dim light to the equation, and one can see that this situation isn’t quite as charming.

Founded by Douglas McMeekin, the Yachana Foundation has been operating in the Ecuadorian Amazon since 1991.  Recently, Douglas found out about an innovative, flexible mini solar panel that was designed specifically for use by the rural poor, or who Douglas calls, the people that live at the base of the economic pyramid.  This solar panel, which contains no glass and is virtually unbreakable, provides clean power to four useful accessories. The first is an LED lamp, which can be recharged over 500 times and can last between six and thirty hours per charge, depending on the intensity selected. This product alone can easily solve many of the economic, health and environmental problems posed by candle use. Other accessories include rechargeable radio batteries, a mobile phone charger and a spare battery pack, each with its own set of economic, social and environmental benefits.

We at Yachana found in these products an opportunity to operate a triple bottom line distribution business. First, the end user would enjoy the benefits described above (and more), allowing them to invest more money on their kids’ educations, health, clothes, businesses and so on.  Next, the environment would benefit from tons less spent on the disposal of wax as well as millions of used batteries being discarded.  Lastly, 100% of the business’ profits would go to support the Yachana Technical High School.

Right now, with the help of various government agencies, we are rolling out this product regionally and aim to offer it in all regions of Ecuador within the next year. 

If you would like more information about how you can support Yachana and it’s various community development initiatives, please contact Hugh Yarbrough at hugh.yarbrough@yachana.org.ec

Submitted by Jorji Knickrehm, Grants Manager at Washington Community Alliance for Self-Help (or Washington CASH).

Figuring out how to foster new small businesses in low income communities is an ongoing passion here at Washington CASH. Yesterday, all twelve of our program staffers packed themselves into a small conference room, and tinkered for 4 hours with the curriculum of our core business development class. Maybe if we add a weekly lab to each of our classes, it will help more of our clients build businesses that will be around five years from now — businesses that will provide them with a living wage income and the happiness that comes from being self-determined. We’ve helped a lot of people, but we know there’s more out there with unfulfilled hopes.

Many times it is people who are new to the U.S. who encounter barriers as they try to get their feet under themselves financially. Tri Nguyen, for example, moved to Washington as a refugee from Southern Vietnam when he was 22 years old with his parents and two older brothers. “Before coming to America, we went overseas from Vietnam to Malaysia where we lived in a refugee camp for 7 years. We were then sent back to Vietnam for two more years, where we continued to await acceptance into the United States as political refugees. Finally, the United States government opened its doors and welcomed us to America, a free country we had been seeking for almost half of our lives.”

After spending two years learning English, he attended Highline Community College where he received his Associates degree before transferring to Washington State University and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in education. While an undergraduate, Tri worked for two years with a cleaning company where 99% of employees were Vietnamese. His fluency in English allowed Tri to take on a management role within the company, which ultimately provided him the experience and knowledge necessary to start his own venture. “I started my own business to help fellow Vietnamese people by providing job opportunities here in America.”

Tri completed Business Development Training with Washington CASH in June 2009 and has since entered Business Groups, a program providing business support and access to capital in the form of peer loans. His new business, Tri Mountain Cleaning Services, Inc., offers both commercial and residential cleaning services, using only non-toxic products to create a safe environment for pets and children.

The name of his business, Tri Mountain Cleaning Services, Inc., stems not only from his first name, but for the three mountains he says complete his business: himself, family & friends, and Washington CASH. “My company cannot stand by itself. Before CASH, I didn’t know how to do the things necessary to open a business. Now I’m ready to go.”

While he currently has about ten regular customers and employees as needed, Tri envisions expanding to include about five new customers every month, opening more commercial accounts, and hiring more employees. “I was so excited when I got my first customer with Tri Mountain. In that moment, I knew I was going to be successful. Even though it was a small contract, it was a big moment. Owning my own business has given me confidence I never knew I had.” Figuring out how to help more people get that great feeling of empowerment; that’s what gets us out of bed in the morning at Washington CASH.

This post was contributed by Ian Anderson, Machik Intern and Summer Enrichment Program Coordinator

A mixture of excitement and uncertainty hung in the air as the volunteers for the Machik Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) met in Chengdu for the first time before students arrived and classes began. We were volunteer teachers and facilitators from diverse backgrounds: Tibetans, Chinese, Canadians, and Americans. We were high school, university, and graduate students as well as working professionals. Students came not only from the Chungba Schools and Litang County, as in the past, but from all over the Tibetan plateau. This was the first summer for the scaling up of the SEP, and this time the program incorporated almost a hundred volunteers and students in total.

With such a large number of volunteers, our programming opportunities were virtually limitless. Each of the volunteers had a unique background and skill-set. While some volunteers taught English and Chinese classes, some turned out to be expert seamstresses who taught students how to fabricate pillows and clothing in a North American style. Others shared their knowledge of yoga, painting or dramatic improvisation. I was lucky enough to be one of the leaders of a music section, where the students learned how to perform basic songs on the recorder. To teach this class was a joy. The students were excited and engaged, absorbing the notes and melodies with ease. By the time the end of the week came and our small group was ready to perform, all the students had obtained the fundamental skill of reading music and were able to transform the notation they saw on the page into something beautiful.

Teaching is not a one-way street. The students who arrived from various communities on the Tibetan Plateau brought with them different backgrounds and experiences that they were eager to share. Through day-to-day interactions and chats, visits to local museums, and Tibetan sites, the students took great pride in instructing us, the volunteers, in multiple aspects of their cultural heritage.

The students, who came from very dissimilar and often remote parts of the Tibetan plateau, would also often compare notes about differences among each other’s experiences, underlining the richness and variety of Tibetan culture. I think the magic of the SEP came from the sharing of these unique experiences. Volunteers and students alike forged friendships and new connections that not only enriched and changed how we perceive the world, but also created new channels to engage in the important task of talking and thinking together about how to create a better future.

What Machik does–and does well–is to open the door to a new and hopeful future by helping to build the capacity of communities on the Tibetan plateau. The Summer Enrichment Program is an important part of Machik’s efforts to help improve education in rural Tibetan communities, and will touch the lives of an even greater number of students as it continues to grow in the future. I’m so proud to have been a part of this amazing and important work.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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