An oasis of life amid Dhaka slums
January 17, 2010, was one of the most exhilarating, hectic, uplifting, emotional, tiring and inspiring days of my life. That was the day when I left the safe confines of my life and ventured into a world of poverty, destitution, happiness and hope. I was visiting the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka and experiencing first-hand, the amazing charity, The Dhaka Project, which was started by Emirates Airlines air hostess Maria Conceicao in 2005.
I support the project in every way I can. Through my public relations and marketing company, I provide pro bono support to Maria and all volunteers of The Dhaka Project. My first trip to Dhaka was to take 100kg of donated clothes for the children and adults as well as to see the charity at work.
I landed in Dhaka on the morning of January 17, excited and unsure about what lay ahead. I was whisked through the airport, customs and immigration in next to no time thanks to the efforts of another one of our charity sponsors [sadly, the donations I had brought along were being held up due to standard airport bureaucracy but they promised to deliver them later on] and the next thing I knew I was in a car winding through the traffic, the Dhaka sunshine breaking through the smog.
The Bangladeshi capital is like any Third World city: An urban collection of buildings and humans trying to make the most of the circumstances with no objections and no complaints. Life goes on, no matter what. I took a deep breath and calmed myself as the surrounding sights snapped my excitement and brought me to reality.
Chatting with the friendly driver and working my way through a multitude of feelings and emotions, I suddenly grabbed the camera, focused and clicked...I had just seen a small sign in a labyrinth of electricity wires and wooden poles: 'Welcome to the Dhaka Project'. We were there. We pulled up, I got out and was immediately surrounded by hundreds of children, all smiling, holding my hands, touching, feeling and saying over and over again, 'Welcome Dani, Welcome Dani'.
Amid this excited throng, I spotted Maria, with two kids hanging from her sides, smiling ear to ear, her expression saying it all: 'Welcome to my home, welcome to my life, say hi to my kids'. My eyes welled up. Surrounded by poverty, in the middle of the slums of one of the poorest cities in the world, all I felt was unconditional love, happiness and hope.
Maria ushered me to the top of the group and we started walking to the school building, the kids still milling about, all talking at the same time, asking questions, trying to attract my attention. They were all exceedingly polite and amazingly, a lot of them spoke perfect English.
The school is an integral part of The Dhaka Project and the slum kids are getting a basic education on par with other more fortunate children. The school is run according to regulated local curricula and the children are making the most of it. Each of the classes I stopped by, was full of enthusiastic young minds, all exploring and storing knowledge that would allow them to break out of their cycle of poverty. The air of hope and aspiration is palpable and one can feel the positive energy and strong vibes.
We were running to a tight schedule so after the school tour, we walked over to other areas of The Dhaka Project where the families lived. As we made our way through tiny alleyways and small roads teeming with bustling slum-dwellers I noticed something remarkable. The streets were spotless, not a single piece of rubbish was lying around. This was the result of another of Maria's inspirations. She incentivised and encouraged everyone to be part of a caring, sensitive community and that included keeping their areas clean. Right in the middle of the slums, we had a little bit of Singapore, achieved by simply invoking the spirit of community.
Our next stop was the day care centre and nursery that provides mothers and their newborns and toddlers a much-needed sanctuary. The insides of this nondescript building are a testament to a hopeful new life. The rooms are clean, the walls are fresh and decorated, toys and teddy bears lie around. The mothers were inviting and friendly, allowing me to cuddle their tiny tots, some with no nappies but all adorable bundles of joy. The contrast is again jarring. Outside this building is an unforgiving, cruel world but in here, Maria has managed to provide a little garden of life, where flowers are allowed to bloom.
The experiences were coming thick and fast as we moved on with our tour of the slums and the areas under The Dhaka Project's control. As we bustled along and the circle of children around us ebbed and flowed, I felt a little hand reach up and grab mine. I looked down and instantly recognised the child; I had noticed her before and she had stayed close to me but was too shy to engage – until now.
She tugged at my hand and pointed. She wanted to show me her house. I looked over at Jewel, the local Project Manager, and he nodded, so we changed direction. I was led over to a tiny, corrugated steel shack. Inside, it was sparse, a type of double-bed table taking up the floor space, pots and pans hanging on the walls. This was a home in which up to eight people slept at night. At this time of day, there was only one person sitting in the corner, an aunt or sister presumably of the little girl, breastfeeding an infant.
Trying hard to keep my emotions in check, I moved on. By this time, the sun was beginning to set and with power and electricity sparse and in some areas non-existent, I was beginning to realise what each night brought, an existence under a fickle moonlight.
Fortunately, The Dhaka Project and its area were in a much better condition than the rest of the slums so we moved to a house that had light beaming through its windows. We had come to the Catalyst, an initiative of the charity that focuses on providing education solely for adults.
Here I was introduced to six rays of sunshine. The Dhaka Project has recognised six children, aged eight to 12, who show immense promise and potential. These kids are exceptionally bright and show all the potential of achieving very fulfilled lives if they given the right opportunity.
The Dhaka Project is working to take these children out of the slums and putting them in schools outside Bangladesh, potentially Dubai. Because of their advanced learning capabilities and the lack of teachers, they actually teach at the Catalyst, giving adults an education that they themselves have absorbed beforehand.
My whirlwind day was coming to an end, so we headed back to the main guesthouse for a round of farewells and goodbyes. Before I made my departure, 15 kids sang and performed for me – an impromptu display of thanks that touched me deeply and humbled me to the core. I had brief discussions with the children, asking them all about their future goals. Their optimism and scope of ambition was heartening and inspiring.
The six aforementioned children gave me six letters that outlined their individual goals and ambitions. They all wanted to do something meaningful, one saying he wanted to be a pilot, another saying he wanted to become a heart specialist so he could come back to the slums and treat his own people.
It was time to go. As we pulled away from the kids and volunteers of The Dhaka Project, I knew I would be coming back. This was an oasis that deserved all the support, recognition and help that it could get. I am fortunate to have met Maria and honoured to be part of a true act of human salvation.
When the Emirates flight turned into an arc after takeoff, I peered out of the window down to the twinkling lights of Dhaka. I focused on the black patches, remembered everything I had seen that day and knew that behind that layer of darkness, a strong light was being harnessed, gearing up to shine through.
The writer is Managing Director of CS-PR Group
The DHAKA PROJECT
The Dhaka Project was started by Emirates Airlines air hostess Maria Conceicao in 2005. Now Emirates Airlines is one of the longest-serving supporters of The Dhaka Project. Thus far, The Dhaka Project has been staggeringly successful, including setting up a school that is being attended by 600 people; setting up a day care centre and pre-school attended by 50 young children; vaccinating children against hepatitis, polio, typhoid and measles; as well as launching a sewing and handicrafts training centre that has empowered 80 women already.
Through its Catalyst arm for adults, it runs a school for basic reading and writing in English as well as general knowledge, hygiene, family planning and etiquette.
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