The end of a chapter

>> 19 Apr 2010

As I write this long-overdue posting I find myself reflecting on the last few weeks we spent in our beloved Bangladesh.

The memories that spring to mind are the noise of the cricket ground as Tamim scored a century as he went into bat against England in their 1 day international in Mirpur, the smell of the puri and shingaras gentling sizzling away as we rode past the road-side eateries on a rickshaw from our house to Road 27, the hooting of the horns as we sit in a traffic jam in the back of a CNG, the huge, warm, loving smiles that greet us as we walk through the door of a brother and sister's house or the noisy chit chatter of a group of eager women sitting on our lounge floor doing some craft activity at one of our sister's mornings. All these wonderful memories of a country that has occupied such a large place in our heart over the past 18 months.

The last few weeks in Bangladesh were, as you can imagine, rather chaotic to say the least. At the end of Feb / beginning of March, 2 friends from our church in the UK came to stay. One of the people in question had lived in Bangladesh before, so was fully prepared for the craziness of life in Dhaka and his wife very quickly got to grips with it, having endured the somewhat harrowing ride back from the airport and arriving to a house full of lovely ladies from our church in Dhaka, all sitting on the floor chatting away at one of sister's mornings.

As always, it was a privilege to be able to share our enthusiasm for this amazing country with friends and to explore some of the little gems of Dhaka.

We shared meals with colleagues from work, brothers and sisters from church and indulged in some of the Dhaka delicacies (yes; there are a few out there, believe it or not!). The hospitality which we were shown in that week was really an insight into what makes Bangladesh such an inviting country. I know we've said it on numerous occasions but we never cease to be humbled by the open-hearted generosity shown towards us by people in Bangladesh.

We also went on a staff outing to the cricket ground to see England's first 1-day International against Bangladesh. We paid £2 for 7 hours of sheer entertainment. You can't help but get swept up in the carnival atmosphere of the occasion, whether due to these little plastic hooters that everyone seemed to have a blow at any opportunity, or the ridiculous celebratory dances that one group indulged in every time Bangladesh did something worth celebrating, or the chanting for "Tamim Bhay" (Bhay = brother) when he went into bat, or even the men scurrying around the score board tower moving the numbers around as more runs were added. All of this, along with a very excitable group of Bangladeshis colleague went to make this a very enjoyable and memorable introduction to this strange cricketing world and also one of those very lasting memories of Bangladesh.

As if this wasn't exciting enough, we also found great amusement from a visit to the opticians (boring though it may sound, everything seems to turn into an adventure when you're doing the seemingly mundane things of life in a completely different culture). All 4 of us went en masse to the opticians to get some new specs for our friend (infinitely cheaper over here than back home). We entered the small glass-fronted shop, all sat down at the insistence of the manager and then the fun began. As our friend showed even the slightest interest in glasses, the man behind the counter felt it his duty as service-provider to get out a vast range of other pairs of glasses for our friend to try and when we had exhausted the range in the cabinet, out came the suitcases also full of various types of specs - everything from Calvin Klein to Armani; all the best genuine fakes, of course!

So, once the laborious task of choosing a set of specs was done, next came the obligatory bartering process, which was equally as fun. I can't remember how much we knocked him down by but I'm sure our white skin and obvious inexperience made us easy targets for some profit-making.

In fact we had so much fun engaging in this process that our friend's wife brought a pair of specs, which started the whole process off again and then Andy and I also decided to join in but just to get the most out of this unique experience, we thought we'd also capitalise on the £2 eye test that was on offer.

Perhaps had it not been teeming down with rain, hail, thunder and lightning we might have left with a few less pairs of glasses than we did but thanks to the totally unseasonal weather, and the cricket being shown on the TV in the shop we ended up leaving the shop almost 2 hours later complete with 4 sets of glasses, 1 pair of sunglasses and 2 eye test results - not bad really!

At the beginning of March a couple arrived, who were volunteering with Oasis for 1 month and who were also due to stay with us, so once again, we had the opportunity of introducing Dhaka to some fresh faces and spill more of our enthusiasm for it into some seemingly willing recipients.

This couple were mainly working with me on a project launched by STOP THE TRAFFIK, called Start Freedom, which is an initiative for secondary schools around the world to raise awareness of human trafficking and to mobilise young people to tell others about it.

We went into various schools teaching the lessons prescribed by STOP THE TRAFFIK and forging contacts in schools in order to pursue the project. We only targeted English Medium schools at the outset, as all the materials were in English. The uptake was amazing; I was so encouraged to see the children really engaging with this subject and being motivated to do something about it. At one school the children took it upon themselves to go into local slums and the villages to raise awareness to their peers about the dangers of human trafficking.

During our last couple of weeks in Bangladesh we took a trip up to Nilphamari to see the factory one last time and to say goodbye to the workers. As became a common theme with all of our 'goodbyes', this was a very emotional event. We went to our processing plant where the workers were busily stripping, cutting, soaking and slivering bamboo in an orderly row, seated on the floor. After a chat to the manager at the site and a look around, the workers stopped what they were doing, assembled in a circle and our dear friend and manager up there gave a very moving speech and presented us with flowers. There were a few tears and exchanges of fond farewells and then we left for the factory. At the factory, the same thing happened, although this time we were presented with a strip of bamboo signed by all the workers and a gift for each of us consisting of a brass plate, bowl a cup. We were so touched at this huge gesture - it really warmed our hearts.

We left the workers with a mixed feeling of satisfaction of having been a part of something so amazing that has really impacted these peoples' lives but also a sense of regret and heartache that we may not see these people again and that the role we had played in this story, up until now, has ended. It was really hard to believe that something that had played such a large part of our lives should so suddenly come to an end.

As we stood in that field looking at rows and rows of bamboo culms drying, with kids laughing and shouting in the background as they ran out of their bamboo school building and the hazy late afternoon Bangladesh sun beating down on us, it was hard to imagine life in the UK and what that would be like.

In the evening we went to a local fair with the Nilphamari manager, his wife, the pre-processing manager and his new wife and the factory manager. This was as strange as we had come to expect from Bangladesh. There were lots of stalls selling these sweet deep fried snacks that looked a lot like pretzels, tea stalls, other stalls selling items of jewellery and accessories, games, shows and the like - very much how I imagine fairs to be in Victorian Britain (although I may be way off the beaten track). One of the events we went to see was a large round wooden pit-type thing, where a motorbike went round and round it, with the audience at the top, getting ever closer to the top of the bit. I'm not sure whether I was more scared by the lack of any safety railing behind me, the rickety wooden ladder we climbed to get up, or the fact that the motorbike got so close he could snatch money out of the hands of people in the crowd. I think they have a lot to learn about health and safety!

Anyway, this very fun, slightly scary evening ended with a ride back to the village and a short stop to let off a sky lantern that we had brought. As we watched the bright sky lantern slowly drifting further and further into the night sky it seemed to be the perfect end to a perfect trip and chapter of our lives and I couldn't help but think that somewhere up there (and all around, in fact) God was smiling down on us, reminding us that whilst we have no clue where our lives may be headed and why on earth we would be drifting so far away from a country we love so dearly, He actually knows exactly what lies ahead and reassuringly has it all in hand.

We then returned to Dhaka on an overnight bus, arriving back home as dawn was just breaking and the newspaper boys were out on the streets sorting the papers and taking their stock to sell on the streets and at the traffic lights.

The following days proceeded in much the same way. Lots of farewell meals, farewell sweets that we came armed with to each house we went to and teary goodbyes. As we went from house to house saying goodbye to people it seemed to get harder and harder as we realised that this is another person, who has impacted our life greatly, that we may never see again.

We had a very lovely 'office goodbye', where we assembled for our extra special team lunch and were presented with some wonderful gifts from our colleagues and some very kind sentiments. We attempted, very feebly to return the sentiments, through blubs and streams of tears. Whilst it's lovely to hear that we will be missed, it also left us with a giant hole inside as the memories of the past 18 months came flooding into our minds and a knowledge that, as we sat with curry in hand amongst a circle of friends in our office in Dhaka, the people sat in those chairs were so different to the people who sat in the same chairs 18 months ago, awkwardly making conversation with this strange bunch of Bangladeshi folk. We realised the way God had shaped us through these wonderful people surrounding us (as well as all the brothers and sisters at church) and how much our lives had been transformed.

When we set off for Bangladesh, we set off with a desire to see transformation; we left looking in the mirror and seeing that the transformation we had witnessed was closer to home than we had expected.

Perhaps the saddest goodbye of all came from a brother at church and his wife, who after a long embrace, left on the words "well sister.....goobye". The words themselves are so few but behind them were feelings of a deep bond that had formed between the 4 of us, a reminder of the lessons of humility and servitude we had learned from this inspirational couple and a longing sense that this might be the last time we may see this couple again until Jesus returns. Suddenly, the world starts to feel very big.

The feeling of leaving Bangladesh was a strange one - whilst being excited to see friends and family again, there was a deep sorrow at leaving our beloved Bangladesh. The only way I can describe it is a feeling of numbness, like when you come home from the holiday of a lifetime and you know you have to go back to work the next day - you feel elated by the memories you've accumulated and the wonderful time you've had but then that sense of inevitable regret as you have to leave it all behind, knowing that actually the 'holiday' could never continue and those feelings of regret are only present because of the relatively short time you've broken away from the normal routines of life.

So, as that chapter of our life comes to an end, another exciting chapter begins, fuelled by the lessons, excitement and joy we experienced in "My Golden Bangladesh" (first line of the national anthem). We are looking forward to seeing what God has in store on this next part of our journey.

Thank you so much to all of you for being a part of our journey so far - we've loved every minute of the ride and all the more so for being able to share it with you.

May God richly bless you, as He has us.

Nic and Andy x x


Three Reasons why I like...

>> 11 Feb 2010

Some things I like in Bangladesh and reasons why.

Buses in Bangladesh:
1) They're cheap - a 20-30minute trip will usually set you back about 15Tk (about 15p!)

2) There's normally lots of them - too many infact and it can be very confusing to know which is going where and when. Even though there's lots they're usually very very crowded... but this all adds the fun of the ride.
3) Mob Mentality (in a positive way!)- A man refuses to pay becuase he thinks he's too important so the rest of the bus shout at him until he gets off! Or, we (the smith family) get on and even though the conductor tells us how much to pay the rest of the bus wont let us because we're visitors! (Bus conductor was not happy!)

Still not ridden on top yet!! :(

The work I do:
1) Interesting and fulfilling from a professional point of view - I've developed a range of practical and business skills from slivering bamboo to production planning!
2) Its a social business - yes we're trying to make money but we're ultimately trying to give and keep people in employment who need it the most. We care for and value our workforce, hoping to see a positive impact in their lives - and its working!
3) The people I work with - they work hard, are dedicated, understand the values and concepts of what we're doing and are eager to make it work!

(there are more reasons but it wouldn't fit with the theme and I'd be here forever!)

Having a guard at your house:
1) He says hello in a friendly way every morning!
2) Looks after your shopping if you want to go on to some place else (saves you lugging it up the stairs)
3) Helps you park the car - I'm good with my mirrors but an extra pair of eyes is always useful!

Bangladesh Church:
1) We get to sit on the floor.
2) People are honest about what they are feeling and what they think. Which can be both annoying and likeable.
3) We always listen to and share others prayer requests at the end of the service (and we share lunch!)

1) Properly managed it sooo sustainable (grows to maturity in 3/4 years - closest other is pine, which takes at least 7 or 8) - Bamboo grows up to 45feet in one year!
2) You can eat it, wear it, stand on it and make nearly everything from it (including coffins -
3) It captures loads and loads of carbon dioxide (much better than the average tree!) So get planting!

Old Dhaka:
1) Its Chaos! - people, rickshaws, foods, sewage, vans, clothing, machine shops, banks, Christmas decorations, the river, the boats... its all happening in a hive of Chaos
2) Always something different to see - and people are always happy to show and talk about what they're doing
3) Boats - its been bread into me from a very early age!

Thanks for reading.... see you soon!



The Tale of Two Survivors

>> 29 Jan 2010

Hi all,

I thought I would do a posting about a couple of trafficking survivors that I'm working with at the moment because I've been really touched by their lives and their stories. For confidentiality I won't use their real names.

In previous postings you may recall I referred to a girl called Reena. She was trafficked from Bangladesh in 2006 at age of 15-16 with the promise of a job in India. The offer turned out to be a false one and she was sold to a brothel in the red light district of Kolkata (biggest red light area in South Asia).

In February 2007 she was rescued by an organisation working in Kolkata. Reena gave her statement to the police, who subsequently arrested 4 people involved in Reena's trafficking (including the brothel madam).

After a few months staying in a shelter home in Kolkata Reena was repatriated back to Bangladesh. She then spent a few days in another shelter home before returning back to her father.

Since coming back to Bangladesh her father arranged for her to be married to a young man, who already has a wife and children. The father didn't tell of Reena's past until recently, which has caused problems in the marriage. Reena also found a job in a garment factory, which she has been working in since she returned. Sadly Reena's marriage has not been a particularly happy one - her husband is a drug addict and relies on Reena's income to feed his habit. He has a tendency to become violent, particularly when needing money for his habit.

We became involved in Reena's case last year when I went to visit her rescuing organisation in Kolkata. They had lost contact with her and the organisation who reintegrated her in Bangladesh couldn't locate her, so they asked if we would try and establish contact. They were understandably concerned about her welfare but also she needed to come back to Kolkata to give evidence in the trial against her traffickers.

We managed to make contact with her in around April 09 and since then we've had regular contact with her. Her trial was listed for May, then adjourned til June and then several adjournments later finally was listed for December 11th.

In order to get Ripa back to Kolkata we had to apply for a passport and visa, which was difficult in itself due to the many layers of red tape that exist here. Thankfully the Lord moved the hearts of the government officials to accept our various applications.

On 5th December Reena and her husband came to the office. She looked tired, malnourished, depressed and anxious. On 6th December my colleague took Reena to Kolkata on her first plane trip so she could give evidence.

On 5th January I went to Kolkata to collect Reena and was faced with a happy, much healthier, confident looking young lady. The transformation in her was amazing! I was greeted with a big hug, a huge grin and "Aunty, how are you? come and see where I've been staying...". I was then shown round the shelter home she was staying in and introduced to the other Bangladeshi girls staying there.

During her court case she had given very compelling evidence and managed to recall a lot of information with infinite accuracy and detail. The judge and police commended her for her evidence. She was extremely brave, particularly when coming up against cross examination and undoubtedly her evidence will form the pinnacle in the case against the traffickers. The verdict in the case has not yet been reached.

When Reena and I came to leave the shelter home she exchanged numbers with people in the home and said her goodbyes. It was so moving - all the other Bangladeshi girls wanted to know when they could come home, they were all anxious to tell me where they're from and if there's any news from their families. Of course we weren't really involved in their cases, so I couldn't say. I was particularly struck by one amazing young lady, who lives just down the road from us and was trafficked from that area. We have since met with her family and we're trying to get her 5-yr old daughter into a good school, so when her mum comes home she's got one less thing to worry about.

Reena and I then went to the airport. She displayed a mixture of anxiety and excitement whilst at the airport. The excitement was shown whenever it came to move on to the next stage of the airport process. She was up out of her seat grabbing her bags and mine and saying "Come on Aunty, let's go". When we sat in the airport lounge her eyes were wide with excitement and she was looking everywhere. She also had fun trying to teach me some of the Hindi she had learned during her time in India (but sadly I was a pretty bad student).

Whilst we sat waiting, I went off to buy a coffee and looked back at her sitting on her own. As a man approached to speak to her, the sense of responsibility I had suddenly dawned on me and I immediately became very protective of her - getting a real sense of her vulnerability.

As we sat on the plane ready to take off her anxiety kicked in. She held my hand and as the engines began to whir she squeezed even tighter and closed her eyes. That was when I realised what different worlds we both come from and how these worlds have now collided.

The following day Reena came into the office and was reunited with her husband. She was very excited to share with her husband of her experience and her husband was obviously proud of his wife's achievements. We spent the morning chatting to Reena about her future and we're now working to get her a place on a beauty training course, which she is very excited about.

We hope and pray as they begin this next chapter of their lives Reena's motivation and enthusiasm would continue, that she would grow and develop into the amazing woman she has potential to be and that she would be supported by her husband and his family in all she does.

This week I went to a shelter home in Jessore,in the south of the country, with my colleague, to visit another survivor, who returned to Bangladesh in October and who we have been supporting since.

She was trafficked by a local policeman but managed to escape when she reached Mumbai before being exploited.

We were encouraged by how well Sathi was doing. When we spoke to her a few weeks ago she was feeling very down and was anxious but when we saw her she was much more upbeat and her confidence has grown significantly.

Sathi comes from a very poor family. Before she was trafficked her husband had left her and married another woman and they are still living in the same village as Sathi.
Ever since we met Sathi she has been concerned about getting a good job to support her family and bring honour to them. She was educated to a reasonable standard but she has totally lost confidence to continue learning, since she's been out of education for over 10 years.

She's another remarkable woman - very caring, assertive, commands the respect of others and has good leadership skills. She feels a real sense of loyalty and responsibility to her family.

Sadly, since returning to Bangladesh, the village that Sathi is from have jumped to conclusions about what happened to her in India and they're insisting that she's an immoral woman and have consequently cut off Sathi's family from the village. The tormenting has become so bad that Sathi's brother has left home. This factor is only driving Sathi all the more to get a good job and succeed in life.

Whilst we were visiting her we managed to get a place for her in a good local clinic to get work experience as a birth attendant. Currently this position is unpaid but the director of the clinic is hopeful that it will lead to a paid position.

Sathi will have her first day in the clinic next week. We're really hoping a praying that this will be a time of blessing out of the darkness for Sathi and her family as she starts on this journey. She's still very concerned about getting an income but hopefully God will see to it that a paid position crops up soon.

We also took Sathi to see her sister in another clinic. She's had a tumour removed from her groin area and looked in a pretty bad way. Sathi immediately assumed the care-giver role when we arrived and whilst obviously being distressed it was good that she had the opportunity to spend time with her sister and mum.

We're praying that God will bless these two wonderful women in their new journeys in life and shine a light in their life after the darkness they have experienced.

Besides these two women, we've been out looking for the families of a couple of 11 year old girls who were trafficked from Bangladesh and are now staying in a shelter home in Mumbai. We're also trying to find a girl who absconded (or was taken) from the shelter home she was staying in in Mumbai - she is extremely vulnerable and there is a high risk of her being retrafficked, particularly as we suspect her family were involved in her trafficking.

I was also very privileged to be on a trip where we found the family of one of the girls I met in Kolkata. We managed to connect the girl with her family via a mobile phone and it was a particularly special moment when her daughter held the phone up to her ear and heard her mum's voice for the first time in 3 years. This is the girl I mentioned earlier, who we're now trying to support through education.

So, lots happening. Every day brings a new challenge but I'm so grateful that God has allowed me to witness some of the amazing miracles that are going on. we're hoping and praying for the day when all will be free from the bonds of slavery and people won't have to make the decision of whether they should risk a life of exploitation or risk their family starving to death.

Please pray for these girls and their families.