MRDF at work in Bangladesh

‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in’ Matthew 25:35.

When you first arrive, Dhaka looks like any thriving modern city. But take a walk around the backstreets and you will soon come face to face with the city’s most heart-rending problem. Scrabbling to make a living, street children gather rags, papers and bottles from rubbish tips to sell on; or earn a few taka carrying sacks of potatoes for stallholders, or breaking ice in the fish market. If you are brave enough to walk around these areas at night you will find the children sleeping in railway or bus stations, or under a bridge.

There are many reasons why children end up living on the streets of Dhaka. In some cases poverty, family breakdown or abuse drive a child to run away from home, or a desperate parent to “lose” a child in a busy area. With about 445,000 street children currently in Dhaka, it is a problem that cannot be ignored. A few months ago, I accompanied Revd Stephen Poxon on a visit to see how one of MRDF’s partner organisations is tackling the issue.

Around 6pm on weekdays, groups of street children can be found sitting in bus shelters or other open spaces in Dhaka learning literacy and numeracy skills, thanks to MRDF’s partner in Bangladesh. On a visit to an aptly-named ‘classroom under the sky’, Stephen listened as one girl read a book to him. Other children showed him their exercise books, in which they had carefully written the alphabet in English and Bengali, and waited for him to give a nod of approval. For many of these children, this type of non-formal schooling, provided by MRDF’s partner, is their only means of gaining an education. Attending school in Bangladesh is difficult without a home address and the means to buy a uniform, stationary and food.

Children who attend the open-air schools can also access medical treatment. Common health problems include sexually transmitted diseases, respiratory problems, scabies and dysentery. Staff members at the temporary schools look out for particularly vulnerable children, and offer them a place at one of six residential centres in the city. With spaces for only 300 children, it is not possible to house every street child.

We had to cross the Buriganga River to get to the biggest shelter for street children that MRDF’s partner runs - the Sadarghat centre. It was built in 1988 using a donation from a London minister called Peter Shaw. As the driver steered the boat across the river, he was careful to avoid the spurts of water coming from the houses on the hillside. When we found out it was raw sewage, we understood why. We passed a group of boys fishing in the dirty water.

In the boat, Stephen chatted with Harun Khan Prince, the project’s Director. MRDF has recently assisted the organisation in acquiring more funding for its vital work. This means the children at the centres will now receive three free meals a day, giving the children a regular diet of rice, vegetables, fish and meat.

With a master’s degree and PhD, Prince could command a higher salary in a different profession. He has worked with MRDF’s partner organisation for 14 years. I asked him to explain his motivation. ‘My father was a doctor, and sometimes he provided free treatment to people, so I grew up with this mentality – to help people’, he said. ‘I’m sympathetic towards the street children because they are very poor. I would do this job for free.’ We saw this spirit of commitment in all of the staff members that we met - ten people of the 70 project staff are former street children themselves. Prince said: ‘Sometimes when I’m walking around in Dhaka, the children call out to me. They call me “baba”, which means father in Bengali. I feel very proud.’

We scrambled out of the boat and climbed up a steep mound, which seemed to be a mixture of mud, discarded clothing and rubbish. At the centre, we were greeted by over 100 children sitting in rows across a hall, ranging in age from eight to 18 years old.

Among them was 15-year-old Khorseda. She had come to Dhaka with her mother when she was five years old, but was separated from her on a crowded train. After spending a month in jail for vagrancy, she came to live at the Sadarghat centre. Here, at the age of seven, Khorsheda was given the opportunity to learn tailoring – one of the skills, along with carpentry, that is taught at the six centres run by MRDF’s partner. She now earns a living making salwar kameezes (traditional outfits) and trousers, and likes to spend her money on clothes and jewellery. Khorseda is planning to leave the centre in a year or so – MRDF’s partner will help her to find a permanent job. In the future, she would like to be a tailoring teacher.

On a visit to the centre in Newmarket, Stephen met Akbar. He teaches the younger boys elementary tailoring, a skill he also learnt whilst at the shelter. Akbar was chosen to be the group leader because he could read and write – he had previously attended one of the open-air schools. Akbar also works in the fish market, breaking ice. He regularly saves some of his money – something that MRDF’s partner encourages the children to do.

Akbar told us about life before coming to the centre. ‘When my father died, my mother found it difficult to support the family’, he said. ‘I ended up sleeping on the streets and sometimes the police would move me on or the guards would chase me away. Now I have a safe place to sleep. I encourage other children to come here because there are drug addicts on the streets.’

Khorseda and Akbar’s journies from living on the streets to semi-independence epitomises what MRDF stands for – empowering people to transform their lives and become self reliant. MRDF’s partner puts great emphasis on equipping children with the skills they will need to live independently, and its work has had a positive effect on many young lives. Since 2003, over 40,000 children have accessed the services it provides.

Impressed by the dedication of the project staff and the noticeable progress of the children, Stephen said: ‘I believe that we encountered the kingdom of God in this project. I’ve been aware of God’s love and grace at work.’

And on a personal level, the trip had also impacted on Stephen. ‘As a human being, I cannot help but be changed by just hearing some of the heartbreaking stories and seeing the pain in some of the children’s eyes’, he said. ‘Having seen what I have – and there were many inspiring moments - I would want to encourage MRDF to continue this work for the long haul.’

Children at the Sadarghat centre sing during a visit by the Revd Stephen Poxon. Khorsheda (front) in a sewing class at the Sadargaht centre. Boys fish in the River Buriganga, the main sewage outlet in Dhaka.
The Revd Stephen Poxon listens to a child as she reads at a ‘classroom under the sky’. Boys at the Sadarghat centre proudly display what they have learnt in a literacy class. The Revd Stephen Poxon and Harun Khan Prince, Director of MRDF’s partner organisations, on a boat crossing the River Buriganga, the main sewage outlet in Dhaka.
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