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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 132 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

December 5, 2003

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Children of the Lesser God

Mustafa Zaman

The children start cavorting joyously as soon as they hear that the Eid moon has been sighted. Of the 120 street children of Aparajeyo Bangladesh (AB) in East Tejturi Bazar, 105 are to spend their Eid here. Mahbub Ur Raihan and Shahima are the two staff members who will look after these children during the Eid vacation. After a brief encounter with the children who gathered to exchange Eid Mubarak with their two official guardians, they set out to decorate the place with balloons and festoons.

At around 7.30 Mahbub and Shahima are preparing a backdrop for the children's dormitory on the third floor. These two are working away on a big white paper, where big Bangla letters are announcing the greeting -- Eid Mubarak.

Mahbub is the artisticaly-inclined teacher at Aparajeo Bangladesh. Shahima is the Assistant Residential Social Worker; she is here twenty-four hours a day to look after the children. Children are dropping by in one or twos to see the work in progress at the small room that is the office. They are delighted. Some are helping out, some are happy just to see that their bhaiya and apa are busy trying to make this particular Eid as joyous as possible.

The children's enthusiasm seems unending. Every time they see someone older they respond spontaneously -- kemon aachhen bhaiya/apa? (how are you brother/sister).

A little boy walks in to announce to his apa and bhaiya that he has bought three sets of clothes for Eid. His appearance belies his age, with which he is not bothered; his answer to the question inquiring about his age is rather blunt. “This is something that the office will determine,” he affirms. The boy, about eight, is Jamil. He is small and a bit on the frail side, yet his demeanour is lively. He reiterates the fact that it was his sheer luck that while on a visit to Shangshad Bhaban he spotted a five hundred Taka note. This is the note, the windfall that he gave to the Residential Caretaker, and “Right before Eid I asked for it so that I could buy all my clothes,” adds Jamil. Jamil claims that his parents are in Kaliganj, but he has been living here since he was very little. He adds that he does not recall visiting his parents ever. He is happy to have bought the clothes for Eid. He has even fulfilled this plan to visit the Dhaka zoo on Eid Day.

Children on Eid Day enjoying the food.

During the last MP election Pinky's mother died of cancer. This young girl was lucky to have been chosen for the embroidery project. She has been receiving training at the Shegun Bagicha UCEP para-trade centre for few months. She receives a monthly stipend of Taka 150and a daily conveyance of Taka 10 from UCEP and another 10 from AB. This applies to every trainee attending courses at UCEP. For Pinky Eid Day is the day she visits her three sisters living in Mirpur. As for Eid special clothes she bought herself a set of salwar kameez with the money she saved.

Putly is distraught on the eve of Eid-Ul-Fitr. Her mother remains incarcerated for the consecutive 3rd year. And it was heart-breaking for her when one day prior to Eid, she went to see her mother at the Dhaka central jail but the authority did not allow her as she did not have the hundred Taka that they unlawfully demanded.

The young girl grieves the fact that her mother was arrested three years back from Tejkuni para, “where she used to deal in phensidyl,”she frankly coughs out. Putly has been lucky, and has been learning screen-printing at the UCEP para-trade centre at Shegun Bagicha. On the night before Eid, her khala (maternal aunt) promises to make her a new salwar overnight, which she does and Putly is all smiles on the Eid Day in her new green dress and fluffy hair-do.

There are 20 Peer educators at the Aparajeo Bangladesh centre. It is they who go out to scour the areas marked by their authority to look for new recruits. Osmany Udyan, the mazaar at Mirpur, Karwan Bazaar are the marked zones where these children set out to rescue their peers and counsel them to come to the centre. Once at the centre the small children pay Taka 5 and the older ones pay Taka 7 to get lodging and three daily meals.

The authorities of Aparajeo employs the Peer Educators, Each of them draws a salary of 2000 per month. One Peer Educator, Shumi has been working here for 9 months in this post. It was during her childhood that she got involved with AB. “I was a little girl who used to play in around the Shangshad Bhaban area, one day the teachers of the open street school of AB approached me and I was with them since then,”says Shumi. She hails from Gafargaon, Mymensing, where her stepmother lives with her children -- three daughters and one son.

The Peer Educators have reason to be in a good mood during this Eid. They were given Eid bonuses that amounted to Taka 917. Sonia, another Peer Educator, too had lost her real mother but now is happy to buy her stepbrother a panjabi and a pair of shoes for Eid. Her stepmother lives with her son at Jigatala, and Sonia makes it a rule to pay a visit during every Eid.

Not everyone at the AB centre has reason to smile on the day before Eid. Abul Kashem, an older boy is unhappy, as he could not manage to save money towards this occasion. He picks rags along with his buddy Shahin. Their work-area is vast, almost half of Dhaka, but their days income “is only 30 to 40 Taka,” both of them confirm. These two have been here for three months and the opportunity to get a job still eludes them. “We don't want to pick rags. We want to get into proper jobs,” says Kashem. “We often get beaten up by people who take us for thieves, we hate to do something that doesn't even pay much.” adds Shahin.

At Aparajeyo Bangladesh Eid provides the children with an opportunity to have fun.

Faruk is not in that kind of trouble. He is rather lucky to have completed the six month long training as “banner writer” at the UCEP para-trade centre at Shegun Bagicha. He saved his money with the authority of the AB and was given some of it back to buy himself a shirt and a pair of shoes. “I did not have enough to buy a pair of trousers that would have fulfilled my desire,” says Faruk. “I spent 200 Taka on these,” he adds.

Md. Shumon relates one of the most harrowing experiences in his life. The day before Eid he talks about how he used to constantly get beaten by his parents in Sylhet, his home district. “They used to gag me before starting to beat me up, they always wanted to see some money at the day's end,” he says. For him “this is the best place to stay during Eid. “I have friends and all the apas and bhaiyas are caring,” he affirms.

The last three years were lost from this wide-mouthed, eloquent child with sunken eyes. Shumon, who looks not more that 10, was picked up by the police from the street while distributing handouts and packed off with many others to the centre for the vagrant at Betulla, Gazipur. “I could not even take baths properly, as the water was dirty. And the caretakers were cruel,” says Shumon. He was released one month back and came back to AB. Shumon is lucky to get his old job back. He made a little money and spent almost three hundred taka on his complete set of Eid outfit that included a fotua, a pair of trousers, a pair of shoes and lastly a belt that he bought on the morning of the Eid Day.

Eid for these children is all about good food, clothing and outings. “They are too mobile, you cannot fully restrict their movements as they are habituated to a kind of life where restriction was never enforced,” says Mahbub who believes that counseling is having an impact on their behaviour.

On Eid day the AB centre is altered, the children are in new clothes, they almost belie their identity as underprivileged children. Some of the young girls are bedecked in such fashionable clothes and don such hair-dos that the visiting Project Cordinator Amina Khatun can not help but inquire about their style. “To acquire the fluffy look you need to tie up tiny little plaits right after the bath,” informs Putli.

The most amazing thing for one to discover is the alliance among young girls. Although there are events of wrangling and fighting, the fraternity among them is a thing that seemed to have been the fruit of labour, both of the people who run the place and the children. On Eid day a little girl named Nasima proudly announces that her new salwar is a gift of her apa -- Meethy. The generosity of Meethy is just one example of the fellow feeling that bound the inmates of the shelter together. A girl with a checkered history, Meethy along with other girls were entrusted with the flower Shop at Mirpur-1. They are paid a monthly salary, this has proved to have deterred them from seeking any detour to make money. “Our strategy has proved affirmative. Though sale-wise we have not yet reached the target,” says Amina Khatun.

Many of the children made some quick bucks selling flowers this Eid. The children were posted throughout the city with a bucketful of flowers. The next day the little flower sellers were keen on roaming about the city. After all they are kids and they, though branded as underprivileged, have the right to have fun. They continue to carry the burden of their precarious past and Aparajeyo Bangladesh is only trying to help them find their own niche in this world where making a living is a war.




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