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     Volume 6 Issue 18 | May 11, 2007 |

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Special Feature

A small, Yet Significant Drop in the Ocean

Prathama Komal Nabi

They live in a six-roomed flat on the second floor of a three-storied building in Pallabi. These six rooms have become their home; a home that is far more stable and secure than they have ever known. These six rooms have become a place where they have been given the opportunity to laugh as children should laugh. Out loud and in a carefree manner. A place where they have been taught to become responsible and independent human beings. A place where they have been shown the true significance of loving and caring for those around them.

Here, they have found their shelter, a sacred sanctuary that they take refuge in. A sanctuary called "Annondo". They are a group of Dhaka's underprivileged street children and 'Annondo' is the shelter home of the organisation Ekmattra that works to improve the conditions of such children. The dream of Ekmattra, a social development organisation run by young activists, is to find a way to bridge the huge inequality between the privileged and the underprivileged of the society, as a form of bringing about sustainable development. It seeks to accomplish such a task by creating awareness in both the privileged and the underprivileged factions of the society. Among the privileged, Ekmattra looks to create awareness about the dire conditions in which the rest of the population lives. By doing so, it hopes to infuse, in the fortunate, a sense of responsibility towards the disadvantaged. Simultaneously, in order to improve their conditions and become self-sustainable, the underprivileged first need to be informed of their rights and opportunities. Both groups need to be made aware before any change can be brought about. And that is one of the goals of Ekmattra.

The concept of Ekmattra was born in 2003 in front of the Dhaka University Library, during endless hours of addas, and while sipping innumerous cups of tea. Every evening, students from Dhaka University and other various institutions would gather in front of the library enthusiastically. Each and every one of them had a single thought in mind: to find a way to improve the lives of the society's most neglected and most deprived people.

Slowly, the visions shaped up to an idea. An idea of an organisation that could create a link between these two divisions of society. A link that may help to bring about some form of change in the lives of these people.

And so these individuals united. Previously complete strangers, they now shared a common dream. A dream of change. And of equality. A dream that would bring everyone together to the same platform. All of this to be done through awareness, understanding and truth. A dream that they named Ekmattra: where truth is the password.

As these young students joined together, with no organisational or financial support, they realised that the most powerful weapon that they could have in their hands would be that of knowledge. So the Ekmattra research team hit the streets. Literally. They went from slum to slum, one disadvantaged area to another to find out about the neglected and the causes of their problems.

A horrifying picture began to unfold in front of their eyes. Despite receiving help from foreign agencies and several NGOs, these families were in the same deplorable conditions as before. Some, even worse. What was even more heartbreaking was the state of the children of these families. They were stuck in a vicious cycle, sucked in by impoverished parents who were teaching them to cheat, steal and even murder just for a day's meal. As these children grew up into illiterate adults, with no way to support themselves, they turned to their illicit habits in search of a livelihood.

Ekmattra used these findings to formulate a strategic approach to handle the daunting task that lay ahead and kicked into full gear on the 6th of August 2003. Initially focusing on the most neglected street children, the team came up with their first project: Khola Akasher Class or Open Sky Classes at Osmani Uddyan.

Three days a week, the Ekmattra team would gather street children, roughly aged 7, under the open blue sky and teach them to dance, draw, sing and play. Slowly, the team moved on to basic math and the alphabets. In doing so, the team systematically managed to instil in these street children, the fundamental human qualities that were previously absent or simply hidden due to the environment they lived in.

The idea of the Open Sky Classes evolved further into teaching these children about ethics, morals and ideals of proper human beings. The venues also expanded to the High Court and Dhaka Medical College areas in 2006. At present there are about a total of 20 children participating regularly at each of these venues.

During their work with these street children at the Open Sky Classes, the Ekmattra team members noticed that the potential that many of these children had was not being allowed to be explored to its maximum, due to their surroundings. The Ekmattra team then decided to reduce the risk to such vulnerable living conditions by shifting them to their first Pre-Rehabilitation Centre in Mirpur. In November 2006, the Pre-Rehabilitation Centre was moved to a bigger centre at Pallabi. The centre was christened 'Annondo'. It is at the Pre-Rehabilitation Centre that the children have found a new home. And a new family.

Aged between seven to 12, these street children are introduced to a life pattern of a normal privileged child. They are kept under close observation, within a strict disciplined routine. The project seeks to make the children accustomed to a homely environment, with education, a balanced diet and specific training programmes.

By sharing a room with others, these children are learning the concepts care, love, and of family bonding. They learn to forget selfishness and work as a team as they do their chores and play their games. The routine and discipline of their present lives serves a way to structure their future lives when they grow older. And the education that they receive, which comprises of both an academic and a social one, gives them the basic support they will need to sustain themselves independently once they turn 18. Training these children to sew, make handicrafts, draw or even just equipping them with knowledge of necessary skills gives these neglected children a fighing chance to survive in the world as a moral and proper human being. Once they are equipped with the proper skills, they will no longer grow up to be what their parents were like, thus breaking away from the vortex that they would have been lost in. This is what makes Ekmattra unique-- it not only brings a smile to the faces of the neglected, but also shows them a way to keep the smile .

Through extensive research, the Ekmattra team has been able to pinpoint two more crucial groups, in addition to children. One is that of farmers. The other - the youth. In the labour intensive agro-based country that Bangladesh is, farmers hold a very important place in the country's development. Ekmattra's research shows that the maximum potential of these farmers cannot be yielded due to the lack of proper knowledge and guidance. Consequently, these farmers migrate to urban areas in search of better employment. Ekmattra sees a clear link between these migrating farmers and the increase in the number of street children. The urban areas usually fail to provide a chance of better employment because of the differences in the skills required and the skills that the farmers have. Eventually many families slump into greater and perpetual poverty, finally they look for illegal ways to gain sustenance. The children are drawn into the cycle by their parents and poverty continues to haunt their successive generations.

As for the youth, Ekmattra believes in handing the steering wheel of development to the young adults, changing the stereotypical idea that young people of this country cannot hold decision-making positions. It looks to aid these youths in building their own careers by arranging a series of workshops and training facilities for this particular group. It is not only the disadvantaged youth that Ekmattra plans to involve, but also the advantaged groups of young people, who want to help make a change but cannot find the right platform in which to express their ideas. Ekmattra provides this platform of social service, encouraging the youths to share their visions of ways to develop Bangladesh.

Yet another one of Ekmattra's focus group has been the indigenous people of Bangladesh. In February 2005, the Ekmattra team visited the Parbatta Bouddho Mission in Khagrachori with the slogan of “Make a bridge between the indigenous and Bengali”. Their programme included a cultural workshop and a film show. To symbolise their spirit of friendship, the Ekmattra team gave the indigenous groups origami birds that the Ekmattra kids had made especially for them.

Ekmattra's media department has been another useful tool in their artillery. Their first film called 'The Lamppost fails to light up' was a twenty-minute documentary based on Ekmattra's activities since its inception. The film premiered in the Dhaka University campus on April 14, 2005, on the occasion of Pahela Boishakh, attracting an audience of around 200 people. Their second film, Achick, is another effort in bridging the gap between cultures.

Achick is based on the changing lifestyles and cultures of the parts of the indigenous Garo community who have changed their religions due to security reasons. For a proper critique of the film, a demonstration show was held last December, in the Russian Cultural Centre, only for the members of the Bangladesh Garo Chaatro Shangshad.

Named after the Ekmattra motto, “Where truth is the password” the third film illustrated all the work Ekmattra has been involved in since 2003, including new projects and extensions in each department. Their fourth film, which is a work in progress, depicts the lives of street children in Dhaka. Named “Jey Shohor Chorabali”, the film elaborates on the abuse that these children put up with and the torturous poverty stricken days that they spend. In the film Dhaka is portrayed as a quicksand pit that engulfs the street children, and traps them forever. The Ekmattra team plans to go on a nationwide awareness campaign with the release of this film, in an effort to awaken the sense of community that most of us lack. The showing of the film will also serve as a fundraising campaign for the organisation.

At present Ekmattra has around a hundred members. Part of the Ekmattra funds comes from these membTership fees and from the donations of its patrons and well wishers. Ekmattra has also set up coin boxes in various parts of the city to generate cash flow. But, Ekmattra, like the spirit it tries to instil in others, has been trying to develop financial self-sustainability. Over the past three years, at various venues, the teams have arranged to sell its products such as wristbands, t-shirts, handicrafts, terra cotta, etc. All these products are made by the Ekmattra kids and family.

The General Membership fee at Ekmattra is around Tk.100 per month, while the Student Membership fee is only Tk. 25 per month. Ekmattra also has a system called the 'Concerned Guardianship', where one person pays for the monthly expenses of one Ekmattra child living at the Pre-Rehabilitation Centre.

To maintain the transparency of its activities and accountability towards its members, Ekmattra publishes a tri-monthly newsletter called 'Ek Jonaki'. These publications detail the work and various projects of the Ekmattra team. Ekmattra also arranges an annual cultural function every year to mark its anniversary.

Ekmattra's philosophy has been to tackle every problem at its root. Hence, the team's future plans consist of an integrated approach to eradicate the problems of neglected children, the youth, and the farming community. It plans to build a permanent rehabilitation centre in Mymensingh, by the year 2008. This centre, which is to be built over 3 acres of land, will be able to accommodate 100 children, a school, a bakery, a poultry and fisheries farm and a health centre. The income generated from the farm can be used to support the surrounding farmers. Ekmattra also hopes that agricultural research work in collaboration with the Mymensingh Agricultural University will be carried out.

A single drop of water in the ocean is merely a single drop of water in the ocean. Infinitesimal. Insignificant. But without that particular drop of water, the ocean, despite its vastness, remains incomplete. That is the belief with which the Ekmattra team ventures on ahead. Starting its fourth year now, Ekmattra carries on tirelessly. Still with knowledge and truth as their main weapons they fight on ahead, striving to create awareness, ensure access to basic human rights and to instil self-sustainability. We salute them and wish them the best of luck.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007