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     Volume 6 Issue 46 | November 30, 2007 |

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Changing the World
One Child at a Time

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

It's not all that unusual to want to help those who are less fortunate than us. We live in an environment in which poverty is all around us, just within our reach. Every step of the way -- be it from our car windows or even from our rooftops -- we are witness to the lives of the the underprivileged. No, it is not that unusual to see these needy people all around and want to help them, want to do something for them. What is unusual, however, is when a person actually acts on these thoughts and does something about it.

Such a person is Anita Aparna Muyeed. Growing up in a household where both her parents encouraged their children to give back to their country, Muyeed thought that she found her calling when she became an Art teacher at the International School of Dhaka (ISD).

Aparna Muyeed with her one year old son, Amado

"I thought that I was finally merging the two things that I was the most passionate about -- art and teaching," says Muyeed, "but I always felt like the whole development and social aspect -- which is something else that I am very passionate about -- was missing. Teaching at ISD was great, but what was I doing for the people? There are two million street kids in Bangladesh and these are the kids that really need an education because these kids' education is what is really going to make a difference in our country."

It was with these thoughts in mind that Muyeed formed Streetwise, a pilot project, which aims to keep children off the streets. Its school Ashar Pothay, located in Badda, now has 35 students between the ages of 4 and 15. The other branch of Streetwise is a social business venture that focuses on raising money in order to keep the school running and also organising the logistics of the school itself. The organisation started off very informally when Muyeed accompanied her cousin, Simeen Saba, a student doing a documentary on street children, on one of her shoots in 2006.

"There were a group of kids sitting outside Kumudini," says Muyeed. "And we thought it would be a great idea to feed them every Friday. We took permission from the Principal of the school Academics, to use their playground every Friday so that these kids could get at least one nutritional meal and also a couple of hours to play and have fun. I think they were shocked at first, because they come from a world where adults really don't have time for them -- their parents are busy working and trying to make ends meet, so I guess for them it was surprising that these two adults were giving them so much attention and talking to them and playing with them. After a couple of Fridays, they themselves asked me if I was going to teach them something."

Once word got out, Muyeed got an overwhelming response from friends and family members who wanted to contribute and help out. Her friend, Sabina Faiz Rashid was always interested in organising a meal plan for street children and now she had her chance. She quickly joined the Streetwise bandwagon and slowly but surely, with the help of these three women and other donors, the once a week meetings gave way to a five days a week schedule, in which students were in the school from 9 to 5.

The school, originally in the garage of Academics, relocated to a house in Badda in January 2007. There are three different levels or age groups and courses include: Bangla (taught by Rinku, Jhorna and Pakhi), Math (taught by computer engineer, Zubayr Rashid, who is in between studies), English (taught by Canadian language specialist from BRAC University Elizabeth Wickwire), Storytelling (by American International School/Dhaka's librarian Judyth Lessee), Music (taught by Ashik) and Art (taught by Muyeed herself). Ashar Pothay now offers two balanced meals a day (breakfast and lunch) in which they offer each student a hot meal of rice, daal, vegetables and a protein. Once every three months colunteer doctors come in and do physical check ups on the children and making sure that they do not have any serious ailments.

Despite the fact that they have come so far in such a short time, Muyeed still comes across many obstacles. Many of the children who come to school stop coming for various reasons -- in some cases, their parents don't want them to come, and in others they come across trouble in the streets.

"The problem is that although these children want to come to school, most of their parents have to be convinced that this is a good idea," says Muyeed. "We had to figure out a way for these kids to come to school without their parents hindering them. We have lost a couple of children already and that is always hard, especially because we know that they want to keep coming to the school. So I spent a long time trying to figure out what I should give them as a sort of incentive for their parents to send them. I figured out that if I sold these children's art, then there might be a way to show their parents that not only are the kids learning, but they are also earning money.

There are about 35 children, between the ages of 4 and 15, who are now attending Streetwise's school Ashar Pothay.

"It's also important, however, to realise that the main reason these children are here is to learn. They don't think about selling their stuff and getting money back. This, to them, is an added bonus and a way for their parents to realise that it is worth it to send them to school. Another thing is that our main goal is to make Streetwise fully self-sufficient. Right now we are still running on donations and contributions, but it is really important for us to be able to stand on our own feet."

The students at Ashar Pothay learn English, Bangla, Math, Music, Storytelling and Art

On September 15 of this year, Streetwise organised an Art Exhibition showcasing all the children's art. Muyeed not only invited the current students and their parents, but also the previous students and their parents. Each student in the school has a savings account. When a particular student's art is sold, 50% of the money is given back to the school and the other fifty is put in the child's savings account. Each child can take a maximum of Tk. 1000 a month home to their parents. After the exhibition, in which parents saw their children's work being sold, Muyeed found that attendance was more regular.

"I can't say that it is not rewarding to know that I am helping these children," says Aparna, "But it gets really hard when we hear about what these kids have to go through when they go home -- some of them are beaten by their alcoholic fathers, others have to witness their mothers being raped by the landlords -- the stories are endless and horrific. I want to provide them with a haven for at least a few hours in a day so that they feel like they have somewhere to go. Even when we lose a kid, we always keep in touch with them. And it sounds really clichéd but these children are so bright. I am amazed every time I see how capable they are. I would never be able to manage their lives if I was in their situation."

Despite the fact that there are so many hurdles to cross and overcome, Streetwise has been successful in providing a refuge for these 35 children. Together with her team, Muyeed has opened up a world of possibilities for all these street children. They are being given food, shelter and being given the gift of knowledge so that they will be able to pave their own way in our world. And although there are so many children in our country who are still subjected to the daily dangers on the streets, it is a comfort and a relief to know that organisations such as Streetwise are making their mark in our world and giving back to the country that we all call home.


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