A Better Image
Sharaf Ahmed, a Bangladeshi German living in Germany for the last 25 years is an activist who has devoted much of his time and energy to promoting a positive image of Bangladesh and Bangladeshis to Germany and Europe in general. He has organised innumerable 'Bangladesh Conferences', which brings together experts and leading personalities of Bangladesh and Germany to discuss a myriad of issues from rising extremism to Bangladeshi literature. The idea is to tell German what Bangladesh is all about other than a country constantly plagued by natural calamity and poverty. As a German national, Ahmed has established himself as an active citizen, working for a central refugee centre in Germany and being a presiding officer of the last European parliamentary election. He now works in a German Catholic school under the German Lower Saxony Government. Ahmed speaks to the Star about his efforts to promote Bangladesh in Europe.
Can you please give a background of yourself, why you decided to settle in Germany and what you are doing professionally?
I was born and grew-up in Rajshahi town, now a city, and graduated and did my masters from Rajshahi University in Geography. Besides being a student I was a journalist and social activist. I was adventurous and it was after roaming around nine countries that I reached Germany in 1984, and since then I am living in that country. I have completed another masters degree in Social Work from Hanover University and during that time, I got myself involved with social, cultural and environmental movements in Germany. I was involved with the Green Party, and joined in the anti-war movement. I was also with the movement of anti-Neo-Nazi campaign in Germany. After the Second World War, Germans were trying to pursue progressive politics for European unity, and now the new-generation Germans and immigrants like me also trying to integrate the German society into a multi-cultural society. I was with the mainstream German progressive groups, helping them achieve an anti-apartheid stand with others; for that reason, I set-up an organisation in Hanover in 1989 --“International Cultural Centre,” that promotes dialogue between the mainstream Germans and many ethnic groups, and people from developing countries. We portray the problems of many developing countries as well as those of ethnic minorities in Germany such as the Eritreans, Kurds, Iranians, Turkish and Tamils etc., and of course, Bangladeshis. We have held dialogues and forums with the aim of trying to solve problems. This includes lobbying with the German Government so that the government there can take up the issues.
What are the objectives of these seminars? You have mentioned strengthening bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and Germany. Could you elaborate on this?
The general tendency of the western media is to portray Bangladesh as a poor, problematic country marred with natural disaster and political strife. So, to portray Bangladesh positively, we held a workshop in 1989 after the massive floods in 1987 and 1988 where we discussed how Bangladesh has become disaster-prone because of the environmental pollution worldwide. Since then, we have held regular dialogue to portray Bangladesh positively to the German media and civil society there. The Bangladesh Conference is a consequence of that endeavour. Since the first meeting held in 1994, the Bangladesh-Conferences in Germany focus on specific aspects of the social, cultural, economic and political situation in Bangladesh and the development of ties between Bangladesh and Germany, and in broader sense, between Bangladesh and Europe. The “Working group Bangladesh in Lower Saxony” (AK BIN) organises the conferences. The current objectives of the Bangladesh-conferences are to create an open platform for exchange and dialogue. Usually, members of the Bangladeshi communities in Germany and European neighbouring countries as well as representatives of the German Government, South Asian institutes from different German Universities and NGOs, members of the European, German and British parliament take part, strengthening the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and Germany and also presenting a more positive image of Bangladesh in Europe.
The issues discussed in the last 14 years during the conferences include in 1994, Democracy and Fundamentalism in Bangladesh; in1995, The Cultural Heritage of Bangladesh and Theatre; in1996, Twenty-five years of Bangladesh Independence, and Bangladeshi Literature; in1998, Bangladeshi Civil Society and Dialogue between Europe; in 2000, Education and Women's Movement in Bangladesh; in 2002, Globalisation, and its Impact on Bangladesh; in 2004, Bangladesh and Human Rights Problem; in 2006, Dialogue and Idea Sharing: Germany and Bangladesh; and finally in 2008, Dialogue and Exchange: Lower Saxony/Europe & Bangladesh/South Asia.
Could you talk about the role of Bangladesh Forum in Germany for German donors, human rights organisations and NGOs working in Bangladesh and what you think the outcome of such conferences will be?
Germans are always seeing us through their lens. We try our best to present our problems better and to help them understand Bangladeshis better so that we get good solutions. This is the basic work we do. We have tried to give feedback on Bangladesh to the German Forum from people that are researching and working on the development of Bangladesh so that the Germans can decide their actions. They always ask for a background paper from us so that they can work better while negotiating on something regarding Bangladesh.
What kind of response have you received from these seminars from Bangladeshi expatriates as well as Germans?
We have always received positive responses from both Bangladeshi expatriates and the Germans, and from the mainstream Bangladeshi civil society. A German parliamentary group visited Bangladesh last year. Thilo Hoppe, MP, German parliament mentioned during our last conference that he was highly impressed to see such an active civil society existing in Bangladesh. The same was echoed by British MP of House of Lords, Lord Avebury, and he praised the conference and its outcome. Many Bangladeshi experts participated in the Conferences as well as many Europeans from different countries and their rating of the conferences has been very high which has been documented in the conference report.
The conferences are not for the benefit of expatriate Bangladeshis only but an opportunity for dialogue between progressive Bangladeshis and Europeans and their social institutions. It is important for Bangladesh to get European aid but that is not the only thing that Bangladesh needs. There are other issues for which Bangladesh needs international support. These conferences, dialogue and discussions will help Bangladesh to fight for its human rights, undo dictatorship, and prevent the rise of fundamentalism and create pressure for the trial of war criminals in Bangladesh.
Have these conferences had any tangible impact in terms of how the German government and people view Bangladesh and Bangladeshis?
In Europe, there is very little effort to arrange conferences in which academic discussions take place regarding Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Conference has been able to accomplish this. There are many parliamentary groups in Germany each one dealing with a particular area. There is for instance, one dealing with South Asia, one dealing exclusively in economics issues etc., and before coming to Bangladesh, they consult with us as towhich counterpart he or she would deal with, and what should be the burning issue to be discussed. Mr. Sebastian Edathy, MP, German parliament, and Chair of the German Parliamentary Group consulted with us via email before he visited Bangladesh this year. Students and faculties from South Asian Institutes of different German universities come to our conferences regularly for up date information on Bangladesh. It is one real example of the tangible impact our conferences have made.
-The Star Desk
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