Hope - That's all they've got!
Quazi Rafquat Hossain
The Hollywood blockbuster, Slumdog Millionaire is a movie worth watching over and over again. Every time I see the trailers on television, I feel relieved for the child in the movie. I wish I could feel the same way about the children living in the slums of our country, because the reality is slum-dogs do not turn out to be millionaires.
Bangladesh is home to more than six million working children, a majority of who live in urban areas. Government statistics based on a survey by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies estimates the number of street children in Bangladesh to be around 380,000 of whom 55% are in Dhaka city. A little less than half of that population is of the age group less than 10 years, while the remaining falls in the age group of 11 to 19 years. The above report estimates that by 2014 the number of such children will exceed 930,000. These children are involved in hazardous activities such as working in factories or construction sites. They are deprived of the basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter. Everyone knows about them, few think about them, and fewer do something about them.
A few days back, I was on my way back home, driving past a field in Banani. I couldn't help but notice a bunch of street kids with chalk dust on their fingers and slates in their hands crossing the street. They were led by a young man who I found familiar. It was my classmate Mirza Saad Walid. The whole picture of Walid with so many kids trailing behind him reminded me of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. By the time I decided to call out his name to ask what he was doing, the beeps of the horn from the car behind me prodded me on the street and I decided to unravel the mystery some other time. I waited to meet him the next day at university.
Walid is the Vice president of IBXP- Projects department of AIESEC in AIUB. Now, you must be wondering what AIESEC is.
AIESEC is the world's largest international, student run, non-profit, non-government voluntary organisation operating in 107 countries with a network of around 50,000 university students. It provides a platform for university students as well as graduates from all over the world to explore their potentials, get acquainted with different cultures, become aware of the various challenges of life and resolve them with utmost expertise, and most importantly stand out of the crowd to bring a positive impact in society. The core work of AIESEC is exchanging interns through their international exchange programmes. Social welfare programmes, generally referred to as Projects, are designed, organised and operated by the IBXP Projects department of AIESEC. One of the most successful projects of AIESEC in American International University Bangladesh (AIUB) is Project Hope.
Project Hope provides education to the street children of Gulshan and Banani. While talking to Walid, I learned about Project Hope, and discovered that the children following him that day were actually the students from the programme.
Phase 1 of Project Hope started on July 24, 2008 with 37 students attending the first class. This was a good response in the beginner's level. An exchange trainee from China, Rong Xiao contributed immensely to the structure of the project.
Phase 2 was more successful with around 75 students attending the class on the very first day. This would have never been possible without the relentless dedication of my friend, Mirza Saad Walid along with 20 of his Organizing Committee members working alongside. Another exchange trainee from China conducted the class for a few weeks and helped to uplift the morale of the students.
Phase 3 of Project Hope was launched on October 30, 2010 and saw an unprecedented success. 115 students attended the grand launching ceremony and the number has been growing since then. Several exchange students also participated in the launching event. Their hard work and dedication is praise-worthy
Classes are conducted every Saturday from 10:00am - 2:00pm in Banani field near road no 13 and 21. Children are taught Math, English and Bengali. They are divided into groups and each group is assigned a mentor. This makes it easier for the mentors to evaluate each of their group members after the class. None of these students had ever touched a pencil before but almost all of them seem to be learning very fast. Instead of the conventional lecture sessions, students are encouraged to ask questions, participate and perform in the class. All the teachers of the programme are university students working voluntarily day and night to ensure a better future for the street children.
To make the programme more attractive for the children, new clothes are given out on special occasions like Eid ul Azha and Eid ul Fitr. Uniforms are also provided once a child becomes a permanent student in the programme. They are awarded with special prizes for regular attendance and class performances. Students are also encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities such as singing, recitation, painting etc. Since most of the children rarely have three meals a day, the idea of providing food after the classes was put into practice. Everyday tehari, biryani or polao is served after classes. It can't be denied that this has further helped to attract the students towards the programme.
Managing time out of their busy schedules, teaching the kids, organising events is not easy for the AIESECers as they are students themselves but the hardest task of them all is probably convincing the parents of the children, since they are more concerned about their children bringing cash into the family. The AIESECers have to be credited for making these parents understand that their children deserve a better future and that can only be possible if they are allowed the enlightment of education.
A student named Sharif says, “I have always wanted to go to school, but my parents could not afford the school fees or the books. When I first learned about this programme I was very interested to join, but my parent would not to let me go. When they heard that meals are provided after the classes they let me join the program. I am learning a lot of new things plus they provide delicious meals after classes. The teachers are very friendly and help us with everything.”
The OCP (Organising Committee President) says, “Every day, our paths cross thousands of lives, and circumstances. But it is truly a wonder how humankind has always been drawn towards taking care of those who can take care of themselves, instead of those who have no means to do so. Project Hope, for those of us involved is the step that resists that flow. It is a Project that, for us, means a beginning of change little steps.
As the Organazing Committee President of Project Hope, I feel proud to have been able to lead a team of dynamic people who work, not for benefit, but to benefit. I also feel blessed because I have seen children find the strength to smile even in the face of the cruelest hardships. What we do is a difficult job, but we love every minute of it, because we want to go beyond what MUST be done to what CAN be done. If this little venture can contribute even in a small way to the literacy rate of the country, we will have something to be proud of for the rest of our lives.”
Project Hope promises to bring change in the lives of street children. The immense success of Project Hope has urged AIESECers to take this little venture a few steps ahead. The upcoming project called Project Lifeline will be dedicated towards the medical needs of underprivileged children. A little contribution from everyone will help to run the project on a larger scale and bring us all to a step closer to our dream - A Bangladesh with a 100 per cent literacy rate.
(The writer is a member of AIESEC in American International University -- Bangladesh)