The burning Dhaka summer sun reflected off the rearview mirror of my parents’ Toyota as I sat in the backseat with my sister. It was a typical afternoon, 100 degrees, and I could feel the sweat on my skin. I was 5 years old.
The smell of gasoline attacked my nostrils as we remained stuck in traffic, and I locked eyes with a little girl selling fries to passengers through the car windows. Her clothes were torn and her hair was dirty and messy. She carried a little boy on her shoulders who looked around 2.
As soon as our eyes met, the girl looked away. It seemed she was ashamed of what she was doing. I watched her go from one car to the next, trying to sell a few more bags of chips.
The United Nations reports nearly 500 million people in the Asia-Pacific region—which includes Bangladesh—suffer from hunger and poor nutrition. Often in South Asian countries, adults hire children as street vendors. Every morning, the children are given items to sell or told to just beg on the road. At the end of the day, they are forced to give their proceeds to their employers in exchange for food.
But for me at age 5, the life of this girl seemed fascinating. She probably had so much fun living by herself and selling chips!
I grew up in Dhaka. I did not have any friends or neighbors who lived in poverty. But as soon as I left my neighborhood, these people were on every street, begging or sleeping. According to information published in Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences, of the estimated nine million people who live in Dhaka, 3.5 million, or 40% of residents, are living in poverty; by comparison, in New York City, the estimate is 1.7 million, or about 20% of residents.
Learning About Poverty
One day my mom and I had a conversation about poverty. Wrapped in a cozy blanket, we sipped coffee.
“Mom, why are so many people poor and others are so rich?”
“Sadly, there is an unequal distribution of wealth in our society. Some people don’t have the same quality of education as others, which makes them even poorer,” she replied.
My mom explained that many Bangladeshis lived on the streets because they were poor. She told me that she would like to start a primary school for children where they could attend for free.
Though there is public education in Bangladesh, the schools are dilapidated and often consist of only one room. There are only one or two teachers for hundreds of kids from various grades. I’ve seen schools like this and remember a classroom with a ceiling that leaked when it rained.
A Beggar’s Story
Throughout my childhood, people often came to my yard to beg. There was one grandmother my mother seemed to befriend. She came with her grandchildren; the girl was around 8 years old and her younger brother about 4.
This family came to our house every Friday. My mom often asked them to stay for lunch and then gave the grandmother 500 taka notes, approximately six dollars.
Over these lunches on our balcony, my mother and the grandmother talked about their lives. I eavesdropped from the dining room. My mom talked about her life managing the family, her job, and pursuing her master’s degree at the university. The grandmother talked about her son and daughter-in-law who fought a lot. One day, her son left; the daughter-in-law left home a few days afterwards. That’s how the kids ended up living with the grandmother.
If I had to pick a word to describe the grandmother, it would be “helpless.” Her legs trembled when she held the railing of the balcony to balance herself. When she spoke, her voice quivered.
Other poor people had come to my yard to beg, but this family made my heart break.
Maybe it was because the elderly woman reminded me of my own grandmother, or maybe the children reminded me of myself. What if the grandmother died? What would happen to her grandchildren? Where would they live and what would they eat? Did these two kids go to school?
After they left on those Fridays, I’d continue thinking about these questions as I jumped rope in our gigantic front yard filled with mango, guava, and litchi trees.
Nobel Prize Inspiration
When I was 8, we moved to New York City, yet I never stopped thinking about the street people from Dhaka. My mom and I continued to have discussions about the extreme economic injustice there and these talks had an impact on me.
Throughout my childhood, I was an avid reader. It was not unusual for me to be up at midnight hiding under my blanket, eyes fixed on my laptop screen, researching.
One night I searched for “Nobel Laureates from Bangladesh” and Muhammed Yunus popped up. He was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank in 1983, which offered small loans to low-income citizens who couldn’t get traditional bank loans.
Yunus believed that credit is a “fundamental human rights.” Eventually, many loan recipients from Grameen Bank became small business owners and paid off their loans through this concept of microlending.
Some loans were under $40, but this amount was enough for people to become vegetable vendors or door-to-door salespersons. Yunus successfully led a lot of Bangladeshis, most of them women, out of poverty.
My Turn to Help Street Kids
During my sophomore year in high school, I felt I was ready to start my own nonprofit. I called it Efforts in Youth Development of Bangladesh (EYDB) to help poor children in Bangladesh. I wanted to help them get a decent education, become self-sufficient, and perhaps go on to change the world themselves.
I got a group of about 30 students to help here in New York and another group of friends, relatives, and other interested high school students to help in Dhaka. The Dhaka group works with nonprofit organizations there, and that’s how they find out about projects that need funding. Then we push to raise the money.
Over the last year, EYDB has partnered with several of these nonprofit organizations to help fund the building of libraries, provide feasts for the holiday of Eid, buy new clothes for students, organize seminars about the value of education for rural families, and buy art supplies for schools.
Teens Taking Action
The New York sector of EYDB is divided into social media and fundraising teams. The fundraising team goes out to fundraise almost every weekend at different community events, seminars, schools, and even in the subway. We get about $40 in donations an hour.
During these fundraisers, we come prepared with pamphlets detailing our mission. Usually people are interested and generous, but sometimes we face racism and do not feel safe.
One day last summer, we were fundraising at a library in Queens Village when a white man stopped by, curious to see what we were doing.
He stepped up to us to get a closer look at the pamphlet. “Efforts in Youth Development of Bangladesh,” he mouthed to himself. “Yeah, I don’t know kid. I just saw a terrorist attack in that sh-tty place last week. Wouldn’t trust you f-ckers to give you my money,” he said.
My friend’s face turned red from fear and anger. I looked at them out of the corner of my eyes and mumbled, “It’s just words, don’t worry. When you do work like this, you have to endure a few nasty comments.”
Be the Change
Fortunately this kind of response is the exception. For our next project, we plan to help build a drug rehabilitation center for street children. In a few months, I’ll go to Dhaka to meet with our partner organization, which will be handling building-planning details.
Our goal for next year is to build a boat museum on the Brahmaputra river in Dhaka, which will showcase artwork by Bangladeshi children.
Throughout my work with EYDB, I have read about a lot of young activists who created change in their community. I am continually inspired by them.
Similarly, I hope that other teens might be inspired by the work we do at EYDB. Kids who are passionate about helping the world don’t need to wait for change, they can be the change.
To donate or volunteer with EYDB contact me at: [email protected] or 929-732-9969.
Update: Since March we have raised $300 and sent it to a local nonprofit in Dhaka, which is being used to feed some of the city’s poorest families who live in the slums. (“Slum” is not a slur in Bangladesh.) Approximately 200 people can be fed with this aid. The slums with residents who have lost their job to COVID-19 are targeted as priorities. In April we set up a program to prevent domestic child servitude in Bangladesh.