My daughter Charlotte and I are still not realizing where we are going as we find ourselves at the gate at Dubai Airport as the only blonde/white passengers out of about 400 people. People are very friendly and curious about what we would be doing in Dhaka.
The process for getting a visa on arrival in Dhaka was really easy and everything was super well organized. A member of the airport staff greeted us first and led us to Jewel (MCF coordinator in Dhaka), who was waiting for us outside.
We went to the hotel, which was a very normal hotel. The smell is something you need to get used to. It is not a bad smell, just a very different smell. It is very humid.
Around 9pm we still decided to explore the neighborhood and Jewel took us out for pizza. That was the moment when I got a feeling an adventure was starting. There were rickshaws everywhere, the streets were hectic, noisy and overwhelming.
I got thousands of questions from Charlotte and felt sorry for that guy that earns 30 Taka to take 3 persons on one cycle rickshaw through bumpy and difficult roads. And we complain when pulling our two kids in an ergo dynamic stroller. Really?
Charlotte woke me up hungry and saying this is a difficult country to sleep in as the clinking noises of the rickshaws are permanently around you. I tried to take a shower, but the water was cold and the glass door didn’t shut completely.
Breakfast: it all looks yummy…but do you have toast? Of course, white toast and cornflakes made our breakfast, while listening to most romantic Bollywood songs.
Jewel asked us to wait for him at the hotel, but we couldn’t wait to step out and take a walk around the block. Men carrying thousands of bananas on their head or carrying about 20 dead chickens in each hand were definitely worthwhile sights for taking this walk. Charlotte got tired and we soon headed back to wait for Jewel and make up more little presents from all the material we brought.
Then Jewel came to pick us up. It was quite a ride to the slums and the closer we got, the more impressive it was. All of a sudden there were no more houses or trees, but just people, people and people and dirt everywhere. The poor man that pulled us was getting so sweaty and even asked if we needed shadow. We had lost sight of Jewel and when the guy said that’s where you wanted to go, I wasn’t so sure, until a boy with a cell phone came running towards us and shouted my name. It was Jahidul, Rumana’s brother. So this is it, that’s the place we came for.
When we walked into this 100m pathway with one-room houses on each side, lots of girls came screaming towards us holding a big sign: WELCOME DOROTHREE. And a girl saying, hi, I am Rumana and welcome to my house.
We were so well received by all these people of this tiny ‘road-community’ and went to the house of Rumana, which is about 12 square meters and where all belongings are under or around the bed. We were offered 7up, bananas and boiled eggs, which I kindly refused, but Rumana said I had to eat one, eggs are healthy.
We started giving out some presents we had taken, but in two seconds those 12 square meters were totally invaded by kids, so we had to stop for the time being. We went outside instead and used the jumping ropes we had brought, the girls danced to their music and the polaroid camera I brought proved to be a big hit with everyone. Everyone wanted a picture, the magic one, the one that is white and turns into a picture. Their eyes were as big as watermelons and their smile so pure. The disappointment was huge when the 40 papers were finished. So we went inside and started to do loom bands, which were the second big hit. From 3-year olds to 50-year olds, everyone wanted to do their own bracelet, and they learned it so fast.
After spending about 2-3 hours there, we left with Rumana, her friend, her cousin and her brother to have a fun day out, where Rumana could chose anything she wanted to do. We started by having lunch at a shopping mall with AC, at KFC. Then a huge ice-cream just nearby, before we went to the amusement park, where they couldn’t get enough of the different rides. Once back in the shopping mall, we checked out the movies, but ended up on a bull fighting game, in which Rumana did very well.
Around 6pm we decided to go back and found 2 auto rickshaws to take us back. What we did not know, was that the prime minister was to come and all of a sudden we were totally blocked as the road had been closed. There were millions of cycle and auto rickshaws, cars and buses all in one big concert. We decided to walk until a road that might not be blocked. This was not the best idea, as once we were on the major street bridge they decided to release the road block and we had thousands of vehicles driving up to that bridge, that was not meant for people to walk on.
After an exhausting walk I saw a 5 star hotel and offered to order a taxi. Jewel was shocked, but I convinced him that we deserved it, that it was late, and the girls had school tomorrow. You should have seen their eyes when they stepped into this hotel car, with AC, electric windows and seatbelts.
After a really good night of sleep we left the hotel by car to go to the school. I was stupidly expecting a campus such as the schools in Dubai. That was not really the case. The school is the three upper floors of a skyscraper. As Charlotte says, the school looks like a shopping mall, because in the middle of the building you can look down to the other floors.
But then all the students are very clean in their uniforms and well behaved. They are all listening very carefully to their teachers and although we created a big excitement, no one was late in class. The biggest hit was once more the Polaroid camera. I am just so happy I took it and just wished I would have had an infinite amount of papers as every single student wanted a picture with me or Charlotte for them to keep. As did the cleaning ladies, the nurse, the headmaster – simply all of them. We went through the different classes from grades 1 to 9 and were asked all sorts of questions.
Jewel told me that the foundation urgently needed about USD 1000 to cover a small snack for each child as school starts 8am and finishes at 2.30pm, and 4pm for those who need extra classes. On top of this comes the commute to school, so the kids are very hungry and not all of them get something from home to carry along.
After some time, we took over one room and set up all the donations we had, prepared in a 100 bags and called the MCF children grade by grade to hand them this little gift over. They were so happy and so well educated. Many of them asking to shake my hand and you could see in their eyes that this gesture meant a lot to them. I was especially impressed by a boy in grade 10, who took the initiative to give extra classes to the MCF children who were not getting good grades. This means, investing his own time he could use to get better grades, to help the other children to make it. This is what I would wish for my children. Them accepting to do less well, but help others out.
Once we left school, we took with us, Rumana’s brother Jahidul, the dad, Rumana and of course Jewel. We first had a pizza as Charlotte and I were starving (3pm) and we both appeared to be a bit fussy about food. I think all we had eaten so far was white toast and pizza and lots of sweets that we had brought. After the pizza we started our promised shopping journey. We went to a big furniture place/carpenter’s and negotiated on the desk, the wardrobe and the chair and of course the transportation to their place. I think they were really impressed to see my great negotiation skills, from a blonde lady, but thanks to my job at Multilem, I have become an expert.
Then we went to get shoes for Rumana and her brother, easy. After this we were off to the supermarket. The prices shocked me as we spent almost the same on shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, milk and a few things more as we did on furniture.
Last mission, and difficult enough was getting swimming suits for the waterpark adventure tomorrow. There are no swimsuits as such where we looked, only leggings and swimming t-shirts. So we got those for Charlotte, myself and Rumana and Jewel was happy enough to get some sports jerseys and pants.
After we arrived at the hotel with Rumana, another adventure started. The girls showered together with warm water, a cool shower, washing their hair, their bodies, brushing teeth etc. All the normal things for us were new to Rumana and at the beginning she was a bit shy, but Charlotte made her feel comfortable right away. So we put body lotion, perfume and then the girls started their make up session. Now we are all super good smelling, waiting for the pizza, but Rumana really wanted to call her dad. I thought she must be homesick, but guess what? She really wanted to know how the new wardrobe looks in her home and make sure they keep space for her things.
Once my alarm went off at 6.30 am I got Rumana ready for school and down to breakfast. We ate dal and parathas, which are a typical breakfast here. Her brother, who was supposed to show up at 7am was still not here at 7.45 and I got a bit angry as I wanted Rumana to be in school on time. But then again I guess it must be really hard to be on time considering the traffic.
Once Rumana left, I got Charlotte and we went on shopping with the hotel car to get shoes for Sharmin (the girl my mother sponsors), two cell phones for the little girls (they are super cheap and simple – USD 20) so the girls can call their relatives to tell them where they are. A simple school commute can take up to an hour depending on traffic and sometimes the girls finish only around 5pm, which means travelling in dark. Once shopping was done we went to the school to hand out remaining items and to get Rumana out of school for the waterpark.
I was a bit worried as we wanted to take Sharmin along as well, but she was absent from school. When they are absent, nobody really knows why. We tried to call the one number, which is related to her, but nobody picked up. So, sad enough, we left without her.
The trip took us over an hour, to the industrial area of Dhaka. Would never have imagined an attraction park this side of the city. The big Fantasty Kingdom looked really big on the website and is really popular. Once we arrived, it was not quite the Atlantis from Dubai, but Rumana and Jewel’s eyes were big! Pictures had to be taken in every single corner. Then we put on our ‘non existing’ swimsuits, leggins and a swimming t-shirt.
Whoever thought Dreamland waterpark in the UAE is a bit ‘dirty’ or not hygienic should come here. I think we were the only ones that made an effort to put on leggings and a swimming shirt, all the others were wearing normal clothes and enjoying the rides so much. For the main ride, the tiger slide, there were about 5 boats for which you need to literally fight to get on the ride. A tall Bangla guy was extremely friendly and helping us over and over again to get one. Basically, it was an amazing adventure for them. I think it was Rumana’s first time in a pool.
We had a late lunch around 5pm and left with all the food we couldn’t eat wrapped up, as Jewel said, don’t waste the food. He turned out to be so right, during the trip back many kids knocked at our windows and we could give this food out, as well as candies that I always carry along. After 1.5 hours back on a bumpy road we finally made it to the hotel at 7.30pm, where 8 lovely girls from grade 10 were waiting for me for the ‘girls’ chat.
This was basically a chat about who I am, what I want to be, is it ok to have a boyfriend, marriage, independency in the future and many other things. I invited them all for a great meal and we really had fun, although I realized that they were worried about their future, finding certain things unfair and determined to do their best to change their future, mainly to help their families and village. Out if eight, five wanted to be doctors, all with the same reason – we want to help our village. I was truly touched by these young wonderful ladies who had made it all the way to come and see me.
This trip is far too short. I have started to make a list of what they need, apart from education. Although the school fees are the most important thing. The fact they can attend school, not only gives them a future, but also ensures a ‘healthy environment’, to be mixed with other children, to learn manners and to basically have a much bigger chance to break the poverty cycle. But still, things like the loom bands, the trashbags, the Polaroi make the few days of my stay such a joy for them. After all they study six days a week until 2.30 or 5pm and only have 1 week of summer vacation.
Jewel’s phone was broken after he jumped into the pool with it. Since he was late, Charlotte and I left with all the gifts we had left over to school and found Jahidul and Rumana. We were so welcomed in the school and went into some classes. After Jewel arrived we went to Gawair, looking for Sharmin. I had been a bit worried about her, as she had been absent for two days and I knew her mother went working abroad and nobody was really looking after her.
After a while we found her elder sister’s house, which was a very sad moment, as her sister is 14 and was due in two weeks. Jewel said she used to be one of their students, but when sponsors dropped, so did the support for some children and they had to drop out of school. The sad result is what we saw today. After being a while with her and her neighbors and handing out gifts we went to see Sharmin’s house.
The way to her house impressed me, I have rarely seen that much garbage and kids swimming in a pond full of garbage. Sharmin told me they are not swimming, they are fishing. That sounded even worse. But then her house was a good surprise, it was not much bigger then the others, but it was in a proper building on the second floor, with a fridge, a TV and a music station. Her 15-year old brother is looking after her and the neighbor lady looked really nice. Sharmin danced for us. She has so much potential, it was absolutely beautiful to see her dance with her sparkling eyes.
We left the slums to go to Jewel’s house. He had kindly invited us to a pasta lunch with ketchup before we went off to school with Sharmin. I had promised to invite all grade 10 to a lunch. Their eyes were so big when they could choose anything they wanted to eat, and especially the boys were so kind and polite, thanking me over and over again, and saying that this meal was so tasty. Then time was rushing and we left. It was so hard to leave these kids, who were asking me over and over when I am coming back, that I had to promise, when I would come back, what was the names of my friends who were coming soon…
Firstly, a very large thank you goes to Jewel (our coordinator in Dhaka). He does a very good job and definitely gives a lot of his time to the students, who respect him a lot and you can see this from the way they interact with him. The schedule that he put together for us really helped make the best of our trip.
All of the kids that we met were lively, confident and vivacious with excellent manners and respectful despite not having so much in terms of money or belongings. We were really delighted with the quality of their education and you can see this from how they communicate, both Asma, Aklima, their friends and the older grade 12 students.
The guidebooks that we got for Asma and Aklima, which they asked for to help with their studies, were actually really challenging. We were delighted that their primary focus is on their education. Although the slum is a difficult place to live and very basic with dirty streets, the rooms belonging to Asma and Aklima were really nice and tidy and well organized.
We took a lot of books and materials to the girls and I would like to see that this is shared with the community so that other kids can benefit from the educational tools, I’m not sure how this can be achieved but we impressed on both Asma and Aklima that they should share the books with their friends.
Tiberiu took toys donated by his nieces and that was a great idea as they were really popular, so I’d recommend that other volunteers take fun things like toys as a balance to educational gifts. The phones were an excellent idea and actually all the kids seemed to have phones, definitely the grade 12 kids we met. This will help us build relationships with the girls and really are essential if we want to build a mentoring relationship with them.
Since my return I’ve been messaging Asma very often and receiving detailed messages back, I will call her at the weekend to see how she is getting on and what books she is reading and her thoughts on them and Tiberiu will do the same with Aklima and we will also arrange the odd combined Skype call through Jewel. We took Asma and Aklima to the rollercoaster park with their friends and they really, really, really enjoyed this experience, so if any other volunteers want to take kids out then this is definitely recommended. We were also due to go to a historical building on the other side of Dhaka but when we got there it was closed so in future it would be recommended to call ahead.
Both of us would like to take Asma and Aklima to Dubai during their breaks perhaps next year, but link this to getting A+ results so they can get an insight into our lives and culture. Both of us love travelling and I think it’s one of the best ways to learn and it’s also good for building confidence. I think both of us plan to visit Dhaka and the girls and their friends about once a year.
Thank you for this great experience.
They had a busy week meeting the students and their families, giving workshops on career choices and capturing the people and places of Dhaka. Read more about their experience on Darko’s blog.
When I found out I was going to Dhaka, I knew immediately what I wanted to do and after a little bit of research I stumbled upon the Maria Cristina Foundation and decided to email them. I explained I wanted to help in whatever way I could with the short time frame that I had. The response came back immediately and was so warm and friendly that I was even more excited to help out. I was given the best advice, some trainers that I had offered to take out with me and donations of toys and clothes from friends to take with me, too. Everything was so well organised and I didn’t have to do anything. I was told who would be meeting me, where I could meet them, I had their numbers and I was told what I’d see and who I would meet.
Upon arriving in Dhaka I was met in my hotel and taken to the school. Driving around in Dhaka was definitely a new experience for me, with no road markings and people walking wherever they could I was definitely scared! But luckily for us we had a taxi driver who made us feel safe! On the journey to the school I couldn’t help but to be shocked at what I could see around me, there were so many people with lost limbs begging at the windows and when the trains passed we could see so many people sat on the roof to avoid having to pay for a train ticket. I just couldn’t adjust to what I was seeing, this was one of the saddest parts of my trip as this was what made me realise how much this country needs help. Finally we arrived, but unfortunately for us the children were on their summer holidays, however we were told all about how the school works, how the children are doing and we got a tour of all the classrooms. It was an incredible experience!
Afterwards we were taken down to the slums to meet some of the families that the charity sponsors and to give them donations. The best part of my trip was meeting the children. They were all so beautiful and happy and desperate to show us their houses and where they lived. They wouldn’t let go of our hands and had so many stories they wanted to show us. It was sad to see how they lived and how squashed they could be, but the children were so happy and proud of where they were from.
This experience taught me so much, but the biggest lesson I learnt was to stop taking things for granted and to appreciate everything in life. It was an incredible experience, one that I will always hold close to my heart. And hopefully one day I will be able to return again.
In his own words:
It is hard to stay indifferent after experiencing the Dhaka slums first-hand and gaining some insight to the daily hardships of the families there. It is an experience I will never forget.
I work in the corporate world, which means I have struggled to find time for any other travel but business trips. When I finally found some time, I was determined to spend it on doing something that I have always been keen to accomplish – a trip to the slums and Bangladesh to see the outcome of Maria’s extraordinary efforts with my own eyes.
I started following the efforts of the Maria Cristina Foundation before Maria’s unbelievable Mt. Everest summit. She was the first Portuguese female to summit Everest! I heard a lot about her here in Dubai and it was a huge privilege when I finally got to meet her in person and listen to her speak so humbly and movingly about her foundation and children in Dhaka. She is a person, who is willing to give everything she owns to those less fortunate. A lot of us may feel like we have a big ‘debt’ to society, but she is one of the few who took action.
Before I travelled to Dhaka, I had visited more than 70 countries (I love to travel!) and lived in 4 different continents, so I assumed I was prepared for the reality in Dhaka.
I planned my trip last minute and only for a weekend, hence there was not enough time for the Foundation to prepare things they needed me to carry to Dhaka. This was my first mistake. So, my advice to future volunteers planning to visit Dhaka is: please let them know well in advance, so they can gather all the donated school materials, clothing and other donations for you to take to Dhaka. They will give you information on luggage allowance, what you can and cannot bring on different airlines etc. I ended up buying luggage, which I filled with school materials, communication equipment and other things I thought could be useful in Dhaka. The need there is so huge, so I have been trying to create awareness and get more people involved since the day I met Maria.
Back to Dhaka. As I mentioned earlier, I have done a lot of travelling, but Dhaka still managed to surprise me. It’s a unique city, full of contrasts. It’s a vibrant capital city on the one hand, but missed with extreme poverty, where many people can only dream of a bright future. I lived in Africa for 5 years and still travel to a number of developing countries, but the reality of the Dhaka slums is quite hard to imagine without having been there. The extreme poverty hits you in the face as soon as you step your foot inside the Gawair slum area. It is a huge slums, which consists of groups of people living together, who totally lack basic facilities and services.
Maria decided to focus on the kids from Gawair to make sure that some of these underprivileged children can have a brighter future. Her amazing persistence and extreme efforts prove that her values are pure and her heart has always been right.
On top of other support offered, the Foundation fully takes care of the education of nearly 200 youngsters that now have the opportunity to study in a good quality school, which will hopefully be the catalyst to make a difference in their lives. Good education is providing the foundations of knowledge and the willingness to break the cycle of poverty.
I have been sponsoring Jamil, and following his progress from far, so it was a great pleasure to finally meet him face to face. Jamil is a very smart, but shy kid, who has been through a lot despite his young age. We connected immediately and he invited me to visit his house and meet all his family. It was a heart-breaking experience and it is very hard to put what I saw into words, however, it was also very encouraging and a motivating experience.
All the kids fully appreciate what Maria is doing and understand the enormous sacrifices she has had to make for them. The extreme poverty and conditions in the slum are something I will never forget…the lack of sanitary facilities, the hardships, the dirtiness, the total lack of structure to support those in need. It’s very harsh in terms of a visit, however, the joy and happiness of the kids will be enough to prove you that changes can be made. The kids always smile with their heart and they will no doubt make you feel like helping others is the right thing to do and not just a nice thing to do.
On my second day I had the chance to visit the Cambrian School and College, where Jamil and most of the Maria Cristina Foundation’s kids study, and also meet the school’s principal. I am now certain that all schools and partners the Foundation has chosen are the right ones to provide the kids with enough ammunition to be competitive and ambitious once they are ready to fly!
A lot more could be said about my Dhaka trip as many moments were unique and unforgettable. All I know is that I will be going back for sure and will be fighting my way to support the Foundation. I leave my deepest thoughts for myself, but please allow me to urge you to get involved and help in any way you can. Much can be done to help the children in Dhaka, but one needs to start.
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”