Monday, January 16, 2012

Steve's Epic Poem

First, a quick intro to this work of art by the wicked-smart Steven Torrisi of Red Hook, New York:

There were so many experiences, so many individual moments on this trip that would be impossible to put into words. Steve managed to create several lines of rhyme about it, a feat that would exhaust me. With the help of others, though, we can better tell stories and communicate with people. That's why I figured I would share the witty and heartwarming words of Steven, who shared this poem and made everyone laugh and cry on the last day:


Let me tell you of Bangladesh
Of lemon tea and curry fresh
Of 60 kids who gelled and meshed
Who crossed their fingers back in May
Who were called back and paved the way 5
Who got an email in July
And flew to Dhaka wond’ring “Why?”
Now we stand here, on the last
Of 30 days which came to pass
Come here, all ye, and listen well 10
I carry a cache of stories to tell.

When we converged in Washington
I knew the fun had just begun
With minnows, sharks, and art displays
It truly feels like yesterday. 15
We spent two days aboard 3 flights
In one bizarre Arab’ian night
And when United botched our bags
We spent 3 full days wearing rags
At 3’oclock we had first dates 20
With our B’deshi, new housemates
I think that you found no one finer
Than your Bangladeshi driver
With river crossings, shoes and more
Icebreakers and group games galore 25
Came to dominate those days.
But we learned lots in other ways
I don’t think I will forget when
After Medeha and her friends
We heard of houses of semen(t) 30
The only Bangla we all had
Was asalaam and Dhonobad
We all fawned over sickly pups
But mostly everyone threw up.
The week concluded when we had 35
Parties, saris, and punjabs
Which we all know now leads us on
To new years and the sundarbans.

Come Christmas day we ate our food
At the rustic hotel sun and moon 40
On Khulna bridge, a grand sunset
At castle salaam we would get
French fries and free mango juice
Santa claus, talks on the roof.
The food was good, and sadly yet 45
MY appetite and the sheets were whet.
The next day we got on the ship
The next step of our climate trip.
I like to think of all those days
Stretched on deck, to sunbathe 50
Watching passing trees and waves.
Then we had that that acted skit
Which can all agree was…. Controversial.
Holding hands beneath the stars
I made those oranges go far 55
Dropping anchor, dolphins danced
Emille showed us their recent past
Trudging slowly through the mud
Tiger-watching was a dud
And let us be honest- what can you teach 60
When you let thirty teenagers loose on a beach?
What insights did that mock UN summit reach?
But then that all ended, and we soon got home
And spent a day off leaving climate alone
That weekend was great solely for the fact 65
That that was the time when we got Shelby back!
We drove right on out to the place at Savar
To the best new years ever, the greatest by far!
We got back to Dhaka, but we weren’t free
For we stared down the barrel of our SLPs. 70

This part of the poem may be somewhat hard
There were four SLPs- my one was the char
But I know for a fact that everyone grew
That week pushed the boundaries of what we all knew.
The people at Khula studied water in salt 75
A problem which science is trying to halt
The folks down at Jaago could chill with Rakshand
Then produce a film and form some strong bonds
I heard at the Bazaar the weather was fair
But after the beach you guys took on the mayor 80
I can speak the most for my time at the Chars
We lived in tin huts and saw more boats than cars
The seventh was fun when we got to share
Emotions were high, good ‘tude everywhere
We all made connections and found better friends 85
But sadly the program sped on to the end.

This last week was simply chock full of events
There were plenty of sights that we hadn’t seen yet
Monday both saw a brand new business model
And a talk from the Yunus who urged us: Don’t dwadle! 90
And forgive me if you think this outlook is bleaker
But Yunus is more of a genius than speaker
But that day left all of us feeling empowered!
The seeds of our projects had sprouted and flowered
In the countryside we saw the effects 95
Firsthand of Grameen Shakti projects
I know that I was very impressed to see
A gas burner powered by birds poop and pee
Yesterday was bittersweet
But our guest speakers were a treat 100
The rhyme scheme here is fairly rigid,
But Bridges Bridges Bridges Bridges.
As our month-long adventure now draws to an end
Look all around at your newfound friends
Whether from Bangladesh or the US of A 105
National boundaries have vanished today

I think that I know y’all so well
For every last one there is something to tell
Beginning with my native New Yorker Crew
I’ve never met anyone more honest and true 110
Than Aury Hernandez! Hats off to you.
Judy is sweet and for hours we talk
Amirah’s mind drips leave a whole crowd in shock
Tania is friendly but also tenacious
Her research last summer was simply broadacious 115
I’ve never met anyone nicer than Fil
And Jalen’s ballet was a genuine thrill
Teresa and Kenzie have wonderful eyes
Mai Kou’s lovely singing was a great surprise
Ed played a mean businessman on that boat 120
Maddy, I want you to frame me your quote
Someday I’ll pronounce Leia, no Leahs! Name right
A “Hi” from Amanda sets everything right
Shoutout to my homeboy from the west coast
The main man from Oakland who wins and then boasts 125
Devin’s my pal, I am proud to say
He’s also real lucky to have Chardonnay
I remember Alisa for reading the Stand
And Pajnucci in cards- Man, what a fast hand!
And speaking quite briefly on her behalf 130
Pajnucci and I look the same when we laugh.
I thought at first Sartu was just meek and quiet
But it turned out that she was an absolute riot
Mumjata and Paul have firey hearts
Caitlyn’s Cambodian and German in parts 135
I’m excited for Kelsey, she’s going to Mac
And we all cheered hooray when Shelby came back.
Conversing with Kerry about classic old books
Anna, that cutie, steps out and gets cooked
Megumi gave me that nice free hug coupon 140
Natascha, I’m sorry, I wasn’t well drawn
Sophie is sophie-sticated, yes, it’s true
I’m sorry for abusing that pun about you
And of course, where to start, I can only say damn
I’m endlessly grateful that I have met Sam. 145
I ran out of time for the B’deshi crew
But I am truly glad to have known all of you.
But I’d like to make room for a kid who I know
A guy who I am saddened to finally let go
Everyone, let’s hear it for Dhruba! 150

It’s over now, folks. No longer we roam
Let’s pack up our bags, it’s time to go home! 152

DHAKA 2012
Steven Torrisi

Saying Goodbye to Sumaita

  So... now I have returned to the states.  But since I traveled back in time 12 hours to get home, I figured I might as well do a reflection on my last week in Bangladesh, since I seem to be reliving every moment anyway.  (Three cheers for reverse culture shock!)
     After spending all night packing the insane amount of beautiful gifts given to myself and my American family by my Bangladeshi family into my checked luggage, I could barely sleep.  I woke up early the next morning, at about noon arriving at Scholastica. The day still had a couple workshops, a massive survey, and then we had some freetime. We spent the day out in the sunshine on the roof of the school, signing yearbooks, drawing henna on each other's arms, and taking pictures. We laughed and acted like a ton of really happy teenagers. Hanging out like a bunch of kids with inside jokes and favorite songs. What a crazy experience, getting to know people we thought were so different from us. I was an individual, with my own experience and take on being an American, just as Sumaita had her own story, but that stuff really didn't count. Music, junk food, laughter, henna. That mattered.
    Emotions were rampant throughout the US students, who had grown accustomed to coming to Scholastica every day with their Bangladeshi host siblings, who had grown used to the food, familiar with the noise and the language and the dress. Just as we started to feel at home in Bangladesh, we had to say farewell.  Steve, a wonderful senior from upstate New York, shared an "epic" poem that left us laughing and crying all at once. We dished out some personalized awards we thought fit each other: "Best Smile,""Future Prime Minister", "Last American Standing", "The Laura Jr. Award", etc.
   Then it came time to leave Scholastica and load our luggage into a bus that would take us through the scary traffic one final time to the airport. The students cried a lot, and Americans clung to their host siblings in an attempt to thank the Bangladeshis for their hospitality, inspiring work, and every gift that was given to us during the exchange. Not just gifts like henna and bangles and Lay's Magic Masala chips. Gifts like solidarity, phrases of Bangla, a room and shelter, goals, and an ally for the future. We had everyone's Facebook, email, Skype, and Twitter account recorded in at least one spot.
     Saying goodbye to Sumaita was a lot like leaving my best friends at FAIR School Crystal for the summer, except a little bit more intense. I had bonded with her, confided in her, and shared so many challenges along side her throughout the exchange, it felt like I was about to be torn in half. She is such an inspirational person, a student with such talent and motivation. I've never met anyone like Sumaita in my entire life. There is no one else like her in the entire world. How lucky I was to have met her, to have been given the opportunity to travel to the other side of the world, to share a moment in time and countless learning experiences with her.  My gratitude left me so overcome and all I could do was repeat over and over, "Dhonobad, thank you for everything."
     We left Dhaka in a daze, rocked by the culture we had grown so used to, now again so far away. Dubai, Germany, all a blur.
     In Washington D.C., the US Students had to divide up by region, with about fifteen minutes to say goodbye. I kept it together when the California region kids went to their gate, but after hugging my New York posse goodbye, I couldn't hold it back anymore. We cried some more, hugged each other in shuddering masses, and promised to keep in touch. Waiting at the gate for the final plane, all I wanted was to be home. The hours in spent in the air, the homework, the dashing to keep up and catch flights, the crying, the initial reverse culture shock, and plane sickness had me, in two short words: f@!*ing exhausted.
   At the same time, I wouldn't take back a second of the traveling and discomfort, because it made coming home even sweeter. I said farewell to my brave Minnesotan crew, and met my mom and little sister at the baggage claim. We were without a doubt the most emotional reunion of the entire flock of families, but at the time no one thought twice. I thanked my wonderful Minnesotan educator, Katrina, one last time. I said farewell to Fil, Kerry, Pajnucci, Mai, Sam, Kaitlin, Leah, Kelsey, Shelby, and Sartu D2.  I began to readjust right then and there to my American life, never to be the same.
    Since our farewells, the Bangladeshis and Americans all keep in contact via Facebook and Skype and all the modern technology/social networking that revolutionized the globe.  It's crazy having friends who eat lunch when you're supposed to be asleep (sure). All of our Facebook feeds are insane with people tagging pictures and leaving comments about reverse culture shock and hostility and American food, yada yada yada. I have been keeping in contact with the lovely Sumaita, the articulate Drubha, the inspiring Natasha, and stayed connected with the amazing people I know will soon become prime ministers and owners of social businesses in their own right. 
     So, I feel like I've been confiding in the internet for far too much tonight. Who'da thunk blogging would be such a therapeutic way to document a trip?

Dining with Ambassadors

    On our final night in Bangladesh, Scholastica, SPEED, and Worldsavvy threw the American Bangladeshi Youth Leadership Program (ABYLP) participants a Farewell Dinner and Awards Ceremony. The awards ceremony had a really incredible turnout with very notable speakers; the American Ambassador to Bangladesh, a representative from the UN, and member of Bangladesh's Parliament addressed the students of Bangladesh and the US.  They discussed the importance of "building bridges" and working in solidarity with one another when addressing the very real issue of climate change, and all the relative issues stemming from it. The most moving quote came of the night came from the Parliament guy, who said about global climate conferences, "we are now a hundred boats sitting in a harbor. We must become one big cruise ship, and instead have a hundred cabins, and perhaps have a team of skippers to lead the way." I agreed with the analogy a bit. We really do need to think as one, as we are all affected by rising sea levels, increasing natural disasters, and global economy failure. :)
   I also truly loved hearing from four very talented and articulate students about the exchange: Sharhan, Natasha, Maeisha, and Edward.  They spoke about the Service Learning Projects, the culture shock from both sets of students, and the little moments that made us into a really weird family, rather than simply a group of passionate students from across the world.
   Did I mention there was a ton of press? I've never seen that many cameras going off in one place at so many times all throughout one evening! I later learned that the film crew that got footage of me quietly conversing with Sumaita at our dinner table was sent to 5 different stations and we were shown almost as often as the US Ambassador was. Not to mention the mentioning and full-group photo on Page 2 of the next morning's Daily Star issue. Yeah, that was shocking and crazy and wonderful and insane and weird and groovy and foreign and familiar and cool and...
    ... I'm back. Sorry about that.
     The entire night was made even crazier by the fact that a testimonial I had written for the exchange program had gotten blown up onto a banner, hung to the left of the stage where they were passing out certificates during the ceremony.  The honor I felt made me miss my teachers at FAIR Downtown like mad. I especially missed Mr. E, my 9th grade Civics teacher. He was the one who had forwarded the heaven-sent email to me back when I was a freshmen looking for study abroad programs. I feel I owe him big time, needless to say, for finding this opportunity. The testimonial reads:

 "The experience of meeting new faces and seeing fascinating places in Bangladesh has increased my global empathy and my understanding of the environment exponentially. I feel like this trip has been such a gift, one that I will work the rest of my life to repay. What an unforgettable experience this has been and continues to be."
     So, in case if you were wondering whether I would recommend this program to open-minded, passionate students and educators for next year or not, there's your answer. 


 Dan W. Mozena, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, his wife, and the lovely Sumaita


A Really Vague Summary of the Social Action Project Explorations We Made

  We spent the last week learning about ways to carry out our social action projects.  We saw how others took their social action projects, and took it to new levels, like the Nobel Peace laureate, Muhammad Yunus. Prof. Yunus' foundation is the umbrella under which his pioneering creation, the social business Grameen Shakti (meaning "village power" in Bangla), operates. A social business operates as a middle ground between a charity, and a regular business. It is self-sustaining, and after initial investments are repaid in full, it is self-sustaining by it's own profits. Grameen Shakti has numerous products and projects that keep it afloat as a social business. The Grameen Bank, which is a different type of social business that specializes in a concept called "microlending",  is also self sustaining, but neither of the Yunus creations operate in a way that comprises the main goal of eradicating poverty. Pretty cool stuff, I'm sorry I suck at summarizing it. If you want, I can link you to their website, and you can learn about social business and microlending on your own terms and with more clarity:
    So we learned about social businesses, met with students and youth leaders whose projects saw tangible and very real success, and made huge differences in their communities. BYEI, a project started by an environmentally passionate student, is realizing the goal of connecting youth to the government and opening up their voices to policy. Yeah, again, I really suck at explaining how cool this shit really is, so here's a link to BYEI:
    The point is, we saw many huge success stories with regards to social action projects. Now it's our turn. My social action project will be explained in another blog, coming in the near future.

Born in Blood? Pt. 2

   The situation in Bangladesh and the title that the Scholastica students identified with was still fresh in my mind when our group met Dana, the co-founder of WorldSavvy. WorldSavvy, we learned, was actually started by her first Bangladeshi acquaintance, Mediha (now the headmaster at Scholastica in Dhaka) and Dana while they were still in college together. Their founding idea was to empower youth, therefore creating "Global Citizens", who thought deeply and cared about world affairs.
    As I was curious on the subject of why they thought to start such an organization, I asked Dana later on why WorldSavvy was founded the way it was, when it was, how it was. I learned that Mediha was an exchange student from Bangladesh when the US was affected by the tragedy on 9/11.  She and Dana experienced a lot of xenophobia and hostility as they sought to learn about other countries. WorldSavvy, as the name stipulates, is purely focused on educating students about their world, enabling them to go places they might otherwise never see/learn about. In a way, I guess you could say that out of the bloodshed on 9/11, came the birth of a non-profit that changed my life.
   Those who know me the closest can say that this program provided me an education that my background/situation would not have otherwise provided. My school does focus on global affairs much more than the lot, I guess you could say, but my life has been tainted with the fear and xenophobia that sprouted from 9/11, just as any American student can agree.  It was a struggle to move past it, and open my entire self to the idea of exchanging with a place so different, so far away.

    I believe wholeheartedly that it isn't just Bangladeshi students or open-minded Americans who show resilience in the face of fear and impending death by water.  When issues face us as a culture, we find ways to work around that fear, and come out with solutions. Beautiful solutions. Brilliant ones. But these solutions can only come with an open mind, and an ability to lean into discomfort. My Grade 8 and 9 social studies teachers emphasized the idea of "Speaking Your Truth, Staying Engaged, Experiencing Discomfort, and Expecting/Accepting Non-Closure". These are all agreements, attributes, actions, that are completely necessary to have before we can ever move forward.
   What else can be Born of Blood?  A beautiful country. Limitless solutions to global issues. Global Citizens. Let us speak our truth, stay engaged, experience discomfort, and maybe we will someday find closure.

 ~Photos courtesy of the lovely Sumaita Ahmed.

Born in Blood?

   We listened to a speaker at Scholastica, the Bangladeshi and US students in a conference room. By that time, we had become completely comfortable with one another, and the separateness that was evident the previous week had disappeared. We knew more than just each other's names now, we knew about their ambitions and fears. We sat in solidarity.
   The speaker quoted an article, saying that Bangladesh was a country, "born in blood, and death in water." The students took this to heart, and we saw it on their faces when it was said. The pain of the Language Movement, the Liberation War against Pakistan, and the impending issue of drastic climate changes.  My host sister used the same phrase, several times since then. She believes in it.
   It is true, that the founding of Bangladesh was a bloody one. The Language Movement began when the Bangladeshi people (not yet owners of their own nation) began to feel tension between their Pakistani neighbors. Their was discrimination, and even penalization, against those who spoke Bangla. After decades of supression and occasional riots, the people of Bangla became involved in a war that would lead to the deaths and systematic murder of thousands of Bangla intellectuals.  With support from India, the Bangladeshi people declared Bangladesh as their own, and Bangla became the national language.
   The country had it's 40th anniversary just last year. It is a very young country, facing the economic and governmental issues of any typical developing country.  Corruption, inflation, overpopulation, etc. But in a huge addition to that, Bangladesh is facing the most evident and severe effects of climate change: sea levels are rising, which leads to more flooding of the flat, delta land. The ponds and natural sources of drinking water are now infiltrated by salinity (saltiness) from the sea water, and so coastal people are driven to extremes, walking for days to neighboring villages who often monopolize the drinking water supply. In other areas, water sanitation is another major issue, even without the salinity, as lack of awareness/education leads people to literally poison themselves. In their last resort, they leave their farms which once let them lead rich, contented lives, for Dhaka, which is so incredibly overpopulated as is, these climate refugees are subject to  any form of poverty in the city streets and slums.
    With that said, scientists predict that the country that fought to preserve it's heritage, with a strong sense of loyalty to it's origins, will become submerged. 2/3 of the entire country was underwater in 2004, after a cruel monsoon season left many tens of thousands homeless.  Sumaita says the title "born in blood, and death in water" with a sense of acceptance.

   When I heard that, I instantly wished to protect the ears of these Bangladeshi kid scholars, some as young as 13. But the thing that separates people like Sumaita from people like me, is her ability to see the problem and not cower from it and marvel at it's massiveness. In my interview with her about the importance of world history, she talked about how women were suppressed and continue to struggle in the authoritative positions. She continued to talk about solutions that she could do to help slow the submergence, and how empowering women would help with the problem of overpopulation, which is itself a direct contributor to the Greenhouse Gases emitted by any country.  The actual statistic regarding the maternal mortality ratio is, "reduced from 440 deaths per 100,000 child births in 1997 to 320 per 100,000 live births in 2001." (BBC) Although that may seem a little rough, keep in mind that the numbers in 2001 are about half of what they were back in the 1950s. That statistic is actually rather incredible, as the number of children per average household has also decreased by almost 50%. Education of women, specifically, has helped dramatically with the issues of a booming population and lack of space, as well as the submergence of Bangladesh in water.
    Sumaita seemed to have hope. If she can see the end result, and start to map out a direction to adaptation, then I think anyone can...


~Photos courtesy of the lovely Sumaita.


Monday, January 9, 2012

The Chars

Woaaaah. What just happened?
Truth is, I only know a little more than everyone else with regards to this question.
As some may alreadyknow, this trip has been a "marathon", as someone eloquently put it. Whether we are sick, or simply and completely exhausted, or really uncomfortable, we have to find a way to keep going, because every minute we learn something that we would otherwise never know. At home, we would call this "Experience Discomfort". I'm speaking my truth here, and accepting nonclosure at every turn. I wish I had adequate words for the things I couldn't post about during my service learning project.
So, let me explain a little.
As a crucial part of this trip, we were expected to travel to a location with a small group and complete a service learning project. This meant that there was not only cultural exchange, but at times, complete immersion. We truly achieved solidarity at times, which was shocking, beautiful, eye-opening, and inspiring.
My host sister Sumaita and I went with a group of about 14 other Bangladeshi and American students to Sirajganj, a farming town outside of Dhaka. The bus trip there was the scariest traffic/bathroom experience I've ever had. (Picture scaling a crumbling hill down to a putrescent squating outhouse, then continuing the next three hours nearly headfirst into oncoming trucks, etc.) We arrived at ARCHES, an education facility in Sirajganj, where we were to stay four nights in tin shacks, three to a room. I lifted my mattress the first night to adjust my mosquito net, and met a cockroach the size of my thumb. We also made friends with two other spiders the size of my hand. (Thank god for the Bangladeshi boys, who happened to be arachnid enthusiasts). Needless to say, our group was uncomfortable the first night or so.
The next morning, we set off at dawn by boat for two hours to a floating silt island called a "char". The chars all along the trip were so picturesque in their pristine nature. The people in the villages on the chars face flooding annually, and every 5-10 years, they face unimaginable hardship when storms completely sink their whole community/livestock/schools in saline water. They must be ready at a moment's notice to move their families. These people are referred to as "climate refugees".
We were not expecting to see such a thriving community, and a truly gorgeous village. They met us on the shoreline with roses and mustard flowers, the US students speaking in broken Bangla, thanking the children for their graciousness. We met the students from a village school, which needed to be prepared for flooding and disaster management. We were to haul baskets of soil from the base of a valley up to the school, and create a mound/platform to raise the school onto. Many of the students had never even done the dishes, so such physical labor was not heavily anticipated, but what changed the minds of many was working alongside 6 and 7 year-old children, who were remarkably strong and patient with us. Without a doubt, the villagers could complete the task in a quarter the time it took the US and Scholastica students, but they treated us as their children, and took us under their wing. We learned, over the next few days, what life is truly like on the chars, and how human beings can be so resiliant and strong, despite the pain of losing everything.
They were the happiest children I'd ever met. Beautiful little faces, filled with curiosity. Everyone used much facial expression and body language on those three days on the chars, due to the language barrier. When the US students needed them, the Bangladeshis would help translate the words of the villagers, who spoke only Bangla. We worked alongside one another, in solidarity.
At the last town meeting, we sat in the square, with the council of disaster planning, and the elders of the char village. We were shocked and moved when he apologized to us for their poverty, especially if they had been substandard hosts as a result of this fact. The reverse, our offending them, was all we had considered previously. We had never known hospitality equal to that of the villagers, neither the US nor the Bangladeshi students.
By the end of our stay at ARCHES, many of us had had extremely emotional realizations. Those who contribute the absolute least to climate change, those who hardly have any carbon footprint at all, are the ones most displaced by it. Cyclones, deadly and becoming more frequent, are the reason why the villagers cannot educate their children past gradeschool, as the need for manual labor is too urgent. While the average American's consumption factor is a whopping 32, the average char villager has a consumption factor of 1. On the boatride back to Sirajganj on Day 2, it became painfully clear to me how enabled and entitled and priveleged I was to not need to worry about my own survival. I cried so hard I stuggled to breathe.
We bonded a lot in the tin shacks. By the end of the trips, we not only knew one another's names, but we also knew a lot about our goals, our aspirations. I will never regret a single moment of the service learning project, no matter how uncomfortable or confusing. Leaning into the discomfort made the entire experience worthwhile. I have never learned so much about human nature and it's beauty in that space of time before.
Coming back to Dhaka, the 8th most densely populated place on earth, was surreal. Everyone who went to the chars was changed for the better. We clearly see how our actions can either displace or assist someone else. We made a difference, we know, in the villagers lives. They had never had outsiders come to help them with disaster management in their community before. The villagers have zero voice, due to their isolation. Even the Bangladeshi government only recognizes the victims of climate change with food aid when they've lost everything to a cyclone. This is the first time someone has been willing to advocate for the improvement of their quality of life.
So, yeah. My entire mindset exploded. My expectations and worldviews have been thrown into the sea, never to be the same again. It's hard, but I suppose it's no big deal. Sure.
As this week continues, we're formulating social action project plans for when we go home. Hopefully we can spread awareness, educate, advocate, and serve to the best of our abilities. I have never known inspiration and drive like this before. The energy in the classroom at Scholastica nearly makes the walls burst.
I can't write fast enough to keep track of all the observations, and thoughts that flash through my consciousness.
What the f@!k just happened?

 ~Photos courtesy of the lovely Sumaita