The mosquitos at Shahjalal Airport, Dhaka are deadly. They are fat, feisty and ugly, but amazingly agile, and seem to dodge my attempts to squat them dead easily; I can almost hear them laughing at my duds. Still, I manage to murder a number of them, some with my holy blood splattering the laptop screen as I try to work, furiously scratching myself silly at the same time. I later learn that a Malaysian Airline aircraft had to return from the takeoff runway because one of the passengers developed last-minute hysteria due to the rampaging mosquitos in the aircraft. Imagine! The terminal is busy and noisy, as the staff of local airlines tries to control the haphazard check-in process. A pretty but bored Bengali woman sits across me, yawning away, trying to sell pricey Gulshan properties, but has few takers. She takes an interest in me as I battle the mosquitos but that too, is boring after a while, so she resumes the incessant and wide yawns, baring jagged teeth my way. An ear itch seems to bother her, so she cones a piece of paper and uses that to get relief, then pulls it out, peers at the harvest and takes a sniff; I look away…
I am waiting for a local flight that’ll fly me to Cox’s Bazar, where CAI donors have adopted 140 refugee orphans. I’ve been to Cox’s Bazar before, of course, several times. I’ve crossed into Myanmar (Burma) a few years ago from here, smuggled in to distribute food to the persecuted Muslims when the Burmese Army first began their systematic ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority. And then twice last year when CAI Trustees visited ‘hell on earth’ as we scrambled to appeal for and distribute the aid that went a long way to lessen the pain and mop the tears of these wretched children. I reach Cox’s Bazar on time, drive the 2-hours to the squalor camp where Kausar Jamal, CAI partner in Bangladesh welcomes me. Since it is magreeb, salaat is our priority.
To state that Kausar has done miracles with this CAI project is an understatement. The school/refuge for the 140 orphans is a technology oasis of sorts in the camp, with Wi-Fi and cameras that can monitor the school from anywhere in the world. The premises are spotless, well maintained and most importantly, for me, mosquito-free; I am happily impressed. Kausar has paid for 140 khatna circumcisions today, so there are remnants of children waiting for their turn in brave apprehension for the impending cut. I can’t stand to see the actual slash, so turn away from the room. We spend the evening in strategizing future tasks, audit and compliance reporting for the CAI aid sent. For a place in the midst of a squalor camp, the sleeping arrangements are A class – comfortable beds, a cooling fan and clean bathrooms. I sleep soundly.
I wake up to a cloud of fog that shrouds the entire camp, hampering visibility. The smog is made worse by thousands of wood fires that start up as the field wakes up to another day of misery. Kausar and I take a walk after salat to inspect CAI donor sponsored project that supplies potable water to about 9,000 people daily. The water has been a blessing and a curse, since fights erupt almost every day between those blessed with ready supply and ones who have to walk a considerable distance for a bucket of murky water. So, CAI has decided to extend the project to incorporate another 10,000 people with new deep-water wells, distribution pipes, and storage tanks. This project should complete by March 2018 insha’Allah, funding for which is in place.
The dirt lanes between endless ghettos are now firm because it is the rain-free ‘winter’ season. The evil smells that revolted me in the past are much curtailed as more toilets have been facilitated. But the tarpaulin and bamboo sheds are still heart wrenching to see. And once the rains start from April, the lanes will become squelchy and source of untold misery once again. I meet kids brushing teeth with charcoal using their fingers; people hack out filth from their lungs, a toddler defecates in front of me and then plays with his poop, no sign of its mother. Weary mothers queue up with pails at dry water spouts waiting for the power to resume so they can fill the water from the well. Makeshift shops sell cheap candy, chips and tiny packs of masalas; a ‘restaurant’ has sprung up in the dump, selling greasy parathas and a deadly-looking concoction of some meat and chickpeas. Improvised mosques are aplenty, from which emits the humming chorus of Quran recitation by children. Grubby kids, some buck-naked, roam around with glassy looks in their eyes. I try to smile at them, but they look at me as if I am batty, as if questioning any reason to smile. It is a wretched, miserable place and despondency sets in me just as the rising sun begins to lift off the fog. I may be skirting with blasphemy, but I would have easily preferred death to this situation. Kausar and I agree upon the locations for the 4 x 8,000, 8 x 4,000 and 12 x 2,000 water storage tanks to supply the additional 10,000 people CAI donors are helping.
On the way back to the shelter, I meet few smartly dressed kids running ahead of us. These are some of the lucky 140 orphans that attend the CAI shelter/school. They not only get nourishment, clothing, medical care and all else for a comfortable life but some quality activity as well. They get a haircut every month; their uniforms washed and a shampoo bath twice a week. They arrive at 6 AM, watch cartoons till 8, eat breakfast, attend Islamic class for 45 minutes, and then they study English, Math, and Burmese (Bangladesh authorities will not allow them to learn Bengali) until 12 before they get a nutritious lunch. Their day ends at about 2 when they must return to their hovels so that the CAI facility can clean up and get ready for the next day. The one downside to this service is that our kids have now a chip on their shoulders – they look cleaner, better fed, smarter dressed and have acquired a badass attitude against other non-school going camp children... Can’t win all the time, can we?
I spend most of the day with the orphans, breaking bread and attending classes with them; it is a beautiful experience to see them in much better spirits than before. Children rebound quickly, so the heartbreak and trauma they have been through are diminishing, and we pray for their very best future, insha’Allah.
Mr. and Mrs. Jamal and daughter Farha have been instrumental in successfully planning, developing and executing this sometimes-insufferable project; they have put their hearts into it. CAI is indebted to them for their commitment and grit in getting the orphans the support they are entitled to. Thank you.