This article originally appeared in Dhaka Tribune on June 11, 2014
They say that learning without application is just knowledge, but learning with application is wisdom. Engaging leadership lectures and team building exercises are unforgettable parts of my BBLT experience, but my most cherished memories are of working in Dhaka’s Kamalapur slum – my opportunity of churning some knowledge into wisdom.
BBLT’s central theme is the unapologetic assertion of the truth, and three months of community service certainly reiterated reality to me. On my first visit to the slum, I wasn’t expecting to meet inhabitants of dome-like huts, who sheltered themselves from the rain with plastic sheets, foraged for wood to cook with, and went hungry during hartals. They lived in a world completely different from my own and I later realized that understanding that alternate reality was the essence of my community service project.
My initial experience at the slum was vacillating. I would pinch a slum kid’s cheeks and subsequently wonder why she wasn’t at school. I would listen to these people’s woes, but subconsciously blame their laziness for their penury. I had thought of myself as a tolerant and an accepting person, and I was, but what was this wavering, this invisible barrier? Whatever it was, personal bigotry or basic human apprehensiveness, it passed, as soon as these seeming aliens began registering in my head, as people.
On some mornings, the local police uprooted their homes (they lived on government property), but their extraordinary resilience compelled them to rebuild by the evening. They had dreams. Taramon Bibi wanted her daughter to become a garments factory worker when she grew up, and Rahim chacha hoped to own a tea stall some day.
Life was difficult. But these people, for whom a day spent without working is a day spent without eating, never capitulated to their gloomy fates. They were remarkable.
Seeing these people up close, endeared them to me and helped me understand them. My humble project lasted three months and even though it won’t leave a lasting impact it certainly transformed me from a sympathizer, to an empathizer. 5 year old Sohail can’t go to school because his parents can’t afford the uniform, and Munira Begum doesn’t boil her drinking water because otherwise she won’t have enough timber to cook with. It is opportunities, not initiative that these people lack, and I am no one to judge them. Since BBLT, I’ve founded a social welfare organization with fellow graduates and my passion for service has only grown.
However, I no longer feel “sympathy” or “compassion” for the impoverished. Why? Because “sympathy” and “compassion” sound like great gifts, whereas my contributions to the poor are merely what I owe them.