Where in Dhaka do you ever see girls from English medium schools casually socialize with boys from Madrassas as equals? I was suddenly struck by the question as I walked into the first day of leadership training at the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC). In the classroom, a group of girls from Viqarunnisa were laughing together, some boys in skullcaps had grouped in one part of the class, and I automatically sat with some girls who looked familiar to me. This unusual mixture of English medium, Bangla medium, and Madrassa students were all taking part in BYLC’s eleventh Building Bridges through Leadership Training (BBLT) program. Students from different backgrounds had been brought together with the intention of inspiring leadership, and creating an inclusive society.
In my 14 years of studying at an English medium school, I rarely interacted with students from Bangla medium schools or Madrassas, and never thought about what we might have in common.
In that absence, I made assumptions based on existing stereotypes. That’s how it works here right? Students are not identified by their age group, or particular interests, but are classified according to the language and curriculum followed by their institution. Everything about this is disturbing. The nation’s youth is separated into distinct clusters and kept from breaking out of those bubbles to discover their common interests and shared purposes. For all those 14 years, I am embarrassed to confess, I never bothered to challenge this socially constructed division in our country.
My preconceived notions about people from different backgrounds were challenged when I was put in a classroom with them. I was able to connect with individuals who I always presumed to be fundamentally different from me.
Being in the same classroom together and experiencing training on problem solving and effective communication, corrected my prejudices, and enabled me to think about differences in a completely new way.
I had previously assumed that the Bangla medium students were know-it-alls who think English medium students don’t care about our country and traditions. I took it for granted that our worlds wouldn’t mix and I wouldn’t get along with any of them. But I was very wrong. Conversations with Shamanta Apu from Dhaka University that initially started with awkward small talk, eased into common complaints about traffic, or a shared interest in celebrity gossip. There was Sadman, a Taekwondo champ, who taught us tricks and stressed on the need for self-defense and fitness, especially for girls. I made a sister in Oishee apu, who consoled me when I got stressed, and I cheered her up when she felt disheartened.
As for the Madrassa students, I believed quite firmly that their opinions and worldviews were only based on their religious education. Once again, I was proven wrong. Khaled Saifullah, our instructor, who studied in a Madrassa, and is now studying International Human Rights Law at Oxford, conducted the class with an expert balance of Bangla and English, and impressed us with his wit and knowledge. Imran bhaiya, another Madrassa graduate, has gone on to participate at prestigious international conferences and exchange programs. From Tamim bhaiya, who sported a stylish haircut and trendy clothes, I learned a lot about cricket. Contrary to popular belief, Madrassa students are mischievous and funny, with a range of interests, just like any other young person.
It wasn’t always easy though. There were several tense moments as we encountered each other’s inherent differences. There was one particularly heated debate in my group during the ‘Leadership in Action’ component, where we had to design and implement community service initiatives. My idea to include English lessons in our education project was disregarded because it was presumed that I didn’t understand the dynamics in a slum. Even if it was uncomfortable, confronting these conflicts allowed us to gain a newfound respect for each other’s diverse strengths and expertise. Eventually, all 42 students enjoyed exchanging new ideas, and stopped being defensive about receiving constructive criticism.
I am a whole new person after BBLT because my understanding of the world has been enriched through interacting with exceptional individuals from different sections of society. I have made lifelong friends and am less anxious about stepping outside my comfort zone. By breaking stereotypes and building bridges, I have discovered the immense potential of the youth of Bangladesh, and am inspired to take on the challenges of leadership because I have an army of change-makers by my side.