My stomach lurched and my throat seized as I stood dumbfounded on a sidewalk in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, looking up at where Rana Plaza used to stand. I’d been in that looming building so many times on previous visits to Bangladesh, but now I looked only at rubble, at the grave of 1,138 factory workers. As I eventually walked away, tears spilling down my cheeks, I was approached by one woman, then another, then about 10 more, each holding small pictures of their loved ones who had died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse April 24, 2013, just six months earlier. They didn’t ask me for anything, we just stood amidst the milling crowds and cried together.
I am a speech-language pathologist for adults, who just moved to Yellowknife a few months ago with my husband, David Sims, a family doctor at the Frame Lake clinic. Because speech pathology is a new profession in Bangladesh, foreign volunteers are heavily relied upon to teach and help develop the profession there. A stroke of luck led me to volunteer at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) for the first time in 2011. It really did change my life in all senses of the cliché; I’ve spent seven months there over the course of three visits and hope to return whenever possible, for the rest of my life.
The rehabilitation hospital is the only one of its kind in a land of about 160 million people, located just down the road from where Rana Plaza collapsed. My husband also joined me on a trip to the CRP when he was still a medical resident and was fortunate to assist with cleft palate surgeries and see patients on the spinal cord injury ward.
Bangladesh is a harsh land of precarious survival. As one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, extreme poverty, corruption, frequent natural disasters, deadly traffic, urban congestion and pollution, as well as limited access to health care are just some of the challenges, even for the very ‘fittest.’
Social structures dictate that women occupy a very low rung on the ladder while people with disabilities are generally relegated to the very bottom. Life for those with disabilities is an unimaginable, life-long battle in a place where many citizens struggle to find food and shelter; quarters of human beings drag themselves along the street on scrap cardboard; entire families with malformed or missing limbs scratch out a living by begging. Also, imagine this scenario in contrast to our northern winters. One of the winters I spent in Bangladesh was the coldest on record and around 80 people died. It was 3°C.
Unlike here, worker’s compensation, disability pensions, government subsidies, and free healthcare… are all non-existent in Bangladesh. And yet amidst this chaos, in the middle of this “basket case” country, are the most radiant and resilient people I have ever had the privilege to meet. Their will not only to survive but to find true joy in a world that can seem full only of suffering keeps me going back for more, looking for more ways to help ease the burden. And I think I have found a way to get Yellowknifers involved.
One of the most fascinating things I discovered about moving here from British Columbia is the ethnic diversity in this most unlikely place. When I was told there are 50 Bangladeshis in this city, I nearly exploded with excitement. My attempts at speaking Bangla as I introduced myself was met with endless giggles or speechless jaw-drops. When I asked these Yellowknife Bangladeshis whether they will help me throw a fundraiser in the spring for a certain hospital in Bangladesh, their unquestionable and immediate support was moving.
Mitu Nahar, a nurse’s aid at Stanton Hospital, instantly clasped her hand to her chest and said, “Yes, we will help with everything you need.” When I spoke to Liza Roy, a former dentist in Bangladesh and now a dental hygienist in Yellowknife, she also immediately offered her help. “Do not worry, I will arrange the entire cultural program.” Bangladesh may be far away from Yellowknife but home is never forgotten, and these women know too well the incredible privilege it is to be a beneficiary of our unbelievable health-care system here in Canada.
There is only a handful of organizations such as the CRP which help the extremely vulnerable population of people living with disabilities in Bangladesh. Many of those who survived the Rana Plaza collapse were fortunate enough to be brought to this hospital, given acute medical attention and provided with the rehabilitation and vocational training necessary to start life over again (most survivors understandably never want to enter a factory again).
Common admissions to the CRP include spinal cord injuries resulting from carrying heavy loads on the head, getting an orna (scarf) caught in the wheel of a rickshaw, or falling from a height. My friend Parveen sustained her spinal cord injury when she jumped from a window to escape a factory fire. The CRP not only provided her medical and rehabilitative care but was also where she would find employment and her future husband. Her story of life and love after disability is uncommon in Bangladesh, but not uncommon within the walls of the CRP, which was established by a most remarkable person, a British physiotherapist named Valerie Taylor.
Valerie Taylor and adopted daughters, Poppy and Joyti,
who have cerebral palsy
Now in her ‘70s, Valerie has been serving the people of Bangladesh since 1969, before it was even Bangladesh. There are few human beings on the planet today who could hold a candle to this quiet, highly intelligent saint; few who would possess the commitment, patience, and endurance to dedicate their lives to the care of others in an environment so extremely challenging on all levels. I’ve been fortunate to live in her humble flat with her, find a wonderful friendship with one of her adopted daughters, to spend a Christmas with her in Bangladesh. Valerie’s endless humility, non-judgement and true generosity inspire me constantly to question and improve the way I live my life and to keep trying to find ways to support the hospital she founded.
Will the death of 1,138 human lives at Rana Plaza and the deaths that occur in the factories every year ever be enough for governments, corporations, companies and their shareholders, factory inspectors and consumers to question the ethics of the fabrics and garments industry? To respond with, “I am never buying anything made in Bangladesh again,” as many individuals did post-Rana plaza, is nothing short of dangerous when a country relies so heavily on our very purchases.
My dear Bangladeshi friend Wali, who lives in Dhaka, owns and runs many garment factories which are exceptional in their safety, providing health care, on-site child care, and a fair wage. Our job as consumers is to put pressure on politicians and companies to demand safer work environments and a fair wage for those who make us this bafflingly affordable clothing. Effective measures include writing to MLAs and MPs on the topic, researching, and being well-informed about which petitions to sign in this age of information overload. Our job can also be to support the Valerie Taylors of this world, those dedicated to fighting for those with the least support, to giving a chance at life to the most vulnerable in countries void of the benefits and care we as Canadians take for granted.
I have been totally captivated by Yellowknife, by its engaged and fascinating diversity of people. With the help of the Bangladeshi community and with your support, I invite you to join me for a fundraising event for the CRP at Northern United Place on May 23rd. I hope an evening of learning about Bangladesh, the CRP, Bangaldeshi feasting and culture will entice you to join us.
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, comments, or interest in offering any services or skills you may have that would benefit our fundraising event (tech support, space availability, supplies, printing posters, communications, any help is welcome!). Also, you might be surprised at how your individual skill set might make you a perfect volunteer for CRP and give you the opportunity for serious adventure in a fascinating country unlike any other.