Celebrating the Bengali New Year, 1425 (Bryn Mawr edition)

The 14th of April, 2018 marked the first ever time that my roommate Tanjuma and I were away from home for Pohela Boishakh (the first day of the Bengali year). In Bangladesh, Pohela Boishakh serves as the biggest cultural celebration in Bangladesh. Thousands of Bengalis dressed in red and white welcome the new year. My homesickness hit an all time low that morning as my newsfeed on social media was filled with people celebrating this eventful day with their loved ones. However, the weather proved to be very nice on that Saturday (I soon learned to not take spring for granted because we had rain showers for the next two days), and my roommate was not one to sulk around in a corner even though we were halfway  across the world from the New Year celebrations.
We tried our best to satisfy the red and white color code and spent an entire hour trying to take aesthetic pictures in front of Rock arch. After all, if taking fake candids with a breathtaking backdrop was the closest thing to celebrating Pohela Boishakh at Bryn Mawr College, then so be it. Jokes aside, the trees were in full bloom and the magic of spring’s arrival touched my heart. I started to realize that it was going to be a good day.

Starting this fall, Tanjuma and a few other Mawrters will start an internship under  artist Tania El-Khoury. I for one, was never into art and was clueless of my best friend’s new obsession with this artist who is based in Beirut and London. A week earlier, she had convinced me to go into Philadelphia to attend a discussion featuring El-Khoury and a senior from Bryn Mawr. I readily agreed because I would never turn down a free trip to the city! Coincidentally, the event was on that beautiful spring day. Without having any prior knowledge of El-Khoury or her work as a live artist, I let my roommate tag me along to the lecture. It was being held at Twelve Gates Art Studio, and for the first time ever, I entered Philadelphia’s artistic wing. I saw streets filled with art exhibitions and people walking hand-in-hand, happy to be part of this world on that beautiful day. I never considered myself as much of an artist and was low-key wondering if this two hour Q&A session with this artist would be the perfect way to spend Pohela Boishakh.

When we entered Twelve Gates, I saw a beautiful curly-haired woman flaunting a neon orange dress. She smiled at us when we walked in. The art studio eventually got a bit too crowded as the event was open to the public.

El-Khoury performs art in which the audience is made to live through any given experience mostly pertaining to ethical and political encounters. The majority of the conversation revolved around her work in Gardens Speak, an interactive sound installation containing the oral histories of ten ordinary people who were buried in Syrian gardens.

Each narrative had been carefully constructed with the friends and family members of the deceased to retell their stories as they may have recounted them. They are compiled with found audio that accounts their final moments. The audience, in groups of ten, were directed towards ten headstones each containing the story of one Syrian who had died during the uprising. The audience was then asked to dig the soil under their feet to uncover a headphone and a pillow. They were then requested to lie on the pillow as the account of one Syrian played in their headphones. El-Khoury told us that their letters built a striking contrast between what the uprising was built around versus what is happening in Syria today. I was awestruck because this was probably the closest to death that I could ever imagine coming across in my lifetime.

El-Khoury explained another live art performance in which she asked refugees to paint the hands of members in the audience without looking at them. Here, she tried to establish a connection between the audience and the refugee, hoping that somehow they would understand the struggle that the painter’s hands bear.
El-Khoury was a pleasant mixture of spice and sass; she seemed unapologetic and was very unbiased in her opinion regarding being labeled a feminist. I found myself staring at her with so much wonder, and taking in everything she had to say about the world, and how important it is for us to know about the struggle of surviving in places where it is very difficult to do so. She is an avid humanitarian, and from what it seems, she is clearly doing her part for this world. At the end of the presentation, I promised myself that I would be the first in line to watch Gardens Speak this September at Bryn Mawr. My heart was filled with hope and joy because this world still has strong, smart and sensible women like El-Khoury – what a wonderful end to the first day of the Bengali year!

Follow Tania’s blog to learn more about her work. 

Of space and belonging – Part 1

NOTE: The following serves as a personal account during my work in a refugee camp and what to me is an aftermath of genocide. Individual’s consent has been obtained prior to taking photos.

After what seemed like the longest few months ever, I went back home for winter break upon finishing my first ever semester of college! I was excited to be a part of Dhaka city again.  Two long flights and a long layover in Qatar later, I was finally home.

I have heard that the word home supposedly refers to a feeling and not always a place. While I was still getting over jet lag and was lying on my bed of roses, my country – my home – was in shambles. The most densely populated nation in Southeast Asia was facing a massive influx of people from Myanmar – our neighbouring country. There has been an ongoing genocide in Myanmar specifically targeting an ethnic Muslim group called the Rohingyas. They have been rendered stateless and have not been officially recognised by Myanmar since 1982. Originally inhabitants of Rakhine – an impoverished state in Myanmar that has lacked hygiene and basic amenities from as early as the 12th century –  the Rohingyas have had to escape due to widespread persecution by the Burmese military.

One of many Rohingyas who have fled to Bangladesh in hopes of a better future. The man in the above picture, hopes to open his own tailor shop someday.

The crisis at hand:

After Myanmar’s independence from British rule in 1948, an Act enlisting which ethnicities would receive citizenship was passed. This Act ruled out the Rohingya Muslims who were then given foreign identity cards which hindered them from pursuing proper jobs. Many Rohingyas lacked proper documentation of being present in Myanmar before 1948 as a result of which, their presence in the land was questioned and several crackdowns were carried out in order to eliminate them from the face of  Myanmar.

However, it was not until mid-2017 that the persecution took its toll and gained international attention. On 25th August, Rohingya insurgents armed with knives and homemade bombs attacked more than 30 police posts in Northern Rakhine owing to decades of communal violence and persecution carried out by the military. The Burmese troops backed by local buddhist mobs then began burning their villages and attacking the civilians.   The United Nations has termed the violence against Rohingyas to be the hallmarks of a genocide. Nearly 500,000 Rohingyas fled and thousands were trapped in the no-man’s land between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Bangladesh took immediate action and managed to set up refugee camps in order to provide a living space for the thousands of refugees that set foot into the country although most of these refugees still remain undocumented. I reached out to a program manager in a domestic NGO when I made up my mind to visit and work in one such refugee camp. I dragged my jet lagged body to Cox’s Bazar (located in the southern region of Bangladesh) five days after I landed in Dhaka. If you had asked what I thought I would see back then, I wouldn’t be able to answer you. Images depicting the refugee crisis on Doctors Without Borders Instagram page was the closest that I had gotten to the refugee crisis.

Enroute to Balukhali, D5 Rohingya Camp:

The camp that I worked in and some of the children that I taught. Most of these kids were camera shy.

For four weeks, I worked in a day care centre and taught the most wonderful group of kids English and Bangla. They’re fairly well versed in Arabic. I would also assist in translating for foreign officials who would work in the distribution of relief goods and medicine. Sometimes, I would help the doctor-in-duty keep record of the patient’s history. During one such instance, I chanced upon a 20-year-old girl. She was pregnant – said her husband had been taken away by the military as they were trying to escape. Their first child was a still birth and this was their fifth attempt at having a baby. Her face full of hope was soon replaced with tears of confusion when the doctor told her she was HIV positive. They referred to it as a “sickness” that she might pass on to her child for she did not possess the ability to understand how detrimental HIV AIDS is. The very same day, I also learned that hundreds of Rohingyas are HIV positive indicating that this is a prevalent problem in their community. I believe that I hit my breaking point that night. Let me tell you why – we live in a world where we obsess over 20-year-old celebrities getting pregnant as opposed to coming together to help this 20-year-old refugee and hundreds like her. I continued to work around diphtheria-stricken people, cried with mothers who had lost their sons, daughters who were raped and left to rot, fathers who failed to keep their promise of a better tomorrow. The living conditions in the camps are terrible and I’d fall almost once every day as I tried to tread the “stairs” to the day care. Toddlers would clutch onto the ground in an effort to climb from one piece of land to another. The huts that they reside in are primarily made of wood and plastic (see below). During monsoons, Bangladesh – especially the southern region tends to be a victim to the worst floods ever. Imagine what will happen to those plastic houses then? Imagine how it will feel to see the  life that you’re trying to rebuild, crash in front of your eyes yet again.

What now?

We are receiving help from the United Nations. Save the Children, Doctors without Borders, the Red Cross, UNICEF and so many other international humanitarian organizations. The Bangladeshi army has set up additional camps to be able to provide a living space for the thousands of refugees that are escaping from Myanmar. And why shouldn’t we help them? If our 147,570 km of land can support 163 million lives, surely we can support 700,000 more.

This experience changed me. I don’t know if it’s for the better or the worse. Surely my belief in humanity was initially tarnished only to be rekindled again by the passion for mankind that every single aid worker in the camps possess. But my real question to you is – when, if ever, will we learn?
Continue reading “Of space and belonging – Part 1”

The Body Project

As a freshman in college, one may find it quite difficult to find their “people.” For me, it was no different. It was the first time that I had set foot on America and it was also the first time that I was present in a community that was so accepting of its members. I grew up surrounded by the “thin ideal.” Simply put, you had to have fair skin, be just the right amount of curvy with sleek straight hair and pearly whites. I was repeatedly reminded of my flaws and spent a fair amount of time struggling to accept my body. Eventually, that got into the way of my relationships with my friends and family because we were all victims of this supposed thin ideal and failed to recognize the individuality that we all encompassed.

I started feeling more comfortable in my own skin here at Bryn Mawr because I stopped hearing comments regarding how much weight I gained since the last time individual X saw me. I let my walls come down and managed to connect with my inner self for the first time ever. I was getting acquainted with a version of myself beneath all those layers. However, it wasn’t until a cold February weekend with ten of the kindest faces that I finally started to master self-acceptance.

The Bryn Mawr Body Project has been Assistant Athletic Trainer Laura Kemper’s “baby project” for the past three years, and is comprised of approximately thirty peer leaders. An email from her seeking applications for peer leaders for the Body Project served as the key to my new world. I submitted my application and was initially fairly nervous because I had just put that uncomfortable aspect of my being on paper. I never felt so exposed before. The day I heard back from the Body Image Council, I was over the moon. My story was finally heard by someone and they were willing to give me a chance.

Pictured – Peer leader training, 2018

The peer leader training was divided into two extensive workshops that lasted for a weekend. Ten of us were divided into three groups that took turns facilitating each workshop scenario. We talked about the media’s portrayal of an individual’s body and how it affected us and younger generations. We let everyone else get a glimpse of the insecurities that shaped our personalities. We thought of ways to overcome statements that promoted fat talk, and lastly, we spoke of the many ways in which our own bodies fascinate us. I found myself being able to breathe oh so steadily underneath the safety of Laura, the peer-leaders and the other facilitators. I never felt so empowered before; it was extremely rewarding to see that there were people who thought the same way I did, who realized that a change was necessary if we are to become a more inclusive community, and most importantly, who appreciated my sense of humor!

Our first very official workshop was presented in Bryn Mawr’s 2018 Community Day of Learning. We were armed with our custom-made t-shirts and were ready to change stereotypical damaging notions of the body one step at a time. I found the experience nerve-racking yet humbling because it was the first time that I had to present myself to a group of people who were not the other peer leaders. Our mini workshop was a success and in the end I couldn’t help but admire the strong army of individuals who were in this fight with me. I knew that with them by my side, I could be anyone I wished to be and could choose to do whatever I wanted to do.

Pictured: The peer leaders during 2018 CDL

The Body Project’s spring workshop is coming soon – stay tuned! We will also be hosting various events around campus to give everyone an open platform to speak about body image and self-esteem issues. I am so glad that I participated in this program because it changed how I view myself. It helped me believe that despite race, skin and gender, we are all uniquely beautiful and deserve to be reminded of that every single day!