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In the Bangladesh slums, building leaders not extremists

Alaka Dhara Halder
Alaka Dhara Halder is a graduate of the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center and a member of Princeton University's Class of 2014.

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The young rickshaw-puller had shooed me away just five minutes earlier, coarsely calling me "another of those NGO workers." Now I watched him warm to my colleague Muhib's kind smile and easy, persistent way of empathizing. I realized I had to change my approach when talking to men in the slums; the kind of small-talk that gained the women's trust would fall flat, and if I sensed any sexist sentiments I'd have to let Muhib take over.

Most people would be wary of Muhib, a bearded boy in a yellow taqiyah (the rounded cap worn by Muslim men.) After all, he was a Madrassa student in a country that had been rocked by brutal attacks by Islamist terrorists over the past few years. Bangladesh's Madrassas, which base their education around the Islam's holy book, the Qur'an, are home to the poorest, most marginalized students, some of whom are driven to crime and terrorism by the hopelessness of poverty and a myopic viewpoint born of a lack of exposure.

But I had come to know Muhib through a training program at the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center, and I learned he was not someone to fear. I saw his intelligence and good nature.

Having studied in Bangladesh's British education system, I'd never met a Madrassa student before. English-medium students like myself mostly come from the upper classes and are seen as Westernized snob who have no interest in their own country. Our segregated education system allows us little interaction with people from different backgrounds until university. By then, our youth have already been divided by stubborn social prejudices.

Such generalizations are dangerous. Like many developing countries, Bangladesh is plagued by corrupt politics that keeps power in the grip of a select few, and communal tensions have escalated.

The idea behind the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center is to bring together a diverse group of bright young people from all three educational systems -- English-medium, Bangla-medium and Madrassas -- and train them to be leaders who can work together and implement sustainable projects for communities in need.

For us graduates of the center's training program, the journey has been life-changing. I remember walking into that slum last summer feeling hopeless. We 30 participants from all walks of Bangladesh life came on a shoe-string budget of $294 and two weeks to help a slum of 50 households that was precariously propped on bamboo stilts over a polluted and reeking black lake. It felt like too great a challenge. Yet by pooling our ideas, we can up with exciting solutions.

We made water filters from sand, gravel and pots. Each serves five families and cost only $5! We enrolled the needier women in embroidery classes and provided them start-up tools and materials. And yet, we were constantly grilled by locals about why we wanted to help. Were we just pretending to care like all those corrupt NGOs that sucked up millions of dollars of foreign aid? While this was hurtful to hear, I realized that they'd been let down so often that skepticism was natural.

At the end of the month, I saw how the 30 of us were a reflection of Bangladesh - its different voices, feelings and needs - and how we had so much in common. On a local and global scale, we are more interdependent than ever before. Ignoring any part of the picture means seeing more conflict, more people pushed toward extremism. "Be the change you wish to see in the world", said Mahatma Gandhi. Once, these were just words like so many others, but after my time with BYLC, they mean so much more.

By Alaka Dhara Halder

 |  June 9, 2010; 6:08 AM ET |  Category:  Personal Leadership Journey Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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