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Poverty is Poverty and Smiles are Smiles

July 22, 2010

One of the few older girls performed a traditional dance for us.

This trip has been one of the most humbling and eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had – and we are only a little more than halfway through the trip. I have seen poverty I knew existed but never thought I would see firsthand. In the village, we stopped at Grameen borrowers homes, where they welcomed us into a tiny tin structure that housed a bed and a few personal items, sometimes other furniture such as sofas and chairs, a TV if they were lucky. They borrowed chairs from neighbors so we would have a place to sit and offered us tea and the only food they had (we always politely refused). They were willing to give us everything they had for the day because we were in their country, their home, and because we were guests.

In the city, we drive through the streets of Dhaka and see tiny storefronts that look like shacks, but they are people’s businesses – successful businesses. Rickshaw drivers spend their day pedaling through the streets of Dhaka with massive loads of goods, construction materials, chickens or just people, just to make a meager living to support them and their families. However, today I think was the most eye-opening experience of them all – today we visited Padakhep – an urban replication program of Grameen Bank.

Padakhep is essentially an urban Grameen Bank and provides micro-loans to poor people in both urban and rural areas of Bangladesh. We visited a young woman who makes a 10,000 taka profit each month selling jewelry and cosmetics. She lives in a 10-foot by 10-foot room with her husband and children.  She started her center two years ago after speaking with a friend in another neighborhood. She is a very successful businesswoman that would not have been possible without the loan from Padakhep.

After visiting this woman, we went to a bank branch where Padakhep has a youth drop inn center for at-risk youth. The drop inn center is for children between the ages of 8 and 18; the average age being eight. Some do go to a formal school, but many do not, they rely on the informal schooling provided by Padakhep which includes life skills and a trade – such as tailoring. This helps to ensure that they are equipped with some skill when they turn 18 and have at least some chance of success as an adult.

The Padakhep drop inn center has the capacity of 40 children and currently has 35 that use the service during the day and 25 that stay there all night. Ten or so will go home to their families at night, the other 25 that stay the night – they are abandoned street children. They have no families and are the most at-risk. Without Padakhep they would be begging on the street. Have you seen Slumdog Millionaire? In speaking with one of our interpreters in the village, he explained that the begging schemes seen in the movie are very real and that the children begging on the street are often entrenched in a begging scheme.

Two boys at the Padakhep drop inn center for at-risk youth

This is not the women and children shelters we think of in the United States, there are no adults other than staff, no beds, few toys. The children here sleep on mats on the floor at night. I’m not trying to make a women and children shelter sound glamorous, they aren’t; they provide the basic necessities for families as they find a path out of homelessness – shelter, food, support services, etc.

But through all the crap that is homelessness, smiles are smiles. When I visit a women and children shelter in Cincinnati, there are often no shortages of smiles. Kids are kids, even in bad situations, kids will be kids; they will play, they will run, they will use their imagination to entertain themselves. The Padakhep drop inn center was no different, the children sang songs for us, danced and preformed a skit. As we left, the children taught us a new handshake and we taught them hi-fives. Smiles when we arrived, smiles when we left.

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