Dhaka (AsiaNews) - Nurjahan was 13 years old when she was given away in marriage by her parents. After three months of marriage her husband abandoned her, while she was two months pregnant. The family refused to take her back. This was in 2002 and in Dhaka, in a slum of the capital of Bangladesh.
Nurjahan knocked on the door of a Catholic couple who lived nearby, for help and hospitality. Dino and Rotna welcomed her home: This is how the missionary work of these lay people began, dedicated to the women and poor girls of the city. Today their apostolate is called Friends For The Poor and includes a sewing school, a production center, a literacy school and an orphanage.
Dino, whose name
means "poor thing", comes from
a very poor family from Khulna. At the time of his birth his family was in
dire straits. He knew only hunger until
he entered the minor seminary of a
religious congregation. After completing his higher studies he married Rotna, also in Khulna. The
two moved to Dhaka, where they
found work as teachers.
"The experience of hunger - says Dino - left a deep mark on me. The fact that you did not eat yesterday or today, the feeling of an empty stomach and the weakness of starvation however, are nothing compared to the anguish about the future, not know if and when you will ever eat". It is this sensitivity that drives man to show concern for the poor living in the slums, especially girls, who in a very poor society like that of Bangladesh are also the most vulnerable.
The birth of a female is considered a burden to the parents, who do not see any economic advantage in sending a child to school. Most remain illiterate and are given in marriage as soon as they reach puberty, incapable of living an "adult" life and not ready to face the demands of motherhood. The husband, as in Nurjahan's case, may prove unreliable and abandon his young wife for trivial reasons.
In first helping this girl, Dino and Rotna decide to teach her to sew and embroider: teaching her a trade will allow her to become independent and so raise her child, even alone. After Nurjahan other girls begin to arrive, and receive the same help from the couple. Dino begins to exploit its contacts - especially foreign missionaries and nuns - to try to sell the girls creations (tablecloths, linens etc.) and fund young girls upkeep. In the heart of the slum, a sewing and embroidery center was born.
The initiative is successful, Dino and Rotna open two more properties
in Rajshahi and Dinajpur, but the girls only succeed in selling their products abroad. At the suggestion of the wife of an Italian industrialist in Dhaka, to stabilize the revenue the center began to focus on dressmaking and tailoring,
a product that is more marketable
locally. The new centers soon closed, due to management
difficulties and the couple decided to concentrate on
the centre in Dhaka.
Over the years, the structure has changed location several times - because of a lack of water, or flooding problems, or because of a landlord demanding higher rent - always within the slums and thus becoming an integral part of people's lives.
At the same time, Dino and Rotna opened a literacy school. They rented a bigger premises and the first female students were the girls from the sewing center, whom they taught to read and write. Given the large number of poor and hungry girls that roam the slums, they decided to extend the teaching to younger girls. At first, to entice them to attend school, they gave each 10 kg of rice per month. However, when they realized that in many cases the food is sold by their parents to make money, the couple changed strategy: every day the offer the girls a hot meal at the school.
Thanks to his network of contacts, Dino managed to find all sorts of help for his little female students: not only money, but also teaching materials, often in English. Two teachers from the American School in the capital agree to give some lessons, with the result that these girls know English better than many peers who attend regular schools.
Today the center in the slums of Dhaka is divided into tailoring school, production center and the literacy school. There are 10 students per course at the tailoring school. Each course lasts three months. The environment is very friendly and meets the girls' needs: almost all are already mothers and it is very common to see them learning with their children by their side (see photo). Once they have mastered the craft, they usually go to work in shops that offer small tailoring repairs, or they buy a sewing machine and open their own.
The production center has a dozen workers, most of whom were the first young girls saved by Dino and Rotna. In fact it was with a promise to give them a job so they would no longer pose a burden, that many families allow these girls to study. The literacy school counts 120 girls, divided into three shifts a day.
The opening of the girls orphanage is a recent expansion for Friends For The Poor. It is located on the outskirts of Dhaka, with 25 little girls who attend schools in the area. Dino and Rotna now live here, along with their three daughters who were born in these years. In order to manage and organize all of their initiatives Dino has left teaching. A generous donor has guaranteed him a monthly salary, the same as he had received when teaching, provided he continues his work with the children of Dhaka.
Most of the girls are Muslim, but there are also Hindus, tribal and Christian. While living their faith in a conservative manner, being in a country with a Muslim majority, Dino and Rotna have never hidden their religion and everybody knows they are Catholic.