“A Culture of Service”
In the middle of the cantonment in Dhaka, near the sweltering end of July, I sat beneath a blasting air conditioner in my grandparent's apartment. And I couldn't help but remember how only days ago, sweat coated my skin as I strode across the grounds of the Center for Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed in Savar. I volunteered for several weeks at CRP in the summer of 2010, spending each day in a different department. Whether filled with activity or whiled away behind a desk, my time there taught me something about the mechanism behind not only the non-governmental organisation itself, but the evolution of its humanitarian cause. And I have come away from the experience with that much more awareness of the world reeling around me.
CRP officially began about 30 years ago in two abandoned cement warehouses outside of the Suhruwardi Hospital in Dhaka, a government institution for cardiac patients. A physiotherapist from England named Valerie Taylor had teamed up with the first physiotherapist and occupational therapist to be trained in Bangladesh in the hopes of starting an independent organization dedicated to therapeutically rehabilitating the paralyzed. At the time, physiotherapy and occupational therapy were practically nonexistent in the country.
Valerie Taylor had lived near the National Spinal Injury Hospital in the UK as a child, where she had seen the paralyzed “hop out of their cars” into wheelchairs and go about their business with relative ease. From that society, in 1969 she came to Bangladesh, where the hospitals did not even supply wheelchairs.
“While I was studying to become a physiotherapist, I happened to read three books on medical work being done in South India. I was very intrigued. I didn't have much desire to stay in the UK, but I very much wanted to go to Southeast Asia,” says Taylor. And that brought her to work for Voluntary Service Overseas at the Christian Hospital in Chandraghona, a village in what was then known as East Pakistan. She ended up staying there for three years, working in both general and leprosy hospital. Within that time she was repatriated to the UK for seven months. She came back a few weeks before the new nation, Bangladesh, was created from the ashes of East Pakistan and found patients were less than attentive to their treatments on Victory Day when the wards rang with the rapturous slogan “Joy Bangla.”
In 1975 Taylor and her colleagues went to work at Suhruwardi Hospital, where a project for vocational training and job replacement for the paralyzed was taking place. “I was shocked at the poor conditions,” says Taylor. There she met the first Bangladeshi physiotherapist and occupational therapist and with them she began to nourish an idea. “It would have been too difficult to improve the government hospital,” Taylor says, referring not only to the extent of improvements needed, but the infamous bureaucratic red tape. “So we got the idea for starting an independent center.” After waiting two years to get permission from the government and one year to secure funding, the first “CRP” opened its doors in 1979, and in one year it increased accommodation for a total of 35 patients.
The government later wanted its cement warehouses back, so as Taylor said, she and her colleagues began their “gypsy life.” After eleven years they were able to secure a 5-acre plot in Savar. And that has grown since then into a reasonably self-sufficient 12-acre compound.
I came to CRP with virtually no relevant background. As a twelfth grader, perhaps my one valuable asset was my fluency in English paired with my proficiency in Bangla. Yet on the first day that I came to tour CRP with my mother and my grandfather, I remember forgetting my fears momentarily and being impressed by the breadth of the services the organisation offered to its patients. From the metal workshop, where CRP provides its paralyzed patients with aids and wheelchairs made to order, to the Halfway Hostel, where patients would go to practice self-reliance in a carefully mimicked village home environment before they left the facilities, I was awed at how a nonprofit organisation in such a rural area could run at such a scale. And though I was still nervous at the end of the tour, I was also curious and excited to learn exactly how this centre ran.
My CRP experience began with a day in the Advocacy and Networking department, under the supervision of Zinat Ara Afroze. I sat before her desk, and after I explained exactly what I was doing at CRP, Zinat Apa gave me the task of “planning” CRP's annual Road Safety Campaign, most likely just to see what I could come up with. Once I got over my initial surprise, I sat at the computer and began typing, and within an hour and a half, I had four pages detailing an entire event. Nonetheless, Zinat Apa seemed to like it, and for the rest of the day she gave me similar assignments, such as planning CRP's Annual Sponsored Walk for an Inclusive Society. That introduced me to the fundamental goal ruling all of CRP's operations: to enable the disabled to function and be accepted in mainstream society. This first working day gave me a novel view into the creativity and thought needed to advocate the cause of any organisation. In America I was used to different fund-raisers constantly going on all around me, but I never really thought of what it took to plan these events.
Throughout my first week at CRP I worked at a number of administrative departments. My most memorable experience was going on a home visit with an outreach team from the Social Welfare department, as part of CRP's community rehabilitation programme. A fellow volunteer and I, two nurses, an intern, a community rehabilitation technician, an occupational therapist, a psychologist, and a Social Welfare department official all crammed into a CRP van and forged into some of the most rural areas of the country, beginning my first true viewing of Bangladeshi village life. We visited five patients throughout the day. I cannot erase from my mind the image of one elderly man lying on a mat in one-room clay built home. He had two pressure sores on his lower half, which patients often get from lying or sitting for hours on end. As the nurses cleaned and examined his sores, the man plaintively complained of the heat and his general suffering. The room was dark and the walls themselves seemed to perspire. Children and young women dressed in bright prints crowded at the single barred window, peering inside at the curious scene.
During my second week at CRP I spent more time in the organisation's clinical departments. I observed therapists, in their respective wards as well as in the pediatric department and Halfway Hostel. In the Halfway Hostel, I was truly impressed by the creativity invested in training the patients to become independent.
I even got the chance to work in CRP's own William and Marie Taylor Inclusive School, which serves both normal and disabled children. When I entered my first special needs classroom, I was immediately touched by the children's responsiveness, by their beaming smiles. As I sat down with them, I realised with increasing clarity that despite their problems that technically make them different from “normal” children, they are exactly that at their core: normal children. Like all children, they love to play and be just a little mischievous. Like all children they respond to nothing better than a smile, direct eye contact, and a bright tone of voice. I cannot express the satisfaction it gave me to speak to certain children and see in their eyes that they understood my Bangla, even if they had no other way of responding besides gleefully laughing and flailing their arms and legs. I loved stimulating the children just by touching their fingertips and allowing them to grip my own fingers, helping them learn to say new words they used to have trouble with. If I had not been affected by their contagious exuberance, it might have broken my heart to see them trying so hard, so indefatigably to control their spasms just so they could pick up a puzzle piece, sit up straight, or form intelligible sounds with their mouths.
It was at CRP where I was first introduced to a true “culture of service,” where volunteers and staff alike made it there duty to do as much as possible for the disabled patients. However, it is true that besides the large number of foreign volunteers, including myself, there was a notable lack of unpaid volunteers from Bangladesh in CRP.
I was struck by this, for I come from an area where kids my age fight for spots in different volunteering organisations. Granted their motives are probably not completely altruistic, but nonetheless, American kids are told from a young age that it is important to give back to the community.
My observations have led me to conclude that the people of Bangladesh are remarkably kind, hospitable, dedicated and patriotic. I believe they are completely capable of truly improving their nation's condition. However, most Bangladeshis are routinely exposed to so much suffering that the marked difference between the haves and the have-nots become a prosaic fact of life. Perhaps if Bangladeshi schools at large incorporated community service into their curriculum, the children would understand from an early age that the worst of conditions can always be improved, and that it is the duty of the fortunate to always help those in need.
I realise now how hard CRP must work to attract donors, volunteers, and staff from Bangladesh, let alone keep them. For example, CRP has cooperated with Dhaka University and Queens University, Kingston, Ontario and the University of York St. John in the UK to introduce a masters course in Rehabilitation Science to be offered at CRP. This is meant to give incentive to therapists not to leave CRP immediately after interning there. For no matter the crucial role foreign volunteers have always played in supplying CRP with free service and updated techniques, no matter the international scope they have created within the organisation, CRP is primarily a national facility that depends on national support.
“We must struggle with the fact that therapists here often call themselves doctors,” says Valerie Taylor. “Only if they stop doing that people will learn the distinction between therapists and doctors. If therapy could maybe be explained in the health sections of some newspapers, people would better understand.” Truthfully, CRP is the only organisation in all of Bangladesh that dedicates itself to therapy at such a scale.
Nonetheless, Taylor remains hopeful. “It takes a certain type of person to do the jobs people are doing here. I truly believe the nurses dressing the sores, the ward assistants and cleaners, are really special people,” she says. Perhaps if there is even a small number of these “special people” in a nation, if there are people even besides Taylor, such as the head of CRP's metal workshop, that have dedicated themselves to this organisation for its entire 30 years of operation, the potential for such service exists in Bangladesh's general population. Perhaps now all that potential hangs on is spreading the word of CRP and other similar organisations in Bangladesh. On the day I first spoke to Valerie Taylor she was off to a round table meeting to discuss the activities of CRP in Dhaka with Protom Alo, a national newspaper with a large circulation.
While I was at CRP I was introduced to a man who, like my parents, emigrated to America and raised his family there. However, he had come back to host a volunteer workshop in Sylhet, Bangladesh. He has been going to various organisations to recruit attendees, and though I could not go, I found it interesting that such consciousness was being developed in other parts of the country.
Such consciousness is one thing my time at CRP has immutably impressed within me. Before I came to work there, before I came to Bangladesh at all this year, I was painfully aware of a lack of true understanding on my part of humanitarian aid. All my life I have been privileged and surrounded by other privileged people. I have been incredibly lucky, and I have always known it, but I have never truly felt it.
This summer, I felt it when I saw the man lying on the ground with sores glaring red against his dark skin. I felt it when I hugged the special needs children who use special mobility aids. I felt it when I talked about cartoons with a boy of my little brother's age who is now in a wheelchair because a wall toppled down on him. Now I cannot forget it.
If I have ever felt duty bound to help Bangladesh, I feel much more so now. What was once an abstraction in my mind has been made concrete, bolstered by images that refuse to stop swimming before my eyes.
I must thank CRP immensely for giving me the opportunity to learn and see as much as I did in those weeks. I have grown so much, and I wonder what it will feel like when I go back home to Marietta, GA and slip back into my comfortable routine. I do hope that I will be able to spread word of CRP and its message to my friends and teachers, to impress them in some way the awareness I have newly gained. Now that I have an idea how an NGO can rise from the muddiest of grounds, how it can help in the most numerous and empowering of ways despite the many obstacles erected before it, and how everyone is capable of alleviating a fraction of the suffering in this world, I wish to foster in the heart of my community a rich, genuine “culture of service,” just as CRP has so successfully done. All the patients, staff, and volunteers I had the priceless chance to talk to, all the children I had the chance to smile at during my time at CRP, will hopefully stand witness to the blossoming of my words into actions.