I discovered a student-run community service group here recently, and decided to participate in their Action: Piyaju-Beguni, a project aimed at distributing Ramadan iftaree food to poor kids in the city. Yesterday was the big day, and so we all met under the hot afternoon sun, on the roof of an apartment building to package all the food.
There were around 40 of us gathered, and we had planned to prepare around 500 packets. We formed an assembly line and sat around huge baskets of freshly fried goods, passing around bags until each was filled with peyaju, beguni, aloor chop, jilapi, crackers, milk, chocolate and a banana. Delicious. If it wasn’t Ramadan I probably would have snack a few into my own mouth.
It was a nice change to be amongst a group of youth my own age and at a similar stage in life, as the majority of my time spent in Bangladesh is surrounded only by family members. I’ve always been an avid volunteer in America, but this was my first time participating in a youth volunteer movement in Dhaka. We spent a couple hours together, sweating under the intense summer heat, working and chatting along the way. We shared stories about where we live and what we study, about Ramadan and Eid celebrations. I was surprised to find how much I had in common with these people, how easily we were becoming friends.
When we finally completed the packing, we split up into groups of around 10 and chosedifferent areas in the neighborhood to explore in search of little kids. Our group chose to tackle the nearby Dhanmondi Lake, the same place where Ma and I often go for walks in the early mornings. However, the scene this late afternoon was quite different from what I was accustomed to–there were few people walking on the trail, but dozens of young couples and families sitting by the edge of the lake, enjoying the shade of trees and the remaining few hours of sunlight. We noticed a few kids running about shirtless, their skin covered in dried mud, their hair brown and filled with knots. “Hey kids! Come here!” They saw us carrying huge boxes filled with bags of food, and they immediately knew. Excited, they ran to meet us as fast as their little legs could manage, yelling at others to do the same. It was so cute, seeing their faces light up into big fat grins at our sight, as if we were Santa Claus here to make all their dreams come true. Within just a few short minutes, we had amassed a train of a half dozen kids, following us as we walked along the trail in search of more. One little boy had filled his back pocket with something so heavy that his shorts were sagging, threatening to drop at any moment. “What’s in there?” I asked.
“Biryani! They were giving away biryani at New Market today!” He was wearing the face of a true winner.
“Is that where you store biryani?” I teased. “In your butt pocket?” The whole group of them starting laughing out loud, and he shyly pulled it out, relieving his outstretched shorts of the load.
We stopped at the nearest bench to put down our boxes and gave each of them their own netted bag. They looked up at us, beaming, before quickly turning their attention to the prize at hand. “What’s in here?” they wondered aloud, as they ripped open the packets to reveal the assortment we had put together just a few minutes ago.
“Where are the other kids?” we asked, and they enthusiastically gave us directions to meet their friends. We were off again, and soon found ourselves surrounded by another group of youngsters. We handed them each their own netted bag of snacks, but some were little satisfied by our gift. “I have a little brother! Won’t you give me a bag for him?”
“Tell him to come meet us,” we urged. “We can only give away one bag per person. We just don’t have enough.” Unfortunately, this did little to stop the nagging, and a few kids followed us for quite awhile repeating, “Won’t you give me a bag for my brother? Won’t you give me one for my brother?” over and over again, as they pulled on our sleeves. It got annoying, but it was also heartbreaking to see their desperation. “Doesn’t anyone have a little sister?” Rabbi (a fellow volunteer) asked, teasingly.
When I had reached the bottom of my box, a boy who looked to be around 10 ran up to me and asked for my last bag.
“Didn’t you get one already?”
“No, I promise.” He had a couple younger boys running alongside him holding bags of their own, and they agreed that their friend hadn’t gotten one yet.
“Are you sure? What if you’re lying?”
“Allah is watching, isn’t he? He’ll know if I’m lying.” I was impressed by such insightful words, coming from this kid off the streets. I smiled and handed him my last bag.
“Okay then, enjoy!”
We had been out less than an hour, and our 100+ bags were already gone. More kids ran up to meet us, but we could do little more than apologize as we revealed our empty boxes. We called volunteers who had gone to other areas and learned that they had emptied their supplies as well. Our task was complete. We walked out to the street to find rickshaws for the ride home, saying goodbye to our friends for the day and promising to meet up again at another time. I rode home with my cousin, and we chatted excitedly the whole way about what a great experience it was. I came home parched and hungrier than ever, wondering what was for iftaar tonight.