Let’s take a walk…to Bhola’s Garden, the home of Bhola’s Children, an orphanage for children with disabilities in Bhola Island in the Bay of Bengal. This is no ordinary walk, this is one that takes you to somewhere truly unique and awe-inspiring. A place where everyone has a role, a place of value, a family, a home, a sense of dignity and self-respect, a community, a school, indeed a sanctuary. Each morning Anne and I would take this magnificent walk into the Boundary.
There we would be greeted by a large extended family of excitable children and the man who makes this place of wonder possible…Howlander Muhammad Akkel Ali, but known to us as Ali Bhai. (bhai meaning “brother”)
Every child who calls the Boundary home has a story to tell. Agimony, the young woman on the left had just arrived at the Orphanage during my trip. Agimony was ostracised from her family due to her skin condition. She had no other form of disability however was forced by her family to sit on the roadside and sell peanuts to earn some money. Ali offered Agimony a place at the orphanage and within a short space of time she settled in and had discovered herself a great caregiver, seamstress and support in the gardens. Here she would be part of a family, and learn the skills to support her independence. Mamoom, a beautiful, quiet young boy suffers from river blindness, a horribly common condition suffered my many living in developing nations and is caused by a parasitic disease that causes blindness.
Surma, a wife and mother yet one who bears the scars of her fight for freedom as a young teenager. At the age of 13, Surma was being forced to marry a man more than 3 times her age. Surma did not wish to be the wife of this man, so ran away. Shortly after running away Surma became the victim of a horrific acid throwing attack where members of this man’s family doused her with acid, burning her face, right hand side of her body and left her in need of surgery and care. Ali gave Surma a place to live, recover and heal. Surma is now married and this is her with her son Babu (baby). She will continue to bear the scars of this attack however she has found a family of acceptance and opportunity and has recently bought some land close to the orphanage to build a home and grow crops.
Above is the girls dormitory as it was during my first visit in 2008. Things have changed dramatically in the last 4 years as Bhola’s Children charity have supported the development of Ali ‘s vision for the children who call this place home. New dormitories, staff quarters, guest accommodation, workshops and land for planting and harvesting are all positive developments within the beloved boundary. But the greatest story is not in the children’s past but in their present as they live, learn, work and play in this remarkable place.
As I said at the beginning, everyone has a role, a place and they do it with joy and a serious lack of complaining! Many of the girls are involved in embroidering (salwar kameez, wall hangings, quilts etc) and these are often sold to raise funds for the boundary. Ali works tirelessly with children and here he offered an assessment to a young boy who has travelled for half a day at the cost of 35 taka (a day’s wages) and who suffers from cerebral palsy. His family cannot afford to make the regular trip to Bhola for treatment, these are the circumstances of many of the families we meet. I offer to give the young man some basic massage/exercises and use the opportunity to show one of the teachers some basic skills that can be used with children with physical disabilities within the boundary.
Montu, a member of staff manages the younger boys in the workshop. The boys make tables, chairs, other furniture and assistive devices for children with disabilities. Again these are sold outwith the Boundary and often as far afield as schools in Dhaka city.
Much of the food the children eat is grown within the boundary and again the children all play a role in the planting, tending, harvesting and preparation of the produce. I am only glad I didn’t have to try and prep the vegetables!!! The children and staff may have been waiting some time!
So there is a tiny peak behind the blue and yellow gates of the Bhola’s Garden, a very special place indeed, ironically known as the Boundary, it feels like a place that has limitless possibility for the children who call it home. Let’s hope it’s not too long until those imposing gates squeak open again as my rickshaw pulls in to the sights and sounds of this gleeful family.
If you would like to support the work of Bhola’s Children you can do so by purchasing a copy of Anne’s book – A Blonde Benghali Wife which is a brilliantly funny read about her early experiences of visiting Bangladesh. All proceeds to to the Orphanage or alternatively you can donate by making contact via the charity Bhola’s Children.