DDM Members Demonstrate Compassion in Bangladesh
The Ganges-Brahmaputra river system in Bangladesh is the largest river delta in the world, and most of the country has been formed over the river system's sediment plain. This unique geographic feature is prone to regular flooding, making life, especially for poor people, susceptible to the effects of natural disasters.
In mid-November 2007, nearly two thousand lives were lost and over six million people were affected by such a disaster when southern Bangladesh was struck by Cyclone Sidr, resulting in widespread and devastating flooding.
I was soon advised by the Dharma Drum Social Welfare and Charity Foundation to team up with Hao-Taso Lee and Chin-Hsiung Chung to provide assistance to those people affected in Bangladesh. Our mission was to distribute 3,000 relief bags to benefit more than 5,000 people, and to provide spiritual counseling to the poor of southern Bangladesh, in the period between 12 and 21 December 2007.
I am pleased to report that our mission was successful due to the simple spirit of co-operation to spread the compassion of DDM and Venerable Master Sheng Yen.
Before our departure, I knew that the challenges we faced would be greater than any other humanitarian task that I had been through in the past. In Bangladesh, 90 percent of the population are followers of the Islamic faith, with cultural norms far from my experience and understanding. While I was there, I observed that the nation is still struggling with low literacy, poor public facilities, poor public hygiene, and inequities between the rich and the poor. These factors, compounded by the severe impact of the cyclone and flooding, made this mission challenging but ultimately most rewarding in furthering the blessings of the Dharma, Venerable Master Sheng Yen and Venerable Guo Dong (the Abbot President).
We arrived in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, around midnight on 12 December 2007. Our first task was to organize the procurement, packing and transporting of 3,000 relief materials to those cyclone hit victims as soon as possible. We lodged at the apartment of Jeff Yang (Yao-Jie Yang), a senior member of the DDM Dharma Upholder Society in Taiwan, who has been managing a textiles factory in Dhaka for almost 18 years.
The logistic tasks of procuring, packing and transporting relief materials went smoothly, thanks mainly to Taiwan's representative in Dhaka, Wen-Yan Chen, and Gonoshasthaya Kendra (GK), one of Bangladesh's humanitarian institutions.
Thanks to the assistance and advice of representative Chen and Jeff, we punctually boarded a southbound ferry to reach the heart of the devastation, instead of driving on the small and congested bumpy roads that were under enormous strain.
We were fortunate to sleep on warm beds in the compartment on the top deck of the ferry, whilst poor passengers and children were crowded into the lower decks with livestock. I felt sad and powerless to watch the poor lie on a filthy and greasy ground, exposed to the ear-piercing noise generated by the engine and a chilly wind. We were told that the poor receive little respect in this country and not for the first time, I observed that life can be cruel. In witnessing this scene, Venerable Master Sheng Yen's words suddenly came into my mind, "We should cherish and appreciate what we have at present".
Following 18 hours of sailing on the river system, we finally arrived at Taltali, one of the villages in the south hit by the cyclone. Taltali has approximately 2,000 inhabitants whose ancestors originally emigrated from Myanmar. We found the Taltali locals, who are mainly Buddhists, amiable and pure in nature and we were thankful for receiving warm hospitality upon our arrival.
During our two-day visit, I was impressed by the people of Taltali's long-term dedication to preserve their unique culture and Buddhist heritage amidst Islamic surroundings. However, the community leader Mr Maung Khain Hla advised us that it is a crucial time for the community who are facing systemic persecution and discrimination by the authorities. Mr Hla expressed the communities' anxiety that they may some day be forced to leave this area and that their way of life and culture may be extinguished.
We gave as much support as possible in this crucial period of this people's history and introduced the ideas of Dharma Drum Mountain and of Venerable Master Sheng Yen with DDM's English brochures. The leaders of the community appreciated this gesture and gave our counsel and the brochures their warmest attention with joined palms. "Don't be frustrated…the Dharma will nurture your wisdom so that you will find the way out," I encouraged.
Because of Gonoshasthaya Kendra's (GK), effort, 500 relief bags, including 12 kilograms of cooking rice, 1 kilogram of table salt and 1 kilogram of lithnel grain, arrived on time and were stored at the community center of Taltali, after nearly 14 hours of transportation by river from Dhaka.
On the 18th December, the distribution of the relief materials was completed smoothly at Taltal. Most people came to the center barefoot, with some having walked with children for over two hours from nearby communities. Although they were joyful and expressed their gratitude with joined palms, I asked how they would survive when the relief materials had been exhausted. The people gave me no answer to this question, with only anxiety and hopelessness appearing on their faces.
On the 19th December, we came to the second station, Balitali, an impoverished district consisting of Islamic communities approximately a half day road trip from Taltal. Our task here after surveying the remote and rural areas with local humanitarian volunteers was to distribute 1,800 bags for the Balitali, Noltona, Badorkhali and Dhalua communities.
Standing at the door, we gave our sincerest blessings to the local people with joined palms. It was touching to witness that compassion really can break down any racial and religious barriers in people's hearts. Every Muslim recipient gradually learned to join their palms to express their gratitude in return. "This is a pure land on earth," I said joyfully to myself and my teammates.
Returning to Taipei on the 21st December, I could not wait to take a hot and comfortable bath, yet my mind was not at peace as I recalled those poor victims of the flooding in southern Bangladesh. There is no doubt that the material poor face huge challenges in Bangladesh. I observed remote river islands that are home to several million of the poorest people who can be made to relocate their homes five times in a generation due to erosion, and who remain constantly threatened to ongoing climate change.
In summary, I believe "the world isn't flat" in terms of economic development and we can easily forget the great inequity that exists among people. In fact, our mission to Bangladesh stressed to me that this is the world that needs every one of us to truly pay attention to global issues such as poverty, AIDS, climate warming, pollution and human rights. We must continue to live our life with the understanding that "compassion" inside can help our fellow beings find the best solution.
(Reported and photos taken by Jin Yang/edited by DDM Australia Editing Team)