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A saga of four decades

December 16, 2011

 Forty years pass in a blink of an eye, in retrospect. In reality, a lot can transpire in this time frame: wars are lost and won; countries form or perish; revolutions ferment and inventions are actualized. In a parallel universe though, life can take a different course. For the Bihairs stranded in the camps of Bangladesh, time has stood still since four decades ago and little has happened to put their lives on an upward trajectory. The 16th of December 2011 marks forty years to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. The liberation war led to thousands of casualties and a great loss of lives. The Biharis though lost more than that; for them, the 16th of December permanently branded them as traitors and an ill-fated group.  It marks the day when they lost their identities, their possessions and their dignity.  Originally from the Indian state of Bihar, The Biharis paid a steep price for siding with West Pakistan during the war between East and West Pakistan in 1971. Out of the half a million or so Biharis who registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Pakistan accepted the repatriation of approximately 173,000  of these people.  The rest remained unclaimed by either Pakistan or Bangladesh and were left to languish in the slums in which they were granted temporary shelter.

At present, about 300,000 of this decrepit population lives in around sixty-six camps dispersed across Bangladesh. The living conditions in these camps are harrowing. Children with bellies distended from malnutrition, open and overflowing sewers and a filthy community bathroom used by countless people, dot the landscape of the camps. Families of 5 or 6 reside in a single, cramped space made of tin and bamboo which serves as a place to eat, cook and sleep; they have no access to clean water, health facilities or education. Disease, illiteracy and abject poverty plague and mar their lives.

While nonprofits of all size and origin continue to extend a helping hand to afflicted people around the world, the Biharis attracted some attention initially but were forsaken by most at a later time.  In 2004, Anwar Khan, a resident of Indianapolis, in the US, formed a non-profit, OBAT Helpers, with a mission to improve the lives of the Biharis/ stranded Pakistanis. He stepped forward to help them after reading a report and visiting the camps with the intention to adopt a family. Once there, Anwar Khan realized that the amount in his pocket was not enough to address the scale and magnitude of the suffering he witnessed. He saw ragamuffin school-aged children playing perilously close to open sewers, rampant sickness, death and disease, extreme poverty and no hope of a better future in the eyes of the elders. He made a decision then to come back and do something to take them out of their misery. His nonprofit, OBAT Helpers is the only organization in the United States which exists with the mission to rebuild the lives of the stranded Pakistanis, to fulfill their basic needs; to educate them and provide them with health care; and to provide income earning opportunities which would lead to their financial self-sufficiency.

 Although the organization’s office is in Indianapolis, it has a fully equipped staff in Bangladesh. The President, Anwar Khan, spends two weeks in December every year in Bangladesh, monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of OBAT’s programs, lending expertise or simply lending an ear- listening to and solving the problems of the slum’s residents.

 The organization has crossed several milestones since its inception. It now runs seven schools, health clinics, tutoring and computer training centers and a microfinance program.  It also provides assistance to needy families as well as disaster relief in case of natural disasters like floods or earthquakes. Altogether, these programs have improved the lives of hundreds of people- all because of a simple act of humanity. Once forgotten, these people have been brought back to life by a compassionate individual.

 The magnitude of this problem however is so severe that one person alone cannot do enough to address its scale. Four decades later, the questions remain unresolved. Why do the Biharis stay stranded and forgotten? When will the governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh wake up from their stupor and take action to rebuild the lives of these people who fell victim to their callousness? The residents of the camp still exist in a cloud of uncertainty. While we help global organizations combat poverty elsewhere, why don’t we illuminate the future of these 300,000 people with hope?

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