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Lessons from a Bangladesh Adventure

Afiya Williams; Global Nomads Group

What I love most about my job at Global Nomads Group (GNG) is having the opportunity to regularly interact with amazing people around the world. Since GNG is a global, virtual-exchange organization, most of my connection with others happens from New York City, via technological tools like video conferencing and asynchronous chat forums in our school-based curricular programs. At different times throughout the year, though, I get to travel to places near and far. In those cherished times, I come out from behind my computer to connect face-to-face with some very dynamic young people and communities across the globe.

On my most recent adventure, I traveled to Bangladesh with a production team to create the Floating Schools video for this year’s Ocean Challenge. While there, I spent time in Dhaka, Rajshahi, and Pabna—three different locations that offered unique insights into the Bangladeshi people.

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We were there to capture the story of the Pabna community and its new floating playground, made possible by the community’s hard work and the support of Students Rebuild. The brand new floating playground, which is featured in our video, joined a fleet of over 100 boats that provide services in education, healthcare, and recreation.

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Due to changes in climate over the past several decades, Pabna experiences a 5-6 month monsoon season each year. During the monsoons, swelling rivers and intense flooding take a serious toll on daily activities; people lose access to basic services and some even lose their homes. The floods directly affect their crops, animals, and transportation systems. The boats, designed and created by architect Mohammad Rezwan and the non-profit organization Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, provide a creative solution to a substantial environmental issue, exacerbated by rising sea levels and pollution.

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I am still reflecting on my experience of a reality that is so different from my own. Though the video we made is truly captivating, its brevity only captures a snippet of the story of the people and their community. So, I thought I’d share 5 lessons I learned thoughts on this community from behind the scenes:

  1. The direct effect of climate change and ocean health on the Bangladeshi people. I know about plastic pollution and how to monitor my individual impact on the ocean, but seeing the harsh reality of the consequences of plastic use on this community inspired me to redouble my efforts. Can you imagine depending on a river for nearly everything? Can you then imagine how you might survive if that river is unhealthy, polluted and swelling? Can you imagine having your entire community flooded for months, rendering even the most basic activities of daily life nearly impossible?

  2. The commitment of the entire community. I was awestruck at the number of people involved in solving the problems of climate change as they affect the river. One architect may design the boats, but the entire village is engaged in building and repairing the boats, moving the boats along the river picking up children, teaching reading and writing to young students, leading lessons on water quality monitoring to older students, taking students on smaller boats to clean or test the water, and running floating health clinics.

  3. The excitement of youth to connect with others who are different than them. I do not speak Bangladeshi and many people in Pabna do not speak English. We still managed to communicate, either non-verbally or with the English skills that some of the young people of Bangladesh have. Youth introduced me to their siblings, told me about their teachers, pointed out cool parts of their community (like a huge beehive and the trees they most like to climb). From small children to teens, there was a braveness and curiosity that transcended language barriers.

  4. The innate interdependency of people and their habitats. Not only do the people work with the river daily, they are also continuously working with their crops and animals to sustain life for their families. The trees provide wood for the boats, the river provides fish for meals, the cows and crops provide income and the people provide care and nurturing to maintain the reciprocal relationship needed.

  5. The unexpected similarities between Bangladesh and NYC. Both places are buzzing with people and noise at every turn. And in both cities, despite how they are seen from the outside, there is a clear humanity -- kids running and playing, business owners tending to their properties and parents holding their babies and fighting for their educations and futures.

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The experience of this trip built on my firm belief in the work of Students Rebuild and Global Nomads Group. I am motivated by the stories of young people and their work to improve the world. Whether we are facing our differences or understanding our shared connection to the ocean, the message remains the same -- positive change requires all of us, working together, for the greater good. We all need to come together to reduce the threats facing humanity and our environment. We are all necessary to confront any challenge we face. As we’ve learned from exploring the ocean, no matter where you are -- you are in an interdependent relationship with the ocean and every other person on the planet. So, thinking about the people I met in Bangladesh who rely on all of us to keep the oceans clean, what is one thing you will do for the ocean?