Part 1 – 2008

I spent 3 weeks on a fact finding mission in Bangladesh on the invitation of Dr Jishumoy Dev (March/April 08) seeing the daily life situation of local people in a third world country. According to the United Nations’ statistics Bangladesh is the poorest county in Asia. There’s no financial support from the government if you’re sick and cannot work, or for child care or if you’re disabled. I saw so many badly disfigured and disabled people dumped on the streets hoping to get a few pennies from passers-by. There are children as young as six out working every day, some of them with no family or home. The environment in the cities are incredibly shocking for the poor – housing, sanitation, clean water etc.

images of sick children

Left: A paralysed boy, asking for somebody to take care of him
Middle: A family of young children wandering the streets
Right: a little girl with burnt feet begging on the street.

I spent time with Dr Ayub Ali, Assistant Professor of Plastic Surgery at Chittagong, College and Hospital and other hospitals seeing work carried out on burns and cleft palate and lips. Burns is a huge problem mainly because most of the population is dependant on fires for cooking etc. Cleft lip / palate is more prevalent in this part of the world than any other. There’s a great deal of superstition about the condition, and because the majority of the population is illiterate and uneducated many still believe that the devil has possessed them. There were so many stories about mothers leaving their babies when they are born with the condition, the husband blaming the wife and leaving the family unsupported. Even if they are brought up loved by their families they live a life of shame and desolation being isolated, unable to find friends and later on in life unable to get work and marry. I saw many of these patients and saw them after they had been treated. The difference was astounding! I was amazed and inspired.

Picture of Dr Ayub Ali

Dr Ayub Ali (left). Electricity supply is irregular with dangerous equipment (right)

I spent most of my time with Dr Jishu Dev, a family doctor and trainee surgeon at his medical centre and in various hospitals. I discovered that most of his patients were suffering with malnutrition or diseases associated with poor hygiene. Some couldn’t afford the few pennies needed to see the doctor, and invariably Dr Jishu would pay the fees himself and much of the time he would also pay for further treatment. Naturally, I tried to contribute before he had a chance to open his wallet. After all I could afford it much easier on a teacher’s pension than his pathetic 20 GBP per week wages.

Dr Jishu with a patient

Dr Jishu with a patient

During my time there I became friends with members of the socialist party of Bangladesh. They were mainly students from the Chittagong University. Many evenings I was asked to visit their centre to be questioned about life in the West and to talk politics. All of them had joined because they were seeking a way of helping their fellow-countrymen. They took me on numerous trips to see their work in the community. They even asked me to entertain the children on their New Years Day celebrations on a borrowed keyboard. When I arrived at the theatre there were 2,000 people present! They were very appreciative – out of pity I suspect.

As I was leaving I thanked Dr Jishu (Jesus) for his kindness and the unforgettable experiences he had given me. I said that if I could help in any way I would do my best. He jumped on the offer, and that was the beginning of BanglaCymru.

House in Bangladesh

Typical house in Chittagong

After arriving back home in Wales I invited friends to become trustees and started writing to all our friends. The response was mainly positive and money started coming in. Bank mandates were invaluable because we were guaranteed a sum every month and could plan ahead more easily. We naturally elected Dr Jishu medical co-ordinator which meant that for every BanglaCymru event in Bangladesh he would create a medical team, hire a hospital for a week and invite patients.

Part 2 – 2008

In November 08 BanglaCymru started on its work. I travelled back to Bangladesh. We had agreed on 14 operations. Dr Jishu had invited Bangladesh’s most eminent surgeon on the cleft condition, Dr AJM Salek to be chief surgeon for the work and he had agreed. He invited me to a ‘cleft camp’ sponsored by an international bank in a remote part of Bangladesh. This was a method of reaching cleft patients who by and large would never have an opportunity to be treated. He hoped that this would be a learning experience for me for BanglaCymru to arrange such campaigns in future. I travelled down the Ganges overnight with his medical team and equipment and reached a town by the name of Borishal where an agent of the medical team had previously been round the neighbouring villages with picture posters and rickshaws with loudspeakers to inform the population of the treatment on offer. We had expected to treat about 50 patients. We saw so many horrifically disfigured children and young people and babies dying because they couldn’t suck any nourishment because of their cleft condition and people who had been treated very badly by untrained local medical people and some who had even been with witch doctors! At the end of our period at Borishal a hundred and fifty patients had arrived. Six of them had travelled very, very far, and Dr Salek offered them money to travel further to Dhaka where BanglaCymru was going to do it work the following week. I agreed to fund the extra patients immediately. The medical team worked from early morning till late night every day. It was an invaluable experience for me.

DR AJM Salek picture

Dr AJM Salek

Back in the slums of Dhaka the first day of BanglaCymru had come. I arrived at the South View hospital to find a big BanglaCymru banner at the entrance to the hospital. There awaiting us were most of the patients. I came to know so many of the patients during the week.

The first BanglaCymru patient was a little girl by the name of Kamrun. She had been previously treated for a cleft lip by Dr Salek and she was here this time to have her cleft palate treated. I noticed her father was also suffering with a serious cleft lip. I asked him if he would like to have the treatment himself. He told me that he agreed to be treatment when Kamrun had her lip repaired but god had given him a sign that he shouldn’t have the treatment. When asked how he had received the sign he said that he started shaking on the way to the theatre! Thankfully, he was willing for his little girl to be treated.

Picture of patient

Kamrun, BanglaCymru’s first patient with her father.

Another patient was Taslima, a badly disfigured 18 yr old girl. When she went back to her clothing factory the following her consultation with us, she was told that if she missed more work to go for treatment she would lose her job. Despite this she arrived the following morning, had her operation, lost her job but was given a new one by Dr Salek cleaning the hospital.

The story that really touched me was the story of Manu, an 18 year old young man. He lived in a very remote part of Bangladesh, far from Dhaka. His mother had recently died, his father had remarried and the new stepmother had thrown him out because she thought that the devil had possessed Manu because of his serious cleft lip. He decided to travel all the way to Dhaka where he knew he had two families of relatives living. When he arrived at the front door of the first house and explained who he was the door was shut in his face. The same happened at the second house. He then found a job looking after the gates of a block of flats, and it was there he lived and worked. One day one of the residents of the flats saw a BanglaCymru advert in the local newspaper, told him about the offer and brought Manu to the hospital. Manu had never been to a hospital before. He was very nervous. After the operation the man from the flats came to see him and told me his story. I was really touched and gave him 15 GBP (fortnight’s salary) so he could have a bed and keep himself safe and clean after his surgery. After four days Manu came back to have his stitches removed. He didn’t understand this medical concept, so he was exceptionally nervous. His mouth was shaking so much that the doctor found it difficult to take the stitches out. I was called to calm him down, and he asked me, a brave young man, to hold his hand! A few days later I received a message from the resident of the flat to say that Manu had disappeared! Thankfully, there’s a happy end to the story. Manu called him a few days later to say that he had called his father after the surgery, and mostly because of curiosity invited his son back. They were all amazed with his new face and his father arranged a room for him, and now he’s back in his own community looking normal and looking forward to a normal life.

Picture of patient

Manu, with a cleft lip on the left. On the right is a picture if Manu the day after his surgery

Back in Dhaka there was great haste in South View Hospital. I was in and out of the theatre witnessing all the operations and trying to comfort some of the young ones as they came into the theatre. Some of them showed incredible courage when they jumped onto the operating table and watched as the needle went into the back of their hands to start the procedures. The changes to their faces for those who had operations on their lips were astounding even a few hours after surgery. It was only four days after that they all came to have their stitches out and one could see the beginnings of genuine and grateful smiles on their faces. They all went home with a Welsh dragon flag.

There were, however a few disappointments. Having spent so much time persuading the BanglaCymru bank officials to release the 2,400 GBP I had sent electronically ( in Bangladesh when a ‘large’ amount of money is transferred there’s a suspicion that it might be terrorists’ money laundering) , when it was finally released it’s worth went down to about 2,050 GBP. This was due to the depreciation of the pound. However, one day when the pound recovers the sums transferred will be much more favourable. There was another disappointment, when, during the BanglaCymru week in Dhaka a mother brought her sons to us. They were born without noses. I will never forget the disappointment on her face when Dr Salek told her that nothing could be done to help them.

After arriving home, however there was joyful news awaiting me. Bethlehem chapel, Gwaelod y Garth had decided to adopt BanglaCymru as their charity for the year, Clwb y Bont and the Globetrotters cricket teams had raised a considerable amount of money with their sponsored game, more schools had raised money and the monthly income from donor’s bank mandates had reached 500 GBP and, after considerable anxiety BanglaCymru was officially registered with the Charity Commission. Things are certainly looking up!