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Dispatch from Bangladesh: With Nothing Here, Still Children Come

Many of the children spent the night of the cyclone on what is called a "talla," or a man-made hill, just under a mile from the school. Photo by Debasish Shom for CRS

Many of the children spent the night of the cyclone on what is called a “talla,” or a man-made hill, just under a mile from the school. Photo by Debasish Shom for CRS

Caroline Brennan, CRS’ regional information officer for South Asia, sends this dispatch from Bangladesh:

It may be hard to believe, but a certain mound of dirt in the Bangladeshi village of Tiakhali is special. It’s not for any historical significance and, should you make it here — which requires six ferries round-trip and a tractor ride through mustard-yellow rice fields — you may start to wonder if it was worth the hike. But, after stretching your legs and being generously offered a fresh coconut, you’ll turn around to see why it is.

Standing on top of this dirt mound are about 100 elementary-school children, who see this muddy swath as nothing less than their school. While most of us might hone in on the empty space where walls and a roof should be, or the missing desks, chairs and chalkboard, the students and teachers stand defiantly in the space of what Cyclone Sidr pulled to pieces one night in November. They have exams, they say; the cyclone should have thought better.

The view on all sides feels like a tropical twin of Kansas: it is flat country. Bangladesh is so flat that most of its land mass is less than four feet above sea level; with sea levels rising, the country’s population density is one of the highest in the world. (Imagine roughly half the U.S. population — 140 million people — squeezed into the state of Wisconsin.) Finding places of high ground during a flood is not easy or, in some places, possible. In villages like Tiakhali, these places have to be made by hand and are known as tallas (man-made hills), where people or animals can flee when waters start to rise.

Cyclone-damaged school building in Tiakhali Village, Bangladesh. Photo by Debasish Shom for CRS

Cyclone-damaged school building in Tiakhali Village, Bangladesh. Photo by Debasish Shom for CRS

Most of the children at Tiakhali Primary School spent the night of the cyclone on their local talla. They covered themselves with shawls but otherwise were exposed to the storm’s 96 MPH winds and slicing rains. With rivers in the east and west, they watched as the waters rose closer to their uncovered feet.

“That night I thought that maybe I would die. The next morning I just washed my face and saw what had happened. I saw that houses were broken and then I came here and I saw that the schoolhouse was gone. I thought that, with the schoolhouse broken, now we cannot read,” says Iqbal MdIbraham, 9, a student.

But Cyclone Sidr had poor timing; examinations were scheduled for the next week and the students and teachers had put in too much effort to not show it off.

“We decided to put the school back together because of our examination. It took five days. As people were busy rebuilding their own homes, they came at different points in the day to offer help at the school,” said Tiakhali schoolteacher Md Adur Rajak, 31.

People within the community used the debris in the fields to make a temporary structure just opposite the original school.

“We had almost everything except for nails, which we had to purchase. I then informed the parents that we will resume study preparation for exams,” said Rajak.

The temporary structure looks homemade, on par with an after-school project: the corrugated sheets lean at awkward angles; the wooden sticks for walls leave holes larger than the spaces covered; and two classrooms share one space with no divider, their chalkboard hanging by a rope. But, it is impressive in making their point. The local government has allowed this school and others similarly wiped out by the cyclone to take their exams on the 26th of December. The children of Tiakhali will be ready.

Students and teachers of the Tiakhali Primary School. Photo by Debasish Shom for CRS

Students and teachers of the Tiakhali Primary School. Photo by Debasish Shom for CRS

“Nothing is here, but still children are coming. We will continue, we will not stop,” said Rajak.

Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Bangladesh are planning to help communities rebuild more than 30 schools that, today, are barely foundations, piles of material where desks, chairs and students should be. With the next semester starting in January, plans will start with transitional structures until more permanent ones can be built.

For the Tiakhali students, one of the first items on their agenda after exams and the cold season is finding a way to build that permanent school, one that can provide greater protection from the elements — one that won’t break. And, if all goes as planned, it will be on same plot of ground where the children remain standing.

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