|© UNICEF Bangladesh/2011/Mawa|
|Renowned ballet dancer Kledi Kadiu plays with children in a UNICEF-supported safe space at Srinagar North Primary School in the Dakop sub-district of Khulna, Bangladesh.|
By Arifa S. Sharmin
KHULNA DISTRICT, Bangladesh, 2 June 2011 – It was midday when the speedboat carrying UNICEF Italy Ambassador Kledi Kadiu and his team reached the embankment of Srinagar village in the Dakop sub-district of Khulna, Bangladesh.
Srinagar was one of the villages hardest hit by Cyclone Aila in May 2009. The village was submerged in knee-deep water for two years after its main embankment was washed away during the cyclone. Mr. Kadiu, a renowned ballet dancer, visited Srinagar to witness UNICEF’s work in other cyclone-affected areas of Bangladesh first-hand.
Alia’s harsh legacy
Two years after Cyclone Aila hit, many villagers still live on the embankment – irrespective of class or cast, wealth or status – in makeshift homes constructed from plastic and bamboo. And due to the salinity of the soil in the flooded area, crops have faltered. On land where once three crops a year could be produced, vegetation barely grew. People lived hand to mouth.
|© UNICEF Bangladesh/2011/Mawa|
|Jasmin, 25, with her son, Naim, 4, after spending hours fishing to feed their five-person household in Bangladesh's cyclone-affected Khulna district.|
On the way to a UNICEF-supported ‘safe space’ for children at Srinagar North Primary School, Mr. Kadiu met a young mother named Jasmin and her son Naim, 4, who were returning from fishing to feed their family of five. “After spending three hours in the river, we were able to catch only these four or five small fish, not enough for a one-person meal,” said Jasmin, as Naim proudly displayed the fish he had helped catch.
Jasmin’s house was washed away during Cyclone Alia, and she now lives on the embankment with her husband and children. In this area alone, some 40,000 people were affected by the cyclone. Two years later, few of them have been able to return to their homes or build new ones.
‘People are struggling’
Taposhi, another local mother, also lives on the embankment with her family in a small house made of plastic. The gold chain around her neck, her earrings and bracelets show that she once belonged to a middle-class family. Now they live each day as it comes.
“After cyclone Aila, we survived on the relief hand-outs provided by the government and others. The most difficult part was collecting drinking water because the ponds and other water sources were contaminated with seawater,” she told Mr. Kadiu.
“Life is so difficult here,” he said in conversation with the local villagers. “People are struggling every day to survive.”
Safe space for children
In the midst of such hardship, the children of Srinagar village get some breathing space at the safe space, which opened soon after Cyclone Aila struck. Three rooms on the first floor of the village school have been dedicated as an area where children play and learn basic life skills.
|© UNICEF Bangladesh/2011/Jannatul Mawa|
|UNICEF Ambassador Kledi Kadiu on his way to a visit Srinagar North Primary School in Bangladesh.|
When Mr. Kadiu reached the school, he was greeted with flowers, songs and a dance performance. Among the dancers was Urmi, 10, a third-grade student who learned to sing and dance at the safe space. She still remembers the day when she took refuge with her parents in the cyclone shelter.
“It was raining and water got inside our home,” recalled Urmi. “My father grabbed me and ran for a safe shelter. The wind was so strong, it felt like it would blow us all away. Since then, we’ve been living on the embankment.”
Breaking down barriers
Surrounded by children, Mr. Kadiu moved from one room to another, mingling with the boys and girls, playing football and showing them the pictures he had taken with his camera. Age and language were no barriers, as he and the children communicated through the universal language of friendship.
“What impresses me is that despite such a hard life, the children are always happy and full of life,” said Mr. Kadiu, seated among a group of children with a little one on his lap.
The safe space plays an important role helping children like Urmi overcome depression and establish a sense of normalcy in the aftermath of the 2009 disaster. Every day, more 90 cyclone-affected children come to the space, which supports education for all in Srinagar.
“Because of this safe space, the school attendance rate has increased significantly as children are motivated to come to the school,” said the headmaster of the school. “Around 95 per cent of children are regularly attending the school now.”