The Words of the Byrne Family

"Discover True Friendship" Service Tour: Bangladesh

Paul Byrne
August 23, 2007
IRFF Assistant International Executive Director
Dhaka, Bangladesh

The humidity in the air was stifling, as the bricks were passed from hand to hand, down the line of volunteers to their destination -- the brand new wall of the Jaigeer Peace Center, a multi-purpose building attached to the Jaigeer School in the Manikganj District of Bangladesh. The hands that the bricks passed through belonged to a startling array of people -- American, Japanese, Nepalese and, of course, Bangladeshi. Some of the hands were tough and weathered from years of hard work.

Some were gloved to protect hands unaccustomed to handling the coarse bricks. Others were the small hands of children. Sweat dripped from each of them, as Bangladesh's summer weather lived up to its brutal reputation and tested the volunteers with its heat and humidity. But the hands did not falter, as they worked in unison to move a mountain of bricks and piece by piece, create a structure dedicated to peace and empowerment, where days before had been only an empty lot.

These hands belonged to the participants and volunteers of the 2007 Discover True Friendship Service Tour, held in the village of Jaigeer, located 30 km outside Bangladesh's capital city of Dhaka. This year's Service Tour brought participants from all over the United States together with volunteers from Bangladesh, Nepal and Japan in a service learning project that was centered on the Jaigeer School, which serves local students in grades one through five.

The mission was to build an addition to the school, in order to allow the school to serve a greater number of students. The building would also, however, be used for adult education classes, business training for microfinance program participants, character education workshops, community meetings, and as a health care clinic. It would serve the community in a myriad of ways, and be a symbol of friendship and cooperation between the people of Jaigeer and their brothers and sisters from across the globe.

The Discover True Friendship Service Tour, as its name might suggest, has multiple components and purposes to it. The main purpose of the Service Tour is to serve a community in need, which we did this year by building the addition to the Jaigeer School, installing a water pump, and laying a path from the school to the main road. For six intense days, the participants of the Service Tour, who gave up their summers to come to Jaigeer, worked side by side with local volunteers (and dozens of the students of the Jaigeer School) to accomplish these tasks.

The Peace Center -- a simple structure -- was constructed of bricks, with a sheet metal roof. The Peace Road, connecting the school to the main road to make it accessible during the rains, was also constructed of bricks, laid in sand, while the tube well was sunk 210 feet into the ground to bring fresh drinking water to the school and local community. A brick wall was also built around the pump to protect it and provide privacy to those who might use it to wash.

Although few had any sort of prior construction experience, the Service Tour participants worked hard without complaint, doing all that was asked of them on a variety of tasks. In assembly lines, they moved enormous piles of earth, sand and brick to bring them to where they were needed.

They helped to build and then plaster the walls of the school, as well as to put the roof on. They scraped the entire inside and outside of the existing building of the Jaigeer School to remove old paint and mold, then painted all of the doors and windows. They laid the bricks for the path to the road and helped in the grueling process of driving the pipes for the well deep into the ground.

It was inspiring to watch as each participant pushed themselves to serve as best they could even in difficult circumstances, all the while, having fun with each other and the countless young students who offered their help.

Through their work and their motivation, a great deal was able to be accomplished in a short time, and although the finishing details of the school were left for the professional builders, the group left with a feeling that they had contributed in a substantial and significant way to the Jaigeer Community.

After the work was finished, the Service Tour participants went on a tour of Bangladesh. They traveled around the city of Dhaka and then took a trip to Cox's Bazar, the world's longest continuous sand beach (120 km), and the major tourist attraction of Bangladesh. They were rewarded for their hard work with three days at the beach, where, despite a bit of rainy weather, they enjoyed themselves and recuperated from the work.

Throughout their time in Bangladesh, the participants engaged in another major component of the Service Tour -- learning. They learned not only about Bangladesh and its people and culture, but of the challenges it is facing as a developing country. They also met many of the amazing men and women who are finding solutions to those challenges and improving their country.

The group visited a mosque and was given an introduction to Islam, the predominant religion of Bangladesh. They also visited historic Buddhist temples. They were treated to cultural songs and performances of Bangladesh. They met with representatives from large organizations like UNICEF, and tiny organizations like SHUDHA (Support for Hungry Underprivileged Destitute Homeless and Aborigines), a school for street children that was literally started on a sidewalk.

They learned about microfinance and how it is allowing many Bangladeshis to improve their lives, then met with several families who were participating in IRFF's Microfinance Program. They had opportunities to talk with scientists, local politicians, professors and countless other people who were dedicating their lives to doing what they could to improve their country and its people.

As they visited these people and organizations, the participants began to understand Bangladesh and its situation better. They came to understand how important opportunity can be to people who have so little, and how blessed they themselves are to have so much.

The final and most important component of the Discover True Friendship Service Tour is the building of relationships and friendships between people who, on the surface, are vastly different from each other. Coming from America, our participants did not share the ethnicity, the language, the culture, or the religion of the Bangladeshi people that they met and worked with.

These differences are ones that often in our world keep people apart from each other and divide them. Yet, through their time and work in Bangladesh, the participants of the Service Tour were able to break down these barriers and establish true friendships with the people of their host country. Through shared experiences and a genuine desire to understand each other, bonds were created that crossed the divides of superficial differences and that gave everyone great hope for the possibility of a global family free from stereotypes, discrimination and xenophobia.

It is this experience of bonding with individuals that they initially thought to be so different from themselves, and of experiencing the commonality of all people that each participant will carry most deeply with them. They will remember the friendships they made, they way that they served, and the way that they were served, and will be influenced by that in the future.

They will remember all that they learned about Bangladesh and its people, and will make decisions in their life accordingly. They will remember those sweltering days in Jaigeer as well as the hands that passed the bricks to them and those that took the bricks from them. They will remember that they were part of something bigger than themselves and that the dream of all people working together and coexisting peacefully can indeed be a reality.

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