The Bangladesh Covid Quilts





These pages carry twenty personal stories of COVID from an isolated fishing community in Bangladesh that has been hit hard by the pandemic. They remind us that this global catastrophe has fallen most heavily on those who are socially and economically vulnerable.  

Making the COVID stories was a collaborative effort

The artists live on Mayadip, an island in the Meghna River. They belong to the community of River Folk, who depend for their livelihood on the river and include the River Gypsies, a sub-group that has suffered from extreme poverty and discrimination.

The embroidered stories were commissioned by AP in 2021 and produced by Subornogram, an advocacy group that has been working for River Folk since 2003. AP entered into a partnership with Subornogram in 2012 and raised funds for several floating schools.

The following year we commissioned stories for a quilt that described the Gypsies’ way of life – idyllic, but also demanding. One of the blocks, featuring a floating school, can be seen in the photo below. This quilt is profiled on this page which also carries a video on the team of quilters in Arlington Bethesda who assembled the blocks.  

The pressure on the River Gypsies intensified in 2014, when thugs invaded the island to steal sand and almost killed Shahed Kayes, the founder of Subornogram, as described in this 2021 bulletin. Shahed fled the country and was only able to return in 2019, at which point AP was able to re-engage with one of our most effective partners.

Shahed is a well-known poet and he has posted several blogs on our site. He used his first blog to celebrate Mayadip in a poem: “Red scratch of fire in sleepless eyes; On the shores of this rushing Meghna river.” The blog also describes how Shahed gave the island its name during a 2006 visit.

The 2014 quilt shows a floating school for Gypsy kids. AP raised funds for the schools

In 2021, Subornogram launched several innovative new initiatives to strengthen Mayadip’s 250 families with AP’s enthusiastic support. Our first goal was to make jobs for people who were cut off from their sources of income as daily laborers by the pandemic. With this in mind AP raised $1,000 to commission a fishing boat (also known as ‘Mayadip’).

Half of the catch goes to pay the crew and the rest supports a feeding kitchen for the poorest families on Mayadip. By the end of 2022, we hope that Subornogram will also have rented agricultural land on the mainland, where Gypsy families can grow rice. Shahed also plans to produce mushrooms on the island.

Our second major goal has been to empower the Mayadip families against the COVID-19 pandemic. The government of Bangladesh has managed the vaccination of urban populations so well that over 70% of the population have been vaccinated.

But like so many minorities and isolated communities, the River Folk have fallen through the cracks. The island does not have a permanent medical center and families have to travel to the mainland to get tested or vaccinated – a long and expensive trip for people who earn on average 40 US cents a day.  

Late in April, Shahed estimated that less than 50% of the Mayadip families had been vaccinated and said that there had been COVID deaths on the island – although no one ever knows the exact cause of death. As he explained in this blog, the pandemic has been particularly severe on women.

Hosneara trained River Gypsies to tell their stories for quilting projects in 2014 and 2021

Subornogram and AP have responded to the threat with two new initiatives. First, we commissioned River Gypsy women to describe their experience of the pandemic through these stories as a way to ease pandemic stress and teach them a skill. We asked Hosneara, a fiber artist who managed the 2014 embroidery project, to lead the training and between them, they came up with the wonderful stories shown on these pages. All are beautifully stitched and – unlike any other COVID quilts – all carry the familiar virus motif in red.

We then asked Deborah Weir, a well-known fiber artist in California who has worked with AP on earlier quilt projects, to make the first quilt. Mary Harned and her sister, Donna Bergman, two skilled quilters who live in Raleigh, North Carolina, assembled the blocks into the second quilt. These two new quilts bring our collection of COVID quilts to twelve. They will all feature in a catalog. We also hope to exhibit them at the UN early in 2023.

Shahed Kayes, right, founded Subornogram in 2003. Binod, left, made the fishing boat Mayadip

Subornogram has also launched a community campaign to vaccinate Mayadip families with support from AP. Shahed assembled a team of 11 students who designed a campaign tee-shirt (photo) and visited the poorest families. By June 1, they had escorted 300 people – 25% of the entire island population – across to the mainland for both jabs. Local community leaders, including the Iman, have given their support and encouragement.

These two COVID initiatives are key parts of an integrated package that addresses all of Mayadip’s key needs: education, food security, employment, medical services and the empowerment of women. This is the first time we have attempted such a holistic approach for an entire community. As with all of our COVID initiatives, it all hinges on the enthusiasm and commitment of our community partners. When it comes to Subornogram and talented women like Hosneara, we are in very good hands!


First Quilt

Second Quilt

Artists and Blocks



Shirina, 26, is a housewife who lives on Mayadip Island. In her block, she depicts two women (a mother and a daughter) catching fish in the Meghna River. Meghna is one of the biggest rivers in Bangladesh, and Mayadip island is surrounded by the Meghna River.

Jhorna Akter

Jhorna is a 23 year old housewife from Mayadip Island. In her embroidery, a father and son are in the river, catching fish. But the fisherman is a bit upset as there are no more fish, showing how COVID 19 affected their life very badly.

Tammana Akter

Tamanna Akter is an 18 year old student living on Mayadip. She depicted men catching fish in her block. The four men of Mayadip Island are catching fish with a fishing net in the Meghna River. They cannot catch more fish because of the COVID 19 situation in Bangladesh. This is because there are only a few buyers in the fishing market.

Subeda Akter

Subeda Akter is a housewife from Mayadip. She is 24 years old. In her square, Subeda embroidered a fisherman who has only caught three fish. She depicts the fisherman as confused and anxious because he doesn’t know how he will feed his family with so few fish.

Moriam Akter Pakhi

Moriam Akter Pakhi is a 22 year old housewife. She lives on Mayadip Island. Moriam’s embroidery shows hope. Though the fishermen and their families at Mayadip are passing their days in hardship due to COVID 19 situation, hope is still there. The fish are jumping and dancing, and our national flag’s symbol is on the sail of a ​boat flying high.

Swarna Akter

This square was embroidered by Swarna Akter, an 18 year old student living on Mayadip. Here in her embroidery, a fisherman is sitting looking at his catch after a day of fishing. He is thinking about where to sell the fish, because nowadays there are no more customers in the market to buy fish. It’s a very painful situation, tears pouring down from his eyes.

Hajera Akter

Hajera Akter lives on Mayadip Island. She is a 27 year old housewife. Her embroidery shows a fisherman with an empty bucket. There are fish in the river, and birds and dogs are eating the fish but the fisherman has no interest in fishing. Since there are no more buyers in the market, he is frustrated and has given up.

Ruma Akter

Ruma Akter is a current student. She is 18 years old and lives on Mayadip Island. In her embroidered square, Ruma shows a marketplace. There are lots of fish to go around, but there are no people shopping at the market. The leftover fish, which the fishermen could not sell and left there, are now being eaten by dogs.


Shilpi, 27, is a housewife on Mayadip Island. Her embroidery shows a nearby school that has been closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two children who are unable to attend the closed school are going down to the river to fish. Many children, being unable to attend school, have begun to learn how to fish but are experiencing the same challenges as other fisherman. By closing schools, the pandemic has affected the lives of children very badly.

Sharmin Akter

Sharmin Akter is a 20 year old student living on Mayadip Island. Her embroidery shows  fishermen waiting around in the market for buyers. There are many sellers, and crows waiting by the fish, but no buyers are coming to the marketplace to buy the fish.

Marufa Akter Pakhi

Marufa Akter Pakhi is a 22 year old teacher from Mayadip. She created a very painful embroidery. The mother with her daughter and son is thinking about what to make, but there is no food at home to cook. The cooking pot sits empty in front of them and the earthen stove is lying down.


Rekha is a housewife in Bangladesh. She is 27 and lives on Mayadip Island. Her embroidery focuses on a large fish. In Bangladesh, there is a proverb “Big fishes eat all the small fishes.” Here, in this is a symbolic embroidery, the big fish is the symbol of COVID 19 and the small fishes are the symbol of the lives and livelihood of the poor fishermen. The big fish is eating the small fish to show how COVID has taken over and destroyed the lives of the fisherman.


Shanta is a 19 year-old student living on the Island of Mayadip. Her embroidery shows two students eagerly calling a man in a boat to carry them to the school. The government has opened all the schools after an 18 month lock down due to COVID-19. The school is on another part of the island, and boats often carry students to the school. Since Bangladesh contains many rivers, lots of students in Bangladesh travel to school from one village to another by boat, especially in the rainy season (Monsoon).

Momela Begum

Momela Begum is a 27 year-old housewife on Mayadip. Her embroidery shows a market scene. At the market, the fishermen are shown frustrated, as they have arrived ready to sell fish but there are no buyers. Birds and dogs have started to grab the fish as they sit there unsold.

Ambia Akter

Ambia Akter is a student on Mayadip Island. She is 18 years old. In her block, she shows students going to primary school. The school has re-opened after being closed down for 18 months due to the COVID 19 pandemic situation.

Tisha Begum

Tisha Begum is a 19 year-old student living on Mayadip Island. In her embroidery, she shows a scene of students at school. As the school is re-opened after 18 months of the COVID 19 pandemic, the primary school students are in a lesson with their schoolteacher. They are anxious, because of the dredging and illegal sand mining going on near Mayadip island. They are afraid they might lose their home and livelihood if illegal sand mining continues.

Rabeya Akter

Rabeya Akter is a 20 year-old housewife living on Mayadip Island. Her embroidery is symbolic, meant to show the emptiness of life. There are no people, no birds, no fish, and only some trees and two boats. COVID molecules are all around – a constant reminder that the pandemic is everywhere and causing great stress.

Shumi Akter

Shumi Akter is an 18 year-old student on Mayadip. Her  embroidery wants to send the message ‘life is a celebration’. Whatever the situation is, there is always hope. In the block, the lamp is spreading light, the fishermen are fishing in the river, the mother is chopping a big fish and the son is looking at her with pleasure. They are both celebrating and enjoying what they have in spite of their challenges and making the best of their lives.

Runa Akter

Runa Akter is a 24 year old living on the island of Mayadip. In her square, she depicts two girls picking up water lilies from a pond on the island.  In Bangladesh, the water lilies are seen in abundance in the monsoon season and are the national flower. Water lily is a popular plant to villagers on Mayadip and many people eat this flower. Due to their fishing being drastically affected by COVID, many villagers had to rely on eating water lilies much more than before.

Khadija Akter

Khadija is a 24 year old housewife living on Mayadip Island. In this embroidery, a father and son are trying to catch the fish. They just throw the fishing net in the Meghna river, waiting anxiously for whether sufficient fish will be caught. The son is young, and he helps his father in fishing, while at the same time studying at primary school whenever he has a moment between fishing. Behind him, there are two books lying around.