Danita Topcagic

Danita Topcagic (Blind Education and Rehabilitation Development Organization - BERDO): Danita was raised in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but moved to the United States with her family at the age of fourteen as a refugee. She is passionate about humanitarian work and earned her BA in international relations from University of Missouri – Columbia. Danita received her MA in global finance, trade and economic integration with a focus in international development from University of Denver.

Life on the Street

12 Sep

I’ve been putting off writing this entry because I thought it would be best to provide you with images of these hard-working people so that you can see what I am talking about. But every time I went out and I saw a good photo opportunity, I felt embarrassed and guilty for just wanting to take their photo. I can’t talk to them because I don’t speak Bangla. I can’t explain to them that I am advocating for their rights, nor can I convince myself that my motivation is just. If I could only shake of that guilty feeling, I might have been able to get more pictures.

There they are, on the street in the scorching sun or in the relentless downpour, between the cars, buses, rickshaws and trucks, inhaling exhaust fumes and taking in the abuse from passengers and drivers, who only see them as an annoyance on the road. There they are, asking for mercy or for a taka or two.

And there I was, during my first few weeks in Bangladesh, terrified. Terrified when they approach me on the road with all imaginable and unimaginable sorts of disabilities, abnormalities, disformations and diseases, crowding in around me with their hand in front of me, begging. I say terrified because I have never seen such disabilities, at least not in person, and terrified because I couldn’t get away unless I gave them some change.

But now I think, what is it that made me feel so uncomfortable? Is it the fact that I should give him/her some money; change that I sometimes have and can give without disadvantaging myself, or a larger note which I am reluctant to give. Why is it that we are ready to give small change but never enough for a decent meal? We think that this job, that one of begging for food for his/her family, is only worth a few pennies? Or do we only give a few pennies because it makes us feel good that we helped, no matter how small the amount is, thinking that he/she will get more change from others and that will add up to a nice amount?

Or are there other reasons why I felt uncomfortable? Am I afraid that if they touch me and hold onto my hand I will inherit whatever it is they have? That would be rather childish!!! But why do we move aside, go around them, avoid them and ignore them?

Yes…why do we ignore them?! They’re not our problem, they are not our responsibility, is that what we’re thinking? Let the government deal with them, right? Knock, knock….unless we live in Sweden or Cuba, where there are better social programs, we know that this will never happen!

Maybe I am writing because I feel guilty for every time I pass them on the street and don’t offer help. Perhaps I can give some change, but I think, like the rest of you, this isn’t my job. Isn’t it so easy to alienate ourselves from their problems, to pass them on the street and not to think about them for more than five seconds it takes us to go around them?

In the society in which we live, we are only fighting for ourselves. The sense of community, comradeship, and concern for others’ well being is swallowed up by consumerism and the selfishness of the capitalist culture where we only give to get something in return. So what do we get in return by giving someone some change? Not more than being left alone, right?

But what do we get in return if we change our way of thinking? To change our attitudes about homeless and beggars so that with the change we give, we also give opportunities that you and I have. Not just the opportunity to go to school and to find a decent job, but how about giving them basic human rights, such as the right to food, health care, and shelter. What if we teach our friends, family, children and the future leaders to protect basic human rights of all people, no matter their disability, their class in society, their wealth. Maybe then we’ll have less people on the street begging for survival.

We might not be able to change the outcome of a beggar who has been on the street his whole life asking for mercy, but if we protect their human rights and give them some opportunities, maybe their children will be sent to school instead of the street. Some of us might live in different societies where there is help for homeless and beggars, but here in Bangladesh, their fate is left up to people who pass by them, people who give them money, people who ignore them, people who abuse them.

So maybe I can reason taking a few photographs of people on the street whose job is to beg. I can reason it because I can write about them, I can urge you to think about them differently. I can urge you to teach your friends, family and children that we should make some changes in our society so that instead of just giving them money when we pass them, we give them hope, opportunity, and most importantly, their basic rights. Because when we give them what is given to us on a silver platter, we not only give them a chance for a dignified live, but we give them a motivation. We give them a chance to dream that “I, too, can become something more. I, too, can be my own creator”.

For all the cynics out there, imagine this scenario. You’re born into a family of beggars, born in the park or in the back of some street. Your life begins on the street, and your life begins by begging. Day in and day out, you are carried in your mother’s hands to ask for money until you can walk and do it alone. Your education is limited to what you can learn from people like you, from passengers who give you money, from police that abuses you. Your parents don’t tell you about other options in life, because they were born on the streets and their parents were born on the street and so this cycle continues. Maybe some of them have asked for help from government institutions, maybe they were shooed off, maybe there isn’t room for all of them. So in those days of trying they are not begging, therefore they are not eating and their children’s bellies are empty.

Doesn’t it sound unimaginable, like this cannot possibly happen because there is too much wealth around us?

But it is all too real in the parks of Dhaka, in the streets of Sylhet, in front of the mosques and behind the dumpsters. It is too real for the children who are left on the street to ask for mercy, and too real for anyone with disabilities as that is the only occupation left for them. And it is also real that people, like you and I, will pass them and offer some change, not only immune but distant to their suffering.

But we cannot be so immune. I refuse to believe that we live in the world of “the survival of the fittest” without any moral obligations. I refuse to look the other way, and that is how I overcame my guilt and will post pictures to encourage you to to fight for human rights and to inspire others. Whether we believe in a religion or not, and whether we have strong moral values or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.

And so slowly I overcame that terrified feeling, and not by becoming immune to it, but by understanding their situation, their suffering. By understanding that they are neglected; written off as a lost cause. And that is why I am writing this entry!

In front of the mosque in Sylhet, the line forms of persons with disabilities and others, begging.

A family taking some rest on the street, their home.

Teenagers harassing a person with disabilities, give him some change for an autograph and cracking jokes.

A visually impaired person selling pens on the street, pushed aside by people walking by, and trusting they will give him correct change.

A woman with disabilities living in the park where she is also working. Begging.

A lake and park in Dhaka next to the Parliament Building is not only for recreational purposes, but also a home to many homeless and disabled persons and children.

This young boy and his brother were begging in the park. They told us that they stay in this park and their parents are also begging.

Posting these pictures so that you see what I see…

Posted By Danita Topcagic

Posted Sep 12th, 2008

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