I’ll never forget the first time I stepped out of my apartment gate and found her devouring food-scraps from my garbage. She blissfully ignored me as I did a double-take and stood in somber, shocked silence for several seconds that felt like an eternity. My mind whirred as I attempted to fully register the magnitude of what I was witnessing. Another human being was eating from my garbage. She perched precariously on the edge of the rickshaw-dumpster and contentedly rooted through watermelon rinds and crusts of fuzzy green bread I had thrown out hours before. She let out an enthusiastic shriek of delight when she discovered the shredded carcass of the small chicken we had used for noodle soup. As she gnawed greedily at her newfound prize she glanced my way and her eyes brightened. With a beaming, toothy smile she waved her grimy hand at me and turned back to the dumpster.
The biggest lump I’ve ever felt settled firmly into my throat.
I know her. Her name is Ratia. She is one of the beggar-girls who ply the blocks around my house. Each time she sees me she gifts me the brightest smile you’ll ever see and blurts out a cheerful “good morning!” (It doesn’t matter if it’s nine o’clock at night; it is still “good morning”!) She proudly tells me that she is nine years old and that she lives with her brothers and sisters in Korail slum, about a ten minute walk from our house. I taught her how to count to ten in English and she performs admirably, with the exception of the number seven, which she always skips. As I saw her eating my rubbish scraps, a powerful wave of emotion struck me and I fought tears as I continued on my errand.
I wrestled (and continue to wrestle) with frustration over the knowledge that I am powerless to truly help her. If I give her money, it is simply handed over to her organized-crime handlers. I have given her food in the past only to see it snatched away by her older peers. I tried to teach her English but, after a few sessions, her handlers pulled her away from my street in an effort to keep her away from me because she wasn’t earning money.
The anger, sadness, helplessness and frustration I feel about Ratia’s fate is difficult to express or quantify. She is literally one of the sweetest children on the planet. She is bright, energetic, optimistic and perceptive. And because of a corrupt government, a morally impoverished society and oppressive poverty, she will never be educated, will never be empowered and will never have the opportunity to attain her full potential. And Ratia is only one.
There are millions upon millions of Ratias in this country who currently do not have the access to health care, clean water, employment or education. So much intelligence, so much talent, and so much potential is being wasted in Bangladesh. I have no solutions. I can’t express how badly I wish I did.