Literally solidarity means, “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group”. How do I, who by nature of where and to whom I was born, live in solidarity with those in poverty? How do I even understand what it is like to live and raise a family on the streets, how do you educate and feed your children on $2/ day? The closest I’ve got is camping in the beauty of nature and having my bankcard rejected at the supermarket check-out.
As I’ve lived in Bangladesh I have noticed many things about those who have little materially. Two things in particular, there is a readiness to share everything and often an existence of a strong localised community. The community has usually been built around an injustice: a liberation war where a Mum and Dad are lost; a violent father; a step Mum who clears out the house on arrival, plus you; gangs that force you to join their line of work. Not ideal, yet they are communities, they give a sense of belonging and they are ready to embrace the passer by. All of us rely on a social network and each of us has a form of community. The difference perhaps is that the closer you are to the street the more localised your community and as you only have pockets for storage, sharing is fast, immediate and all the bread that you have at that moment.
If I have noticed these things about the ultra-poor correctly, then Pope Francis’ tough suggestion of July 31, 2013, “We Must have Solidarity with the Poor… it is the path to real wealth and greatness” begins a conversation within myself. Pope Francis went on to say, “Only when we are able to share do we truly become rich, everything that is shared is multiplied. The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty." (www.aleteia.org)
We have begun a journey towards finding out what solidarity means for us, and one of the places we have learnt most is on and around Komlaphur Station, Dhaka. In the early days of catching trains in Bangladesh we noticed homeless communities on all the main stations and transport hubs. It was shocking and painful to our western frame of reference. So we asked around to find out if any organisation was working with the people in these places. We were put in touch with the Taize community, Mymensingh and one of their Brothers. It was Brother Guillaume who introduced us to his friends on the station and so began our relationships at Komlaphur. At the beginning we would visit and our girls would share their loom bands or some of their clothes with those who call the station home. We might share some food. This usually led to fractious times when the community need was more than we could provide at that moment. We have found spending time to be the best! Just being available to play the odd game of football, basketball, gymnastics, share a hug or have a conversation. In return we have been accepted just for who we are at that moment, recognised in amongst the crowds of the station. Our girls have many brothers, who show them how to hold little birds with broken wings and patiently catch them fireflies from hedgerows. We have had our first taste of tamarind straight off the tree and shared bread with this community. We have tried to break up the odd fight, seen too many injuries, been given many smiles. We have found wealth mingled with deep injustice and pain.
One strong memory is of a little girl sitting on the platform, as I sat at a window seat on a train. She was eating a mango. As she saw me watching her so she raised the mango towards me and offered me a piece. It was my first such offer and the most poignant. All she had was that mango, she was unlikely to know where her next meal would come from, and she offered to share it with me, a stranger. I couldn’t get beyond the thought that she needed the nourishment more than me, and declined. I regret not having stepped off that train and accepted the offer, I hope 3 years on I would do differently.
Once we had spent time, and got over any fear of what we might find on our visits and the dirt we were sure to embrace. So relationships began: with a hostel nearby named, “We are all kings…” (a beautiful Bangla song begins that way), an outdoor school that runs on the station daily (we don’t know how the teacher Rubi does it) and we have found ways of sharing our clothes and food through our more influential friends on the platform, free from chaos! Are we richer for these relationships, yes; do we have any solutions, no; can we change the system that leads to the disrespect of homeless dwellers in Dhaka, not right now.
As we unpack more of what “solidarity” means for us, please let us know your thoughts and ways, we have a long way to go and a lot to learn…