Then The Floods Came
When Meghna, a field worker in Bangladesh, first met Feroza she met a woman who did not want to be seen. She was so shy that she would cover her face with her sari. It's difficult to imagine Feroza as that woman today, but four years ago her life looked very different.
Feroza lives on an island that sits in the middle of a mighty river whose waters rise up, lapping against the homes of the people who live there. It's been getting even worse over the last few years because of the weather changes in Bangladesh due to climate change. Seven times, river floods had swept away her home. Every day Feroza was afraid that her three children wouldn't have enough to eat or that the next flood would be her last - the one they wouldn't recover from. Each time the floods came, Feroza and her family picked up the pieces and started again. But in 2011 the raging river left the family with nothing but a goat and the bamboo walls of their house.
'I feel like crying when I think of all that I've lost. It feels like a deep sorrow inside... If you lose your house in a fire, you still have the land afterwards. But for your whole house, your land, everything to be lost. It's too much.'
Feroza and her family were identified by Christian Aid as 'ultra-poor'. They had nothing.
Feroza told me, ‘When I first came here my life was very difficult. We couldn't afford to eat rice twice a day - only at night. I thought, what is the use of my hands and legs, and being a mother, if I cannot provide for my children? I felt like breaking them off and hiding them in my stomach. All I could think of was how I could feed my children. I used to try and think about how to change my life but I didn't know how.’
As well as struggling to feed her children, Feroza had to cope without her husband, Joynal. He used to travel to Dhaka for months at a time to try and earn some money by digging in the river for bricks. She told me how she used to worry about him, ‘When my husband was in Dhaka, if he had work he could feed himself, but when he had no work he starved. I feel like crying when I think of those times. He'd phone me and he was also crying.’
Gana Unnayan Kendra (GUK) is an organisation who works, among other things, to raise the plinths of houses that are vulnerable to the rising waters. They’re just one partner organisation which Christian Aid works with in Bangladesh.
‘There's no sign now of the time I struggled a lot. GUK provided me with many things, but they also gave me a lot of moral support. Even when I felt unmotivated they gave me the hope that I could move forwards. Now I have more confidence. I enjoy more freedom and I have decision-making power.’
So what changed? Feroza's home was raised about six feet higher. GUK employed her husband and a small team of their neighbours to rebuild her home on a new, raised bit of land, safely out of reach from the river. It transformed her life. Even better, she was given a grant that meant she could buy a cow, a goat, ducks, chickens, vegetable seeds and a composting wormery. Day by day, the money she was able to make grew and so did her confidence.
Today, Feroza and her family are healthy and thriving. Her husband doesn't have to leave anymore and she doesn't need to worry about how she's going to feed her children.
‘I couldn't imagine that this kind of change could happen. I'm hard working, but a little bit of money can really change things. Now I can feed my children and my husband and I are working hand-in-hand. It's a very positive thing for me. We are using our labour and our brains to improve our situation.’
What struck me most when I talked to Feroza was the way she described that she could now make choices. We helped her start out on a path, but she doesn't need the support from charity anymore.‘Now I can rest, I can sew; I can have good conversations with my neighbours... Once upon a time this was a luxury for me, but now it is possible.’ Having the time to chat with your neighbours shouldn't be a luxury, but Feroza has a pretty good idea of what it means to be a good neighbour. She describes being a good neighbour as ‘somebody who you can live peacefully with, and share food with and take care of one other's things.’
In many ways, her family's lives and livelihoods are no different. They're still threatened by the river. They're still threatened by the impacts of climate change in Bangladesh. That's just a truth we can't deny. But what has changed is that Feroza and her family are now more resilient in the face of these challenges. Because of the support they've received they have the things they need to make choices. Good choices.
This Christian Aid Week we're asking people to give generously to help people like Feroza.