Nakherganj - a union located in the northern district of Kurigram - was a land with no dream. For a boy, it was more likely to have drugs to share with peers than having books to read or schools to join. For a girl, it was more likely to be married off than to complete even primary education. Those were the stories of five years ago.
Yet a youth - Bishwajit Barman, then aged about 16 - was the first to feel and make people feel that there was a way out of all those scourges. He felt the very urgency of education for all to stop early marriage and drug abuse. Thus began the journey of his 'Ashar-Alo' school with the vision and endless efforts of him and his team. Within five years, they have made some big achievements to showcase. They have so far stopped 217 child marriages, offered education to around 400 adults and taught hundreds of boys and girls for free.
The young visionary shared with this writer his story of how he got the motivation to take up such a herculean task while his known world thought
"Five years ago, we started our journey with a dream for better days. It was September, 2010. A class-four student - Ramisa Khatun - of a local school was set to be married off. She was one of many such girls who were made to tie the knot before getting done with primary education. Ramisa's father was hearing-impaired and couldn't contribute a penny to the family. So her parents found no reason to let her continue the study. One can only imagine how ruthless I had to be at that time to stop the marriage and get her back to education," said Bishwajit, imbued with emotions.
"We couldn't summon up courage to show up before her parents and ask them to cancel the marriage. Instead, we intimidated the bridegroom and stopped the marriage. Weeks later, we went to her house and promised to bear all the expenditure required for her study. That was the beginning of our movement against child marriage. Ramisa was among 217 children whom we saved from early marriage. Now it is almost guaranteed that nobody within seven to eight unions closest to ours would dare to arrange early marriage. We promised parents of 60 girls to take all the financial and other responsibilities required for continuing their study. It is not an oral promise. We put our signatures on stamp papers with that commitment," he continued.
Biswajit's efforts earned him an especial award from the deputy commissioner of the district for 'especial contribution to stop early marriage'. He is now the beacon of hope for his community.
Recently, he secured a spot as one of the top 30 awardees in the Joy Bangla Youth Award (JBYA) Ceremony, one of the initiatives undertaken by the country's largest platform of change-makers Young Bangla under the auspices of Centre for Research and Information (CRI).
"That was the issue of early marriage. Our education program started even before that. It was January, 2010. That time I was only 16. I couldn't bear the sight of little kids working in tea stalls and peddling drugs after getting done with works. We picked up 27 such children and admitted them to Ajmota Govt Primary School. They felt cornered at first due to other students' attitude towards them. They were avoided by their peers because their hairs used to stink and they used to join classes with torn clothes."
"While we had to survive on tuition jobs, we provided all financial supports for their study. With me were my friends - Ahsan Habib, Asadul, Rafiqul and Harun. Now we have 800 volunteers in the entire district to oversee the issues of education and stopping child marriage."
"At the same time, we ran an education program for adults. Over 400 adults came under the light of education through this. Let's talk about children. In the primary school completion exams, held in 2014, all the 26 students passed with nine securing A+. We started a duck-farming project the profit of which is dedicated to students. Despite securing 12th place in Rajshahi University admission test, I decided not to enrol - only because of them. Even we arranged cricket tournaments as a form of entertainment to keep youths aloof from drugs."
Asked about any particular incident that fills his heart with emotions, he said, "After a girl secured A+ in the exam, she met her parents and informed them of her achievement. But she was beaten, and we found her weeping when we arrived there. You would be astonished to know that her parents punished her because they didn't know what exactly A+ meant. They thought it might be a bad result or a failure! We had to convince them that it was the best. Only then, they wept in joy and hugged their child."
At this stage, the dreamer shared some frustrations as well. "I am still unsure as to whether or not I would be able to deliver on what I promised. People around rely too much on me. My family doesn't like giving all my efforts to this cause. Still I do tuition jobs to manage finance, though I admit that some kind-hearted people really offered help. But there is no secured source of cash inflow to support the initiative. I don't want to believe that all our promises would end up being fake promises due to financial crisis."
Sabbir Bin Shams, executive director of CRI, said that they would put in heartfelt efforts to connect that change-maker to any of the government or private sectors that would help his cause.
"We have showcased achievements of as many as 30 visionaries, including him, before the next generation and united them on a platform so that they can also upscale themselves through sharing knowledge. We have planned on finding out young spirits like Bishwajit and binding them in a single network with that JBYA. That process has just begun."
Tonmoy Ahmed is assistant coordinator (research) at Centre for Research and Information (CRI), and assistant secretary, Bangladesh Awami League