America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

S2S In Bangladesh: A Story of Friendship

Favorite Blog Throwback #9 – Originally posted on July 24, 2013

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This post was written by Sam Schindler, a history and english teacher at The Lancaster Country Day School, located in Lancaster, PA. LCDS is partnered with the Carter Academy through the School-2-School Program. Sam had the opportunity to guest teach at the Carter Academy for two weeks earlier this summer. 

Iqbal Hossen Mozumder is balding and dark-skinned with a round face and a rare but radiant smile. The hair he retains is jet black. When I met him in person for the first time, he burst into sharp, high-pitched, staccato laughter that seemed incongruous for someone with such an impassive face. It was startling. I didn’t hear that laughter from him again until several days later, and only rarely saw him laugh like this in front of students. From the start upon my arrival in Bangladesh, Iqbal defied my expectations of him, and maintained a certain mystery that I would eventually decode.

Since the spring, Iqbal and I had been working together as part of the Creative Learning School-2-School program, building a partnership between The Carter Academy and the Lancaster Country Day School in south-central Pennsylvania, where I teach. From his email messages Iqbal seemed diligent (if not dogged), exceedingly serious, and maybe a bit uptight. His commitment to the program and the success of our exchange was tremendous and there were moments when I felt that I might not measure up. This didn’t bother me too much though, as all I’d been hoping for was a professional relationship. I did not anticipate a burgeoning friendship. Finally, after months of email correspondence and video exchanges, I had made it to Bangladesh for two weeks over the summer to live and teach at his school.

It took some time for Iqbal and I to get to know each other – two men, both in their thirties but one a Jew originally from New York and one a Bengali Muslim. English was our means of communication, fraught though it was, especially early in our aquaintence, when each other’s accents and linguistic habits were new and daunting.

Iqbal claims that he might be 35 years old, but he isn’t sure. Birth records aren’t meticulously kept in the remote region of Jessore, on the eastern Indian border, where he was born. Because of Bangladesh’s poor roads, Jessore is at least a day’s journey from where he now works at the Carter Academy, a boarding school for underprivileged students in the remote village of Islamabad, Bangladesh.

“I see my parents maybe once a year,” he told me one Friday afternoon during a daytrip to the Meghna River in Chandpur.

Iqbal’s impression of me, at least before we met, was that I was somehow very, very tall. His assumption was certainly shattered immediately upon meeting me. He had also feared that I would be imposing and cold. I remember sitting with him one evening after dinner, sharing these thoughts and laughing fitfully. How odd it seemed to us then that we had ever thought things that were so far afield, so wrong.

Affectionately known as “TCA,” the academy is a lively place, even in the thick summer heat. All but two of the students are boys in grades six through ten – the school has just begun to admit girls. The boys live at the school, sleeping, eating, studying and playing on the grounds. TCA is their entire world, with their teachers serving as both their mentors and, for some, their parents. The students show deep respect for their teachers and their academic responsibilities as a result and are vocal about how much they love their school. Morning assemblies find them in sharp, straight lines in blue uniforms, pledging allegiance to both the school and national flags. They listen as a boy with a melodious voice chants a verse of the Qur’an, and they sing the Bengali national anthem in reverent voices.

Back in April, my 9th grade students tried to initiate Skype sessions with Iqbal’s class, but we were thwarted by a slow, uncooperative internet connection, a fact of life for many people in South Asia. As an alternative, we had our students record videos and email, telling each other about their everyday lives and asking questions of their overseas counterparts.

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As vice principal of the school, Iqbal is responsible for pretty much everything. “Mr. Iqbal,” as he is known to the students in his English grammar classes, can be very strict with these boys but will surprise them with a sudden outburst of silliness. In a familiar way, on occasion he will mix the role of the gruff, stern authority figure with that of a playful pal, allowing students to see his lighter, wackier side when they least expect it. Ultimately, the students adore Iqbal. They crave his attention and approval, and they live to make him laugh as with them he does not do so often.

On our way to the river one sultry Friday afternoon, we found ourselves in the midst of Matlab bazaar. Cars, mini-cabs, tractors and rickshaws hurtled through the busy market at breakneck speed, kicking up a “breeze” of dust and small rocks. Bananas, bread, and bags of chips hung in the window; fruits and vegetables lay in crates at haphazard angles. Amidst all this commotion Iqbal stood, smiling as he treated me to a verse of the Bengali national anthem in a reverent but mirthful voice.

Amar sonar Bangla Ami tomay bhalobashi,” he sang, then translated: “My Bengal of gold, I love you.”

Upon reaching the Meghna River, Iqbal and I, along with the school’s head administrator Mozumel, another teacher, Nazrul Islam and his wife and 4-year-old-daughter settled in for a relaxing boat ride. The vessel was little more than a wooden canoe.

Watching the dusk take hold and enjoying the breeze as we skimmed along the water, I began to relax, just a bit, for the first time since my arrival in this alien place. I turned to Nazrul Islam, with whom I’d become fast friends. Much like the students, he holds Iqbal in esteem, but was quick to share a joke at his expense. “When I first got here, I thought Iqbal was a very serious guy,” I began, watching Iqbal listen as he sat on the edge of the boat. The laughter had already begun. “But now I see, he’s completely insane.” Iqbal laughed the loudest. From then on, I realized I could say anything to him.

Soon, I began to see that the businesslike exterior and the laughter which so defied it were only a small part of Iqbal’s personality. Beneath both lay an incredibly sensitive, contemplative individual with whom I could share my innermost thoughts, often finding that he felt the same.

In fact, during our short time together, Iqbal and I learned that despite living on opposite sides of the planet we were, in fact, very much alike. Our relationships with students, our thoughts on the nuances of education, our approach to parents and even our thoughts on our own families seemed in tune.

Our unlikely friendship persevered despite our fatigue at the end of each day. We would sit, just the two of us or with others, talking late into the evening, ignorant of the heat and soon ignorant of all the ways in which we were different.

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This entry was posted on December 7, 2013 by in Volunteer Related and tagged , , , , , , .
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