Bangladeshi Change Maker: Dr Ehsan Hoque surviving childhood blindness
12:00 AM, May 16, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:21 PM, May 16, 2019

Change Maker: Eyes in distress, eyes of hope

Surviving child blindness narrowly, Dr Ehsan becomes guardian of children in distress

“Amader baba. Swear!” proclaimed some 15 girls in unison.

Crowded by children aged 5-17, the cheerful “father” too nodded in agreement to this sudden visitor in a recent evening. Chirping of more children could be heard from other rooms of the flat at the residential building in Mohammadpur.

“Fifty daughters are here and 1,500 more across the country,” beamed the man in his mid-fifties. An innocent smile spread all over his baby face but stopped at the edge of his eyes. None could clearly see his eyes, as those are kept away under thick, blurry, criss-cross layers of glass.

Ehsan Hoque was lucky not to be blind for life, after his birth in 1964. Born with congenital cataracts, an optical disorder responsible for child blindness, he could survive with a limited eyesight, undergoing seven surgeries on his tender eyes by the age of five.

However, unlike most other victims of child blindness because of infections or nutritional deficiencies in pregnancies, his story was to unfold completely differently over the next five decades. His eyes in distress would eventually transform him into an angel parent of children in distress.

Ehsan, who lives in Boston along with his wife and two biological daughters, has come up with a unique social initiative, through which he’s connecting children in the west with children in Bangladesh, creating a bond of humanity between them. 1,550 children, mostly from the US, are forking out on accommodation, education, food and vocational training of 1,550 children in Bangladesh.

Each of these children in happiness is sponsoring one girl in distress till she is 18-year-old. Each of them saves $15 a month from pocket money or earnings from part-time work and donates for the girl he or she chooses to support. Technology makes it easy for the little sponsors to regularly check on the sponsored, and occasional trip to Bangladesh turns the bonding even deeper. Growing up doing community services, these tiny patrons eventually end up getting a premium recognition from the US government: President’s Volunteer Service Award.    

On the other hand, orphaned or abandoned, these girls in Bangladesh are making the most of this new lease of life. They’re growing up multi-disciplined, reaffirmed their headmaster, Mohammad Rahmat Ullah, at Kisholoy Girl’s School and College in Mohammadpur. “They’re doing well both in education and extra-curricular activities,” he told The Daily Star last week. 

At homes in Mohammadpur or in rural Bangladesh, these children are also exposed to different trainings and modern technologies. “I try to make available to these children what my daughters get in America. Any of these girls can beat a veteran computer operator in typing speed,” said Ehsan with tinge of pride in his voice.

For 23 years now, since Ehsan launched the initiative in 1996, children continue to weave together stories of help and hope. Children, however, would have no story to create had not a child reacted differently to bullying over the blurry-glass he wore after surgeries half a century back.      

Children and adults alike would have invariably asked Ehsan then one of these questions: “Say, how many fingers (I’m showing)?”, “Oh, God! Glass is so frosty” or “Don’t (you) have any eyes?”

“They never asked me my name or tried to know how intelligent I was. Neither did they enquire how I always ended up first all through my school examinations,” he said.

The constant teasing and insensitive curiosity pushed the only son of a Rajshahi University professor to lie low, away from people-who-can-hurt to people-who-need-help.

Soon, even before he passed his school, Ehsan was seen lecturing expecting mothers in rural Rajshahi: “I’m like this because my mother didn’t eat vegetable and vitamin when I was in her belly (womb).”

He didn’t stop there. Collecting donations from aunts or elders on the campus, he, along with a few volunteers, would show up at doors of expecting mothers with supplies of vegetables. Quite unknowingly, he was building a network of sponsors, volunteers and needy people that came in handy decades later when he launched an organisation at Yale University to help underprivileged children and prevent child blindness.

By then, in 2003 when he founded Distressed Children & Infants International with eye surgeon Dr Brian DeBroff, his colleague at Yale, and Dr Nina Haque, his wife, the 39-year-old Ehsan was a transformed personality: confident, connected and more committed to social work. And behind this transformation was people’s insensitivity and discrimination directed at him.

The boy, who was advised by doctors after surgeries not to strain his eyes with rigours of studies, became a doctor himself, did his PhD and post-doctoral fellowships in Japan and Canada.

After graduating from the Rajshahi Medical College, the young paediatrician joined the Dhaka Shishu Hospital in 1987. But, in no time, he started to feel the pull in his heart for social work. Soon, he was appearing in an interview of an NGO.

“S-o-o-o thick glass! Who would you help? You would require help at work in rural areas.” Interviewee’s insensitive remark snapped his spell!

In a daze, Dr Ehsan rode a public bus to Kamalapur, boarded a train to Chittagong and ended up at a friend’s house there. A soul-searching for two-three days helped him understand what he wanted to do with his life. He decided to run away from the insensitive curiosity and discriminatory attitude to safety abroad.       

“I’d realised that if I want to do the social work I must go abroad. I have to make myself capable, build network and come back home to live my dream,” he said in a trance. And it is exactly what Dr Ehsan did in the next 30 years.

With prestigious Monbusho Scholarship he went to Japan first, worked in Canada and then settled in US. In all the places he moved, he continuously talked with people, shared his passion and built network. His social work did never stop. With help of volunteers from student days, Dr Ehsan continued supplying vegetable to expecting mothers with his own fund. 

“That core group of volunteers are now taking care of DCI,” he said with a smile.

Like all good initiatives, his was also lonely at the beginning. But it’s not lonely anymore.

Ministry of Social Welfare, reputed hospitals (Birdem, Shishu Hospital and Islamia Eye Hospital), Faraaz Hossain Foundation, personalities (Sabina Yasmin, Babita), professionals (doctors from home and abroad) and philanthropists are now his partners in the cause.

Encouraged, Dr Ehsan has taken up more projects -- child blindness prevention programme, free-eye camp, emergency medical care, children’s family support project, assistance to government-run orphanages, telemedicine service from American doctors for 10,000 people at Kalyanpur slum etc. He is supporting these projects with funds from zakat and donations.

“This is the way we can change our society, country,” said Dr Ehsan.

His eyes one can’t see clearly, his emotions one can feel.

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