Dipu first met Hiroki when his mother took him to a class in the Osmani Udyan back in 2004. Hiroki Watanabe, then a young Japanese student, was teaching a bunch of Bangladeshi street children under the open skies of a dust-ridden public park with a smile on his face. If you cannot picture this, that's okay. After all, it's not something you get to see every day.
Dipu is now a grown man in his 20s and has turned his life around. He currently works as a graphics designer at a multinational company and supports a family of five. Hiroki, on the other hand, is still affiliated with the Ekmattra Society, the organisation that used to take these classes for the underprivileged children in Dhaka.
Ekmattra Society is a social development organisation that works with underprivileged children like Dipu and provides education, financial assistance, and accommodation for them. They regularly hold classes for street children in public places such as parks. They also have a residential academy in Mymensingh that currently hosts around 50 children.
Interestingly, despite managing such large projects, Ekmattra is not donor-driven. Instead, they rely on parallel income-generating activities or entrepreneurial ventures that include independent films and documentaries such as "Je Shohor Chorabali" (2009).
Numerous children like Dipu were able to regain control of their lives, thanks to the initiatives taken by the Ekmattra Society. When Dipu first came to Dhaka in 2004, he was only eight years old. Before that, he used to live with his grandmother in their village home at Munshiganj and had very little to support their family.
"My mother was a field worker for local NGOs such as Care Bangladesh and my father used to cook for community centres. But they did not earn enough to support the family," Dipu said, reminiscing his past.
Dipu used to attend the primary school in his village, although the teachers were not much qualified. As for high school, one would have to walk miles before any sign of it could be seen.
"When my mother came to know about Ekmattra Society, she brought me to Dhaka and I became a regular student of Ekmattra's open sky classes. Back then, Ekmattra used to organise classes at the Osmani Udyan. Many children like me used to participate in these classes," Dipu told The Business Standard.
Later on, he went on to live in Ekmattra's shelter home near Mirpur Ansar Camp and completed his SSC and HSC as a resident. Dipu's upbringing and education were looked after by the Ekmattra Society. On top of that, Ekmattra also catered to his latent potentials.
"Upon seeing my interest in music and computers, Ekmattra arranged for my training in graphics designing and music. There were more children like me in the Ekmattra academy and a lot of them owe Ekmattra their lives and careers," Dipu shared.
Now in his 20s, Dipu works as a successful graphics designer. He has worked for the Indian Embassy as a designer and now works in a multinational company.
Hiroki Watanabe, one of the founding members of the organisation said, "When we arranged our convocation, 12 children participated in that programme. They were all employed and could support their families. It gave us a great deal of satisfaction to know that our efforts were successful."
Shubhashish Roy is the Executive Director for Ekmattra Society and he is quite proud of the organisation's achievements. When Shubhashish and his friends were studying at the University of Dhaka, they used to socialise in the adjacent parks.
Shubhashish recalled, "There were a lot of children there; selling flowers, cigarettes or bottled water. We quickly became friends with these pleasant children."
But eventually they learned about the harsh realities of their world, Shubhashish mentioned.
He added, "There were a lot of children who used to live in the parks around our campus. We always felt bad that they lived in such a reprehensible condition. These little children had to partake in risky ventures such as drug dealings, trafficking, and some of them were even sexually abused."
So Shubhashish and his friends felt that they had to do something; forming Ekmattra Society in 2003. Over the past 17 years, it has grown and expanded its horizon to integrate more underprivileged children like Dipu under its umbrella.
To facilitate these children in their rehabilitation and education, Ekmattra has undertaken several programmes like Open Sky Class (OSC), Shelter Home (SH), Ekmattra-DBBL Children's Academy, etc.
Lots of children like Dipu first came to know about Ekmattra through their open sky classes. It was the first project undertaken by the Ekmattra Society.
Speaking about the initial open sky classes, Shubhashish said, "We used to get together with the children. Some days we used to sing with them. Some of us used to teach them how to paint while others taught them how to read, write, or recite poems. The children were incredibly fast learners and their enthusiasm encouraged us to keep moving forward."
While open sky schools may have introduced children to the realm of knowledge and gave them basic education, most of these children did not have a place to call home.
"We spent only a few hours of the day with them before they were thrown back into the same dark reality. We felt the necessity for a permanent shelter for these children and launched the Shelter Home Programme," informed Shubhashish.
Soon, the founders discovered that sustaining such rehabilitation projects required sufficient and long-term financial commitment.
"Initially, our teachers and many of the guardians helped us out financially to run the shelter homes. But we soon realised that we needed a stable source of income to smoothly run our projects. So, we started selling T-shirts at fairs and other small-scale income-generating activities."
Shubhashish and Hiroki also realised that simply providing shelter was not good enough and mass awareness campaigns were required.
"Since a lot of us were already into filmmaking, we decided to make films on these children and the dark realities that face them every day. It was quite difficult with limited funds and took us four years to complete our first movie titled Je Shohor Chorabali. Hiroki managed 300 shows for the film in Japan and we earned a considerable sum of money from it."
Ekmattra society went on to make more of these films and documentaries such as Procheshta (2008), Katush Kutush (2015), etc. in collaboration with local and international organisations such as BRAC, JICA, EU, etc.
When asked about taking donations from external sources, Hiroki said, "We did not want to rely on donations because donor-driven projects often focus more on quantity instead of quality and these projects eventually fail to achieve any sustainable outcome."
Shubhashish added, "To sustain our organisation, we also registered a company. We swore that we will not take profits from there but rather invest it into Ekmattra Society."
Profits from the movies and the parallel ventures were then used to purchase a piece of land in Mymensingh to build Ekmattra Academy.
"Dhaka city is a very challenging place to bring up children properly. There simply was not enough space for a playground. So, we dreamt of setting up an academy for the children and started talking to corporate houses for funding for the project. Finally, we had a promising discussion with DBBL and they pledged to fund our academy," Shubhashish told the correspondent.
Eventually, Ekmattra-DBBL Academy was launched in 2016. The academy, situated in Mymensingh, will start running full-fledged from next year - hosting at least 120 children.
Currently, the academy hosts around 50 resident children.