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The forgotten children of Rana Plaza

Trauma may be lasting for those who lost parents

The forgotten children of Rana Plaza

Mehedi Hasan alongside his grandmother (Raphael Palma) reporter, Dhaka

October 9, 2013

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Afsana Akter Mim used to be a playful girl, but that all changed on April 24. Five months on from the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed her father, there is a marked difference in the behavior of the six-year-old.

“Mim has lost her smile, playfulness and appetite,” her mother, Fatema Begum, told at her home in Dhaka, as Mim sat silently nearby. “She used to like watching TV, but not any more.”

Among the forgotten victims of Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster on record are the children, like Mim, who lost parents and have suffered deep trauma as a result. Many families of the 1,100 victims still wait for compensation.

Mim’s father, Harun-ur-Rashid, was himself only 37 at the time of his death. The only bread winner in the family, he was a quality inspector earning around 15,000 taka (US$125) per month. His wife and daughter still live in Savar, not far from the site of the tragedy. Except for 20,000 taka for Harun’s burial, they have received no other compensation from the government.

“At first I told Mim that her daddy has gone abroad for job and will come back soon,” Fatema said. “Now she seems to realize the truth because she often asks me, if daddy is abroad why he doesn’t phone you or why he doesn’t send us money?”

The meagre resources available to Bangladeshis following the factory collapse mean treatment of trauma is not the top priority. Razia Sultana, a psychologist with Bangladeshi NGO, BRAC, says however that the affected children need immediate psychological assistance to recover from their trauma.

“These children might develop severe, persistent problems or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] related to the tragedy. Chronic symptoms may appear soon after the event, or may surface several months or even years later,” she said.

She added that adults should be alert to serious variations in children behavior, and in every case, professional treatment by a psychiatrist or a therapist who specializes in disaster counseling will be needed.

Two groups, the Y’s Men Club Dhaka and Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Savar, are however attempting to tackle the manifold problems faced by children who lost parents in the disaster. In a recent survey, they identity 50 children of Rana Plaza victims who need immediate help.

With assistance from their members in Bangladesh, Singapore, China and Hong Kong, a welfare fund has been created and 10 needy children have been selected to receive financial support over the coming decade. Last week the children received 3,000 taka, a school bag, exercise books and stationery.

“We have collected 1,100,000 taka from our members and deposited this in a cooperative bank,” said Tapan Thomas Rozario, a businessman and president of Savar YMCA. “Initially, we can support 10 children with interest from the money and we will extend our hands to more children when we have more funds.”

Among those who will be receiving help is Mehedi Hasan, an eight-year-old whose father died in the factory collapse. It is a double tragedy for Mehedi, who lost his mother six years ago from an unidentified illness.

His father had remarried a garment worker, Moriom Akter, who worked at Rana Plaza earning about 14,000 taka per month. Unlike her husband, Moriom was pulled out alive after being trapped for for several hours. Still too traumatized to return to work, Mehedi’s grandparents have resorted to irregular day labor, earning about $US3 per day.

“We have six people in the family and if we don’t work all have to starve,” said the grandmother, Rezia Begum, 50. “Moreover, we need to pay 1,800 taka house rent per month.”

She is particularly worried about Mehedi, who has turned astonishingly quiet since the tragedy and rarely speaks to outsiders.

“I think he was shocked to see his father’s dead body, whom we buried in our home village in Rangpur district [northern Bangladesh]. He doesn’t like to speak,” Rezia said. She added that they are struggling to pay for his schooling and cannot afford to take him to a doctor for treatment.

Mim’s mother consulted a doctor in an effort to find some form of treatment for the six-year-old girl. The advice: do the things her father used to do for her. “My husband used to take us to parks and various places during holidays,” Fatema said. “I could afford it if I had money or a well-paid job. I don’t know what to do.”

The efforts of the two organisations are laudable, but limited. Resources simply do not exist to tackle the many problems that have emerged since the Rana Plaza disaster. Most of the children remain silent victims, unattended to but in desperate need of help. For Mim and Mehedi, scarred at such a young age, the road ahead is littered with obstacles. 

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