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Catholic workers in Bangladesh labor over Lent

Migrant workers find juggling factory jobs and religious practice a nearly impossible feat, but help is at hand

Catholic workers in Bangladesh labor over Lent

Catholic migrant workers in Bangladesh take part in the Way of Cross at the Jesus Worker Center in the Zirani area of Gazipur district near Dhaka on March 2. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)  

Published: March 16, 2018 06:25 AM GMT

Updated: August 14, 2018 04:48 AM GMT

Lenten season spells gloom every year for Raphael Hembrom, an indigenous Santal Catholic from Rajshahi Diocese in northern Bangladesh.

Hembrom, 35, works at a textile factory in Zirani, an industrial hub in Gazipur district about 40 kilometers north of the capital Dhaka.

Hembrom moved there about eight years ago in search of a job and landed one in the country's vital garments industry

"I can still recall my days back home in my village during Lent. I used to join my friends in celebrating the Way of the Cross on Fridays. I found the Lenten songs of sorrow and Jesus' suffering very moving," said Hembrom, who got married two years ago and now lives near his workplace with his wife, who takes care of most of the domestic chores.

"Since coming to Dhaka, I've been unable to attend the Way of the Cross, Sunday Mass or any religious practice,"he told ucanews.com. "I want to fast on Fridays but I can't as we work in shifts and I usually have to work on Fridays. I regret this but there's nothing I can do." 

He works for 10-13 hours a day including overtime and only has one day off a week, earning 13,000-15,000 taka (US$159-183) per month.

This leaves him with scant savings at the end of the month after he deducts living expenses for his family, the money he sends to his parents, and 4,000 taka to rent a one-room residence with a tin roof.

"We don't earn much even though we work hard day and night. I feel so tired when I get home that I just crash out right after dinner, as I need to get up early the next day. Back in my village we used to have a family prayer in the evening. That's not possible anymore," he said.

Raphael Hembrom (left), an indigenous Santal Catholic, is pictured with a colleague inside a garment factory in Gazipur district near Dhaka. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com) 


Hembrom frets that when he has children they could grow up without a firm grounding in Christian teachings and values.  

"I still follow religion and the teachings of the church, remembering what I learned as a child. But I'm a bit scared about the future — when we have children, I don't know how much they will learn about religion or catechism."

The Catholic Church offers spiritual and pastoral care for Christian migrant workers in Bangladesh but its reach is not absolute due to financial and manpower limitations.

To help plug the gaps, Italian missionaries from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) opened the Jesus Worker Center (JWC) in 2009, one of a number of programs offering assistance to migrant workers.

It also offers residential facilities for newly arrived migrant workers until they find somewhere else to live.

But Hembrom and many others like him lack the time to visit the center and are unable to avail themselves of the care it offers.

"We have 2,000 Christian migrant workers from 800 families, most of them indigenous, who visit the center randomly," said a priest from the PIME who helps manage the facility. He requested that his name not be used.

"They do backbreaking jobs in various industries. The most pressing challenge is their extremely busy work schedule, which doesn't leave them with any time for prayer or spiritual endeavors. They work very hard day and night."

To tackle the problem, the center organizes meetings and seminars for workers during national holidays. 

"We arrange programs and we go to the places where most of the workers live. We visit their families and try to listen to their problems and find solutions. Sometimes we offer Mass in their homes. During Lent, we organize the Way of the Cross and spiritual direction preparation programs for them ahead of Easter," the priest said.

Kakoli Marandy, 30, is another Santal Catholic and mother of two who hails from Naogaon district in the northern part of the country.

She works at a packaging factory in the Pagla area of Narayanganj district near Dhaka. Her husband works as a security guard at a nearby factory. They earn about 15,000 taka per month.

Catholic migrant workers take part in the Way of Cross in Gazipur district near Dhaka on March 2. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)  


While there is a small Catholic church in Narayanganj city, it takes about an hour for Marandy to get there by bus or boat.

"During Lent we feel we must attend the Way of the Cross on Fridays, but the distance and the heavy traffic make this a challenge even on the weekend," she said.

"We can't make it to Sunday Mass as that is a workday. There are a good number of Catholics in the area where we live and they are in a similar situation," she said.

She said her family has not been able to participate in the Way of the Cross for the last five years; neither has she been able to celebrate Easter with her family or relatives back home.

Easter Sunday is not a public holiday in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

"We feel sad that we can't go to church even though we love our religion. But we have to work first to make sure our children are fed and receive an education. After that, we can consider religion," she said.

Some 60,000-70,000 Christian migrant workers are employed in various industrial zones in Dhaka and its adjacent areas, according to the Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission (JPC).

In 2010, the JPC created the Desk for Migrants and Itinerant People to render pastoral care, educational assistance and awareness-building services to migrant Christians in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country.

However, the desk has not been fully active due to a lack of qualified priests who specialize in these areas, said Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi. He doubles as chairman of the JPC.

"The desk was created to help migrant workers battle injustice in their workplaces and elsewhere. I think when Christian workers are deprived of pastoral and spiritual care, it is a kind of injustice," he said.

"The Jesus Worker Center is trying to fill the vacuum. In the future, we would like to replicate this model in other places," Bishop Rozario said.

Occasionally, the JPC sends a letter to parishes close to these industrial zones and urges priests to extend their services to migrant workers so they can feel the church's love, the prelate said.

"It will take some time to develop an efficient mechanism to help migrant workers. Until then, we must to whatever we can so they keep their jobs and yet are able to remain in touch with the church," he added. 

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