Page last updated at 16:19 GMT, Tuesday, 22 December 2009

British women 'helping Bangladesh'

By Mark Dummett
BBC News

Valerie Taylor
Valarie Taylor set up a centre to rehabilitate paralysed people

Two organisations which have helped thousands of the neediest people in Bangladesh are celebrating important milestones.

Both were set up by British women, who have dedicated their lives to helping this nation which, beset by poverty, natural disasters and corruption, is one of the poorest in the world.

The Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) was founded 30 years ago by Valerie Taylor, a physiotherapist.

Sreepur Village, a shelter for abandoned women and children, established by a former British Airways stewardess Pat Kerr, has just celebrated its 20th birthday.

In the beginning of course, neither woman had any idea that they would be so successful, nor that they would still be here after so many years.

"Originally I just came for 15 months but then I fell in love with the place," Ms Taylor says.

Never in our wildest dreams would we have realised that one day we would be able to offer a service to this number of people

Valerie Taylor

Initially working in a remote, rural hospital, she looked after many accident victims who had become paralysed from the neck or the waist down.

Many had fallen from trees while picking fruit, or stumbled while carrying heavy loads on their heads and then breaking their necks.

After discovering that nowhere in the entire country was able to provide proper care to people with spinal injuries, and that many died in bed from their sores, she moved to the capital and set up her centre.

Overcoming stigma

"We started in two cement storerooms with a corrugated-iron roof, and all the time we were trying to scrape money together.

"Never in our wildest dreams would we have realised that one day we would be able to offer a service to this number of people," she said.

Bangladeshi people in wheelchairs playing basketball
The centre encourages people to play basketball and tennis

The Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed now treats people with all sorts of disabilities, including children with cerebral palsy, on a large campus on the outskirts of Dhaka.

As well as offering specialist medical care, the CRP also provides different kinds of therapy and vocational training so that patients have a future to look forward to.

There is a college to train new therapists and nurses, and a school for both disabled and able-bodied children. In total it has treated about 250,000 people.

Ms Taylor says that the biggest challenge has been to overcome the stigma that many people with disabilities suffer from.

"The hardest thing has been the attitude of we, the so-called able bodied," she says.

"It's what we were doing 50 or 60 years ago in a country like the UK - tucking the disabled member of the family away in back room and never mentioning them. But that is now gradually changing in Bangladesh."

'Mothers and children'

And her biggest achievement?

"The understanding that a person is fighting back. In some of the examples it has been the paralysed woman who has always looked so terribly depressed and worried.

Pat Kerr
Pat Kerr was an air stewardess before she set up an orphanage in Bangladesh

"Perhaps she's learning to play table tennis and the ball has gone up to the ceiling and an enormous smile comes across her face.

"It's in these tiny ways and repeated across the 30 years that you take courage that - given the chance - people will fight back and make the most of their lives."

It is a philosophy shared by Pat Kerr, another remarkable woman helping the poor of Bangladesh.

She first came here as a stewardess working for British Airways. But on one long, boring stopover she decided to get involved in an orphanage close to the hotel where the cabin crew where staying.

We really focus on keeping the mothers and their children together
Pat Kerr

When that was threatened with closure, she moved to Bangladesh permanently and built Sreepur Village.

"We got quite good press coverage because of the whole imagery of the the planes and stewardesses working at the project, so we were able to raise enough money.

"Originally this was just going to be a series of mud huts, but it just grew. It was a very small idea which just planted a seed I suppose," she says.

'Little things'

What began life as a traditional orphanage, soon morphed into a much more ambitious endeavour, helping not just children, but their mothers as well, who were living on the streets of Dhaka, abandoned by the husbands.

"The mothers were really upset to give up their children but there was nothing else they could do. They couldn't care for them, they couldn't feed them and maybe the children were sick.

"So when we came here and had this extra space we changed what we did and now we really focus on keeping the mothers and their children together," she said.

Mother learning a trade
Mothers receive training so they can find work

The women can stay at Sreepur Village for up to five years, and while the children go to school, the mothers receive training - so that when they do return to the outside, they do so with dignity and the hope of finding work.

There are currently 500 people staying at the home.

"If I had known how much it would grow and take over my life I don't know if I would have done it or not.

"But having said that I'm really happy with the way things have gone, and I'm really privileged and lucky to be living here with all these women and children," Ms Kerr said.

Future hopes

"Horrible things happen, people die, and we have our own graveyard. But you cope with the big things.

"The things that get you down are the little things, like recently, someone gave me some really nice tea, and I asked someone from Dhaka to bring me some milk.

"But they brought milk powder which was horrible, then they brought full fat milk which was also horrible, so it took me two weeks before I could make myself a proper cup of tea," she said.

Children playing cricket  at Sreepur Village
There about 500 people currently staying at Sreepur Village

Still, all things are relative. Most foreigners find Bangladesh so frustrating that few venture far from the diplomats' enclave in Dhaka or stay in the country beyond a year or two.

Both Valerie Taylor and Pat Kerr are now thinking about the future.

Sreepur Village - known in Bangladesh as Shishu Polli Plus - is partly funded by greetings cards and handicrafts that the women make themselves, and gradually people who grew up at the home are taking over the responsibility of running it.

At the CRP meanwhile, Ms Taylor is no longer involved in the day-to-day management.

Both her and Ms Kerr are determined that the organisations they battled to create will continue to help thousands of Bangladeshis for decades to come. With, or without them.

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