Student embraces ‘hardest thing I’d done in my life’

Music student Sarah Bell wanted to teach, until she spent some time living beside a sweatshop in Bangladesh.

Bell’s summer trip was part of Global and Urban Partnerships, an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship program to expand world views and cross cultures. Students, who fundraise to support their trip, live in inner cities around the globe to study and apply scripture to life.

“I knew it would be the hardest thing I’d done in my life,” Bell said. “So that challenge appealed to me. I’d never been to a developing country before. Being in Music at Western, it’s a rich university. I knew seeing poverty would really affect me.”

It certainly did. Because of the experience, Bell decided to complete her degree (Bachelor of Music in Music Education with a minor in Psychology) then continue her studies with a graduate certificate in music therapy program at Concordia University, Montreal.

“Even the idea of buying a coffee everyday changed,” she said. “I met people who made less than that a day and supported a family on it. We lived beside a sweatshop, so it makes you think about where you get your clothes and how they are manufactured, and the faces and people behind them.”

After orientation in Canada and a debriefing in Dubai, the students were in Bangladesh, mostly in the capital city of Dhaka, home to one of the fastest-growing slums in the world.

At the Centre for Destitute Women and Abandoned Children, Bell worked with women who were, or had been part, of the sex trade. Some had been part of large families that was unable to support them. Others were orphans. When born into such poverty, there is little hope of escaping without an education. She said they tried to show love and compassion for the people they met. They played with the children and sang folk and pop songs, including Justin Bieber’s Baby and Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On.

“My own father passed away,” Bell said. “So I felt a special empathy to the kids who were fatherless. I knew I was going to a place I knew nothing about and that it could be a culture shock. It is an Islamic country and we live in a secular state, so that is different. I don’t think any amount of preparation can prepare you for what you see – the rawness of the human spirit.”

A typical day began with early devotions from 6:30-7 a.m., followed by breakfast. “We had eggs, toast and shared tea bags or instant coffee. There were funny jams or a version of Nutella.”

The team of 18 then left for placements in a leprosy clinic, hospital, friendship centre or the centre for women and children where they spent two to three hours. “There was no such thing as being on time. The buses were always late. If you had a meeting at a specific time, it was always quite a bit later. It was refreshing.”

After lunch, the team split into smaller groups to walk the streets, talking to beggars, armed with small books of basic Bangla. “We had a no-money policy,” said Bell. “We were already seen as privileged so if you’re trying to have a relationship with the people, it’s hard to establish that if you’re seen as just someone who gives them money. There is a difference between charity and compassion. It’s easier to give people money than to spend time with them.”

They did give food, and Bell remembers giving a brother and sister some bananas. The pair spent their days begging on the medium of a busy street or collecting cardboard for money.

Bell found her music was a welcome connection. “There is something about music even though it’s in a different language, it would transcend that. We could share our love through it. Music making is community. I loved the warmth of the Bengali people. They are so beautiful and loving. We were so welcomed. The degree was above and beyond, especially when you look at what they have compared to what we have.”

She would like to return to Bangladesh and work with the women she met.

Bell found the most rewarding part of the trip was the interaction with the women and children. She enjoyed their company, singing and playing with them. “Those are some of my favourite memories.”

The hardest part was witnessing the degree of poverty and not being able to make an instant change. “How can this exist? I can go back to Canada and be at Western. Why should this suffering happen?”

It altered her way of thinking about consuming – shopping for clothes, food and other aspects of a lifestyle North Americans take for granted. “It was a very emotional experience,” she said.