Shoulder to Shoulder: Teach For Bangladesh Responds to Attack

On Friday, July 1, 2016, 22 people were killed in a savage terror attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh, leaving the country in utter shock and grief. Teach For Bangladesh’s CEO Maimuna Ahmad was right down the street at the time of the attack and was personally affected by the tragedy. The following is an excerpt of a moving letter Maimuna sent to the Teach For Bangladesh community shortly after the horrific attack.

I was at home with my husband, Qasim, preparing to leave Dhaka for the Eid holiday, when friends began calling and messaging us. Terrorists had taken hostages at the Holey Artisan Bakery, they told us, and all of Gulshan/Baridhara was on lockdown. Holey is right down the street from our house, and a spot we go to often for dinner, or tea, usually with friends. At first I could not understand what people meant saying there was a "hostage situation" happening. Then I heard from Aazia, one of my two best friends from university, that she had a young nephew stuck inside. Then we heard from Sophia, one of my cousins, that she had three friends inside, one of whom was Aazia's nephew. Then we heard from our friend Rafi, that he had two friends inside, friends who had danced at his holud [part of a series of celebrations constituting the Bengali wedding] just a few months earlier. Of those five, only two made it out of Holey alive the next day.

I have passed the last few days in a stupor, as we have found out more about those we lost, and those who took them away. Aazia's nephew Faraaz and his two friends Abinta and Tarishi lost their lives. No doubt many of you have heard of Faraaz's last act of unbelievable bravery. Katelyn's good friend Matteo lost all nine of his closest friends—Italians who had been living and working in our country for the last 12 years. Ishrat Akhond was a former colleague of my uncle Khalid and a friend to many of my friends. Qasim knew the officer in charge who was killed when he went to first investigate the disturbance—he had visited Qasim's office just a few months earlier...

This attack couldn't have felt closer to me than if I had happened to be in Holey that night myself. At the same time, as I recount these details, I am aware that some of us may feel closer to this attack than others. Bangladesh today is a deeply divided country—​by class, gender, religion, sexuality, nationality, and ethnicity. I believe that the choice of Friday's target was a deliberate one, meant to highlight these differences, to increase the sense of isolation between groups. It was meant to make foreigners feel more foreign, more vulnerable. It was meant to strike fear in the hearts of the "Gulshan-Baridhara Bangladeshis" who believe they wield power and influence in this country, and to show them that they are powerless to protect themselves and the ones they love. It was meant to alienate the rest of us, who may not be closely connected to either of those groups. I believe that the choice of attackers was a deliberate one...three young men from middle and upper-middle class Dhaka families, from well-known and respected schools and universities, two from a rural background, including one from a madrassa. The intention again is to divide us through the crippling fear of killers hiding in our midst. The message is unequivocal and it is chilling: anyone can be a killer, anyone can be a victim.

Fear is the currency of terrorism. Terrorists rely on fear to weaken us from within because they know that that is the only way they can take us on. When Muslims pray in congregation, we are asked to stand shoulder to shoulder, feet to feet, so there is no room for "shaitan" (evil spirit) to come between one person and the next. Whether you take that literally or metaphorically, the lesson is an appropriate one for us. Extremists seek to divide us because they know that we are stronger united. The first step to winning this war is by standing resolutely shoulder to shoulder—devout and agonistic, foreign and deshi, men and women, liberal and conservative—and refusing room for division or divisiveness.

We live in dangerous, uncertain and divisive times. I do not know if the world has ever been filled with so much fear, suspicion, intolerance and hatred. Extremist ideologies are growing in strength, and with that has grown violence and terrorism.

I write this because I believe that as a group that has committed to leadership for a stronger, better Bangladesh, we need to take honest stock of the situation and how it calls upon us to act.

Today, there is no place in the world that is safe. Today, our home has been threatened, our friends have been taken. In the face of such threat, we have one of three options: fight, flight or freeze. I choose to fight. I ask you to join me, and stand shoulder to shoulder. I ask you to recommit yourselves to our mission, our values and our children. I ask you to recommit yourselves to the future we are trying to build for them here in Bangladesh and around the world.

I am not yet sure how our work can and should change in response to this attack. What I do know is that now more than ever we need this movement. We need that our best bet against the rise of hatred is the rise of love... that those who lead with courage, commitment, and compassion will prevail over those who fight with fear and intimidation.

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