By Tonya Burton
Throughout February, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis plans to host a photo exhibit that aims to play on its audience’s emotions.
The photos by human rights photographer Katie Basbagill attempt to document the plight of the 300,000 Bihari people of Bangladesh.
When East and West Pakistan separated in 1971, neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh would claim the Bihari. They were left without passports in makeshift camps created by the Red Cross.
Their language and customs are different from those of the rest of the people in Bangladesh, which is a poor country. And 43 years later, they remain in the camps living in abject poverty.
The church’s photo exhibit is part of a fundraising effort to boost the Indiana-based OBAT Helpers, a nonprofit group working to improve the lives of the Bihari.
Indiana resident Anwar Khan founded OBAT Helpers. He said he founded the organization after taking a trip to visit extended family in Bangladesh.
The conditions Khan found there astounded him and touched his heart. He knew he had to help.
His initial plan was to adopt a single family to support, but he quickly realized the need was much greater. “The range of things I witnessed was beyond even my imagination,” Khan said. “Sewers and latrines are used by hundreds, which invites bacteria and spreads disease. On average there was one toilet per hundred people. Malnutrition was rampant.”
So in 2004, Khan, his family and his friends formed OBAT Helpers. The acronym is a nod of respect to his wife’s and his parents and contains the first letter of each of their first names.
“We are the only nonprofit organization in the U.S. devoted to the plight of the Bihari in Bangladesh,” Khan said. “We are nonprofit, nonreligious and nonpolitical. This is a human rights issue.”
Currently, they raise about $350,000 per year, of which 90 percent directly benefits the Bihari camps.
Because of one man’s initial vision, OBAT Helpers has initiated safe water projects, with 500- to 600-foot deep wells to get past surface contamination.
The group also runs 37 educational projects, two health clinics, three tutoring and two computer training centers, self-empowerment programs, camp improvement programs, and water and sewage facilities.
They are educating approximately 2,000 children, many of whom hope to become teachers or medical workers.
Ninety percent of Bihari children surveyed by OBAT were found to be illiterate.
For more information about the exhibit, visit St. Luke’s United Methodist Church at 100 W. 86th St. in Indianapolis. For more information about OBAT Helpers call 203-0603 or visit www.obathelpers.org.