Category Archives: Projects & programs

Nourishing and Educating Girls in Lima, Peru

By Shae Davidson

For more than 30 years, the Asociación Grupo de Trabajo Redes (AGTR) has helped children in Peru empower themselves and escape child labor. A grant from BGR supports AGTR as it works to develop educational opportunities for girls in San Juan de Miraflores, one of the poorest districts of Lima. Over 55 percent of the people there live in poverty, and 10 percent live in extreme poverty; more than 80 percent of the children and adolescents have worked as child laborers. Child labor has a lasting effect on those involved, denying or delaying educational opportunities, exposing children to emotional and physical health risks, depriving youth of recreational and social activities, and putting them at greater risk for sexual abuse and trafficking.

Some families in poor neighborhoods in and around Lima see domestic labor as a chance to improve the lives of their children. Employers claim that they will provide educational opportunities to children, and that they will be welcomed into a loving household environment as “godchildren.” In reality, however, the children never become part of the families they serve. They devote their time to cooking, cleaning, gardening, and caring for young children. These affluent children often learn to objectify and abuse the child domestic workers by watching the actions of their parents. All the while, the young domestic workers are losing contact with their own families and communities and are falling behind educationally—often up to three years behind their peers.

AGTR offers a range of programs to help support former child workers and prevent other girls from becoming involved in child labor. Funding from BGR supports workshops that explore health, self-esteem, and communication and emphasize the importance of education in building future opportunities. In addition, AGTR provides food baskets to families who participate in the program and school supplies to students, helping alleviate some of the stresses that push children into domestic labor. The project currently serves 30 students.

The program stresses the importance of education and helps children cultivate a stronger sense of personal worth and self-esteem. AGTR relies on the experiences of former child workers to develop its programs, allowing them to celebrate the strength and perseverance of child workers without stigmatizing them while recognizing the dignity of their labor. “I felt very good,” one explains. “It is the first time that I hear that our work is very good, that we each have our stories as domestic workers: some are very ugly, but we’re strong enough to move on.”  

Between 2012 and 2017 AGTR created five youth groups in poor communities around Lima. Led by former domestic workers, the youth groups provided tutoring and mentoring support for at-risk youth, and gave children a voice as AGTR worked to improve its ability to help children. The project in San Juan de Miraflores began at one of these youth centers.

Etsi is one of the children served by an AGTR youth center. She moved into a wealthy home in Lima, Peru, to work as a domestic servant when she was a child. The family refused to pay her for seven of the nine years she worked for them, and denied her basic rights granted to workers. After leaving the family Etsi made contact with AGTR, which helped her understand her experiences and reconsider the value of domestic workers.

COVID-19 has created challenges for AGTR’s programs. The lockdown has increased adult unemployment, heightening the risk that children will enter the workforce. Children who remain in school risk falling behind due to disrupted schedules. Although schools in Lima offer virtual classes, the range of subjects is limited and many students do not have reliable internet access. Officials have tried to fill this gap by sending assignments and relying on the government television program “I Can Learn at Home,” although many families feel the program is of limited value. Before the pandemic, AGTR offered tutoring services at their community center. Tutoring sessions helped students whose parents were unable to help them with homework, and gave them an extra edge in more difficult Math and English classes as they moved into high school. AGTR hopes to resume meeting face-to-face with students at its venue in the near future.

Government agencies have stepped in to provide additional support for families in the area during the lockdown. For example, San Juan de Miraflores lacks running water. Prior to the pandemic, families would buy water from trucks or fill jerrycans and portable tanks outside of the neighborhood. The lockdown cut household income and made it harder for families to meet vendors. The municipal government has agreed to cover the cost of water for residents during the crisis.

AGTR has continued delivering baskets of food to each of the 30 girls participating in the program, and staff members use the opportunity to meet with students and their families. Thanks to additional donations from friends and former volunteers, AGTR is also able to give food to other children in San Juan de Miraflores. This allows families in the district to pool their resources and prepare large common pots of food that are shared with the community. “Solidarity,” AGTR observes, “is a great resource in these difficult times.”

Shae Davidson holds a PhD degree in American history. His dissertation research explored the importance of inclusive community partnerships in building food systems.  He has served as a museum director and taught history and public policy.

Our Efforts Make a Real Difference

BGR Staff

The following post is a message we received from one of our long-term partners in Haiti, the What If Foundation. Though we cannot know for certain whether Daymondy Dume was one of the children who received meals through our sponsorship of the food program, she exemplifies the kind of difference this program can make in the lives of people living on the edge of poverty. We therefore share it with our readers.

Daymondy is the first person in her family to attend school. She grew up in one of the tent camps set up for those displaced by the 2010 earthquake, and today she’s in her second year of Medical School at the University of Notre Dame in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She’s on the path to realize her dream of becoming a doctor — achieving a brighter future for herself while giving back to her community and her country. And it’s donors like you who made it possible.

Daymondy Dume at the University of Notre Dame’s library

Daymondy and her family began attending the Na Rive Food Program when she was little. Na Rive’s Program Director, Lavarice Gaudin, recognized her potential and encouraged her to pursue one of our academic scholarships. She graduated high school in 2018 and was accepted to the Medical School at Notre Dame University, where fewer than 10% of applicants make the cut. She is so excited to be on track to become a doctor, she still pinches herself.

I’ve been studying around the clock to make sure I am the best student I can be. I want to make everyone who believes in me and supports me proud. I have come so far from when I first started school, so I try hard every day to stay on top of my studies. I am very interested in genetics and have great teachers here who push me to succeed every day. This last year has been difficult since the university had to close and transportation has become more dangerous, but I will find a way! Thank you for helping me pursue my dream.”

Students like Daymondy represent exactly what Na Rive hopes to achieve: giving children from Ti Plas Kazo the opportunity to transform themselves, their families, their community, and eventually, their country. “We are so proud of Daymondy. Her determination was always easy to see, but now she has grown to become a smart, motivated young woman who wants to give back. She is a wonderful example for our students and our community” says Lavarice.

Daymondy also represents the power of our partnership with Na Rive: the support your donations provide is put to the best possible use by those who know the community best. By investing in the future of children like Daymondy, we are giving them the tools to achieve their full potential, whatever that might be. And the impact of every single child we support has a magnifying effect across their families, classmates and community.

BGR Awards Grants to 51 Projects Worldwide

By Kate Zemlo Rivas

In late April, BGR’s Board approved 51 projects with potential partners around the world. These grants for BGR’s fiscal year 2021-22 amounted to $969,000. The Board provided $60,000 in additional emergency assistance to regions afflicted with the Covid pandemic–most in India–pushing BGR’s grant total to over $1,000,000.

During the weekend of April 23–25, 2021, the Buddhist Global Relief Board and staff members met via Zoom to review 51 project proposals from potential partners around the world. By the weekend’s conclusion, all of the projects for BGR’s fiscal year 2021-22 had been approved, with the Board awarding $969,000 in grants. The $400,000 increase compared to the previous year was made possible by several extremely generous donations we received over the past year. Decisions by the BGR Board in May to provide $60,000 in emergency assistance to regions afflicted with the Covid pandemic–most in India–pushed BGR’s grant total to over $1,000,000.

A majority of BGR’s projects are renewable projects with existing partners. Through the years, these projects have proven to be successful and aligned with BGR’s mission of fighting hunger, supporting sustainable agriculture, educating children—especially girls—and providing opportunities for women to start livelihood projects to support their families.

The projects support partners operating in countries around the world, among them Nicaragua, Peru, Haiti, Brazil, the United States, Uganda, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Malawi, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the challenges caused by the pandemic, most of the partner organizations have reported that they are staying on track with their goals as they adjusted their operations to ever-changing conditions.

This year, the Board approved eight new projects, half of which introduce new organizations into BGR’s circle of worldwide partners.

Each CAMFED Association member, on average, supports three more girls to go to secondary school, and rallies community support around the most vulnerable.

CAMFED, one of BGR’s new partners, is more formally known as the Campaign for Female Education. An international non-governmental, non-profit organization, CAMFED’s mission is to eradicate poverty in Africa through the education of girls and the empowerment of young women. CAMFED programs operate in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania, and Malawi. BGR awarded CAMFED a grant to address the urgent needs of female students in Malawi, one of the least developed countries in the world. For most families in Malawi, school costs are prohibitive and thus poor children, especially girls, often lack opportunities for education. The grant from BGR will support the education and basic nutritional needs of 1,333 girl students in Malawi.

In Myanmar, BGR’s new partner is New Eden Charity Foundation, which will provide school supplies to about 800 children of families in the Chin State who have been internally displaced due to the heavy fighting in the region.

Mahabodhi International Meditation Center (MIMC) is a new partner in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, India. MIMC operates a school for disadvantaged boys and girls from remote parts of the region. Thus far, every year during the admission period, MIMC’s selection committee has had to turn away many deserving boys simply because the present boys’ hostel can only accommodate 100 children. BGR’s grant will support the construction of a new hostel to accommodate an additional 80 boys. This will make a difference not only to the students but to their families and communities.

BGR will join an existing partner, CARE, in a new project this year that will expand a university scholarship initiative for female high school graduates in Afghanistan’s Khost province. More than 866,000 adolescents in Afghanistan are out of school, including 622,084 (71.8 percent) girls. Since 2012, CARE has helped more than 300 young women to continue their education, and as a result, the graduates have found job opportunities allowing them to support themselves and their families. This grant will provide scholarships to an additional 100 young women for the coming academic year.

Uganda Buddhist Centre is another of BGR’s existing partners. This year, in addition to the current UBC Peace School, the organization is introducing a new project to provide hunger relief for orphans in Bulega Village, Entebbe. In this Ugandan village, many children have been orphaned or abandoned due to HIV/AIDS, poverty, conflict-related violence, inadequate healthcare, neglect, and exploitation. This project will provide two nutritious meals a day for about 20 children for a year. The program also offers emotional support, yoga classes, and mindfulness training for the children.

A partner from earlier years, Sri Lanka’s Karuna Trust was awarded a grant to support the professional training of fifteen girls from low-income families to become graphic designers, a profession in high demand in Sri Lanka. Karuna Trust has run similar programs in the past, and all the graduates are either well employed or running their own businesses. BGR has also given Karuna Trust an emergency donation to provide dry food rations to families negatively impacted by the corona pandemic.

Karuna Trust hunger relief sponsored by BGR

A longtime BGR partner, Oxfam America, was awarded a grant for its new project supporting women’s livelihood support and climate-smart agriculture in Uganda. This project aims to benefit 200 women and men farmers and their families by training them in climate-resilient agricultural practices and business skills related to farming, purchasing tools, and planting seeds for home consumption and income.

Finally, the Sahuarita Food Bank and Community Center, located in southeastern Arizona, is a second-year beneficiary of BGR funding. A BGR grant last year supported the construction of the center’s new facility with a commercial kitchen and classroom. This year, BGR is supporting a pilot project in which women will be trained in food preparation and other skills needed to operate a small food business.

Feeding hungry children at Sahuarita Food Bank

BGR expresses its deepest gratitude to all its generous donors who allow us to continue our work of helping to relieve the suffering of the most vulnerable among us.

Kate Zemlo Rivas is a volunteer at BGR. She lives in Sacramento, California, and works for the University of California, Davis. Kate is awaiting admission to the California Bar and is hoping to practice in the area of human rights and continue supporting the immigrant community. She has been a student of Buddhism for over ten years.

BGR Offers Emergency Assistance during the Pandemic

By BGR Staff

In May 2021, BGR donated over $60,000 from our emergency funds to support communities, both globally and in the U.S., adversely impacted by the Covid pandemic. Most of our assistance has gone to organizations working in India, which has been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

Photo: International Medical Corps

In May 2021, BGR donated over $60,000 from our emergency funds to support communities, both globally and in the U.S., adversely impacted by the Covid pandemic. Most of our assistance has gone to organizations working in India, which has been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

BGR began its emergency assistance to India on May 6th with a donation of $6,000 divided as follows among four organizations:

  • $2,000 to CARE India, to provide essential hospital services, health workers, beds, oxygen supply, and more.
  • $2,000 to the International Medical Corps, which is working with its partners in India to meet the most urgent health needs, including medical supplies, personal protective equipment, sanitation, and hygiene supplies.
  • $1,000 to Ketto, a fund-raising platform in Mumbai, to purchase oxygen concentrators.
  • $1,000 to Akshaya Patra Foundation, which is providing food to thousands of needy people across India.

Shortly after making this donation, BGR received an extremely generous donation from an individual donor in the amount of $20,000, for which we are deeply grateful. This was distributed to five organizations, in the amount of $4,000 each. The five beneficiaries were:

  • UNICEF-USA,  the US branch of the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, to ensure that children around the world are vaccinated against Covid-19.
  • World Food Program USA, to provide urgently needed food aid to Yemen and the Central African Republic.
  • CARE India, for emergency medical relief, in addition to the $2,000 given earlier.
  • Akshaya Patra Foundation, for food assistance, in addition to the $1,000 given earlier.
  • Cambodian League for Promotion of Human Rights (LICADHO), to provide food and hygiene supplies to women and their young children in Cambodian prisons.

On May 16th the BGR Board decided to donate an additional $1,000 to UNICEF-USA, the World Food Program USA, and LICADHO, to bolster their donations to $5,000 each. CARE India and Akshaya Patra had already received additional funding under our earlier donation.

At its meeting on May 16th, the Board agreed to provide $2,500 in emergency assistance to the Karuna Trust, a social service organization in Sri Lanka, to provide parcels of dry food rations to poor families left desperate and hungry because of the pandemic.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dry-rations-distribution-1.jpg
Dry rations distribution by Karuna Trust

The Board also decided to offer a donation of $5,000 to UNRWA-USA, the U.S. branch of the UN relief agency assisting Palestinian refugees. The organization is currently providing shelter, food assistance, health care, and other life-enhancing programs to Palestinians in Gaza left hungry and often homeless on account of the recent Israeli air raids.

In mid-May, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote to his friend, Ven. Bhante Ananda, general secretary of the Maha Bodhi Society, Bengaluru, to inquire about the condition of the monastery in Bengaluru, where he taught in 2019. The Maha Bodhi Maitri Mandala, the humanitarian service wing of the Maha Bodhi Society, operates a hospital in Bengaluru. Bhante Ananda wrote back to Ven. Bodhi to inform him that the hospital desperately needed five ventilators, each costing almost $10,000. They had received funds from supporters in Switzerland for one ventilator, but needed funds for the other four.

Ven. Bodhi proposed that BGR provide funds for a ventilator; a donation of $10,000 from the Buddhist Association of the United States (BAUS) to BGR enabled us to cover the costs of a second ventilator. Ven. Bodhi requested his publisher, Wisdom Publications, to donate for a third ventilator. And Indian Buddhists living in the greater New York area offered to raise funds for the fourth ventilator. In this way, by May 21st, the Mahabodhi Maitri Mandala had acquired the funds needed to purchase the four ventilators, which would be used to preserve the lives of their hospital patients.

Ventilators at the Maha Bodhi Hospital in Bengaluru
donated with help from BGR

Finally, on May 19th, BGR provided an emergency donation of $2,500 to the Foundation of His Sacred Majesty, an organization in India that renders services to the poor, deserving, and needy section of the Indian population without distinctions of caste, creed, race, sex, or religion. The Foundation urgently required outside assistance to help provide Covid relief.

In addition to these international donations, BGR continues to provide a monthly contribution of $3,000 to Feeding America, an umbrella organization supporting U.S. food banks, and a $500 monthly donation to the food program of Empty Cloud Monastery in West Orange, New Jersey.

As much as we lament the devastation that the Covid pandemic has brought to so many communities around the world, and the grief it has inflicted on countless families that have lost loved ones, we feel privileged to be able to offer tangible relief in the form of food supplies and medical aid and thereby save the lives of people who might have otherwise succumbed to illness or despair. We thank all of our donors for making this assistance possible, and we hope they rejoice in the good they make possible through their generosity.

Feeding Needy Children in Haiti’s Capital

By Shae Davidson

A grant from Buddhist Global Relief to the What If Foundation supports the Lamanjay Food Program in the Ti Plas Kazo community of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The program serves up to 800 free meals each day at the Lamanjay community cafeteria and also provides lunches for 350–400 students and staff of the Father Jeri School in Port-au-Prince.

Awaiting distribution of the meal

Five-year-old Riber Jean has been eating at the Lamanjay Food Program since he was born. He loves eating at the cafeteria—which is only a few blocks from his home—with his mom and younger sister, and looks forward to a chance to see his friends.

Lamanjay is the co-creation of the Berkeley, California­–based What If Foundation and the Na Rive community development program in Haiti. Over the last twenty years, the two groups have worked closely together to develop Haitian-led programs to provide food assistance, educational opportunities, and disaster relief to the residents of Port-au-Prince’s Ti Plas Kazo community. For the children and families served by Na Rive’s community cafeteria, the meals provided are often their only food of the day.

The United Nations World Food Programme describes Haiti as having one of the highest levels of food insecurity in the world. Half of the population was undernourished in 2018, and 22 percent of Haitian children are chronically malnourished. The situation facing children in Port-au-Prince has worsened since a political crisis began in 2018, which saw shortages of water, food, and fuel, as well as rising violence and increasing inflation. Over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic and rising food prices have made Na Rive’s Lamanjay food program more critical than ever.

A grant from Buddhist Global Relief has allowed the What If Foundation to continue supporting the Lamanjay Food Program. The support helps purchase food and cooking supplies, provide stipends to workers who prepare and serve meals, and pay for storage space for dry goods.

The community cafeteria serves up to 800 meals each day. The program also provides lunches for 350–400 students and staff members of the Father Jeri School, which was partly furnished and equipped with BGR assistance.

Na Rive continues to support the needs of community members who have been displaced from Ti Plas Kazo. In 2016 the government dismantled the tent camp created for survivors of the 2010 earthquake, forcing families to move far from Ti Plas Kazo. Na Rive opened a food pantry where displaced families can pick up rice and beans to cook at home. The pantry supplies up to 60 families each week, saving them from having to walk miles back to the neighborhood’s community cafeteria.

In 2020, Lamanjay’s three programs served approximately 5,000 meals per week. Over the course of the twenty years that Na Rive and the What If Foundation have worked together to serve the people of Port-au-Prince, they have provided over 5.5 million meals.

Jeanty Simon enjoys a meal

The food program also nurtures a stronger sense of community. Lamanjay provides a welcoming space for residents of Ti Plas Kazo. Rolande, a 7-year-old who relies on Lamanjay, said, “I feel safe and happy here.” Many people who benefit from the project volunteer to help support it. The What If Foundation and Na Rive celebrate this spirit of communal effort, seeing it as an essential part of creating a feeling of togetherness and a valuable tool for helping residents and program workers build a more secure community. This sense of engagement and local ownership has led beneficiaries to share the story of Na Rive, putting more families and children in contact with the group.

This emphasis on safety and inclusion has helped Port-au-Prince residents like 4-year-old Jeanty Simon. Jeanty used to live in downtown Port-au-Prince with her grandmother, parents, and siblings, but the family moved to Ti Plas Kazo to escape the growing influence of gangs in their neighborhood. Jeanty’s father had to abandon his job, and the Lamanjay program helps the family make ends meet while providing a safe, welcoming space as they resettle.

Margaret Trost, a business owner and young mother, founded the What If Foundation in 2000 with human rights activist Father Gérard Jean-Juste. Jean-Juste saw child nutrition as the first step on a path leading to education, opportunities for growth, and more vibrant communities. As they began organizing in Haiti, Jean-Juste and his supporters found inspiration in the Creole saying, “Piti piti na rive”—”Little by little we will arrive.” The expression reflects the group’s belief in the power of small acts of love to improve lives.

Community organizer Lavarice Gaudin became the leader of Na Rive following Father Jean-Juste’s death from leukemia in 2009. He has skillfully guided the Lamanjay Food Program as well as the education and relief projects the What If Foundation funds in Haiti. Catherine Lelong, interim executive director of the What If Foundation since the spring of 2019, is of Haitian descent. A graduate of the London School of Business’s MBA program, Lelong has used her skills in nonprofit marketing and strategy to work with Na Rive and donor groups like Buddhist Global Relief to help the Lamanjay Food Program continue to serve the people of Ti Plas Kazo.

Riber Jean, 5, has been eating at the Lamanjay Food Program since infancy

Support from Buddhist Global Relief allows the What If Foundation to give families and children vital resources, helping build a better future for residents of Ti Plas Kazo who rely on the Lamanjay Food Program. The What If Foundation projects that the grant from Buddhist Global Relief will allow Na Rive to reach 22,000 people, continuing a sustainable, community-based food program that helps families most in need. According to the foundation, the partnership “provides the children not only the food to survive but the knowledge that they are not alone and that there are donors in other places who care and stand in solidarity with them.”

Shae Davidson holds a PhD degree in American history. His dissertation research explored the importance of inclusive community partnerships in building food systems.  He has served as a museum director and taught history and public policy.

Supporting Sustainable Livelihoods for Women Farmers in Kenya

By Patricia Brick

Tending a vegetable garden using eco-friendly techniques

BGR’s partner, the Grow Biointensive Agriculture Centre of Kenya (G-BIACK), works to address food insecurity and malnutrition in Kenya and to raise the income of poor farmers through environmentally sustainable agricultural methods. Responding to a crisis of soil degradation in the project areas in Machakos County, G-BIACK teaches farmers methods to reclaim depleted soil while facilitating the cultivation of cash crops that will provide the greatest improvement to their livelihoods.

A BGR project titled “Enhancing Capacities of Rural Women in Kenya” provided training to 840 women farmers and kitchen gardeners, many of whom reported that their children had been hungry before and now have sufficient food. The project had four objectives:

  • to improve the livelihoods of poor women living in rural communities in Machakos County;
  • to share information related to family health and nutrition;
  • to link the women to local organizations to support them in their livelihood development;
  • to teach ecologically sound principles and techniques.

During the project period, drought struck the region, and partway through the year Covid affected in-person trainings. Our partner reports that the trainings were nevertheless highly successful at achieving the stated goals. A majority of participants created home gardens that were drought-resistant and that incorporated swales and terraces to limit water runoff. Many utilized Grow Biointensive compost methods to rejuvenate depleted soil. Participants reported feeling more independent as they grew their crops for food and income.

Graduation after completing the program

Kaloki Virginia appreciated learning about the value of composting organic materials to use in her garden. “I had been burning all the trash after harvesting my crops,” she said, referring to the vegetation left over after harvesting. “I didn’t know that trash was gold. Now I know. I have piles of compost from my farm, which I am using to grow my food.”

Jenifer Kamene spoke about the value of using organic fertilizers and pesticides rather than the heavy chemicals she had used in the past. She said: “Chemicals destroyed my farm and I became very poor. I was wondering what was happening in my farm because I could not produce any food due to poor soils. But just a few months after G-BIACK came, I am rich. I have food. This is my joy!”

Mary Mutheu, a resident of the Mithini community in Machakos County, also participated in the trainings this year. “The biggest need of people in Mithini is food,” she said. “A year ago, I was buying vegetables for my family every time. But now see my kitchen garden: It is flourishing with indigenous vegetables. This is what I needed. Nothing else.” She added: “May G-BIACK reach out to all of this region with this knowledge. May they continue teaching women until all of them create a kitchen garden like mine.”

Patricia Brick is a staff writer for Buddhist Global Relief.

Improving Children’s Health and Education in the Himalayan Foothills

By David Braughton

Providing food support to undernourished students in the Arunachal Pradesh branch of the Maha Bodhi Maitri Mandala not only improves their health, but also enhances their capacity to succeed in their studies.

Praying for world peace before classes begin

The Arunachal Branch of the Maha Bodhi Maitri Mandala is situated in a remote corner of northeastern India at the foothills of the Himalaya mountains. The branch falls under the umbrella of the Maha Bodhi Society of Bengaluru (Bangalore), founded by the late Ven. Acharya Buddharakkhita and currently administered by Ven. Buddharakkhita’s monastic disciples. Ven. Buddharakkhita had long wished to start a branch of the Maha Bodhi Society in Arunachal Pradesh, where most of the inhabitants are traditional tribal Buddhists. The Mahabodhi Maitri Mandala (MMM) was founded in Diyun, a remote place in Arunachal Pradesh, on 3rd January 2003 with a primary school and hostel. 

The branch was established to serve the poor and needy people of the region, most of whom are members of the Chakma tribes. Originally residing in the Chittagong Hill Tract region of what is now Bangladesh, since the early sixteenth century the Chakmas have struggled for sovereignty and stability. After centuries of conflict with Muslim invaders, their plight only worsened with the colonialization of the Indian subcontinent under the British. From 1777 to 1789 the Chakmas waged war with the East India Company, which ended when the king of the Chakmas agreed to accept the company’s hegemony and pay tribute in the form of cotton.

With the partition of India following its independence from Britain, the Chittagong Hill Tract region was ceded to Pakistan, even though its population was 98% non-Muslim. The creation of East Pakistan, as the area was called, paved the way for ongoing war, violence, and conflict, and the first mass migration of Chakmas to India. Later, when East Pakistan was established as a separate country, named Bangladesh, the Pakistan government that still held sway in Chakma areas responded by building the Kaptai Dam to punish the Chakmas. Over 54,000 acres of Chakma farmland was submerged, leading to a second mass migration to northeast India.

Although the Chakma lands surrounding Diyun are rich in natural resources, the Chakmas lag behind the rest of India due to the prevalence of subsistence farming, a weak industrial base, poor infrastructure, political unrest and violence, and a reliance on public sector employment. The last major road building occurred over four decades ago, and the closest modern hospital is 13 hours away in the state of Assam. Most schools are government-run and may house as many as a hundred children in a single classroom. Children commonly drop out of primary school, resulting in an adult literacy rate of only 67%.

Surviving on subsistence farming, nearly 35% of the population falls below the Indian poverty line, which is equivalent to U.S. $361 US annually. According to a report published in 2013, over 50% of the area’s adult population is either unemployed or not participating in the workforce.

Given the area’s social and economic challenges, it is no surprise that the Maitri Mandala focused on opening a school for young children as its first venture. Classes and a youth hostel for orphans and the poorest students were originally housed in bamboo huts. Later, the organization was able to acquire land and build a school along with dormitories for girls and boys. Today there are 640 students enrolled in the school and 253 children living in the dormitories.

When the Maitri Mandala approached BGR for assistance in 2018, its leadership was struggling with a complex set of interconnected challenges. The children who came to the school were malnourished and grappling with a variety of health-related concerns that limited their ability to concentrate, study, and learn. Funds needed to operate the school and serve even more children had to be diverted to healthcare. Poor educational outcomes also meant that students would drop out and the school and other programs could lose community support.

Distributing fruits at meal time

In response to these many challenges, the Maitri Mandala developed a simple theory of change: provide three nutritious meals to students daily to improve student health, which, in turn, would improve educational outcomes. When they came to BGR for assistance, the BGR Board applauded their proposal and awarded the organization a grant to support their project.

Presenting schoolbooks to happy students

At the end of the first grant year, the Maitri Mandala reported that BGR support had enabled them to vastly improve both the quantity and quality of food served to the children. They had added rice, dal, fried vegetables, boiled vegetable curries, and fruit! In addition, they could now offer kids an afternoon snack. The impact was almost immediate. The number of children each month who complained of physical weakness, skin disease, and other illnesses related to malnutrition dropped by 50%, and more children were participating in sports and other physical activities than ever before. Equally significant, 94% of senior students passed the Central Board of Secondary Education exams, a standard test required in order to advance academically. The reduced cost of healthcare meant that the organization could increase teacher and staff pay by 1000 rupees a month, the equivalent of $13.38.

The onset of the pandemic required still more innovation on the part of the Maitri Mandala. Confronted with a nationwide lockdown, they used BGR support (which had now doubled) to provide rice, sugar, flour, milk, and other food items to the families of their poorest students. And when the children were finally able to return to school, the emphasis was on improving their health through a rigorous feeding program. As with the first year of funding, the results have been impressive with even more children passing their Central Board exams.

Often, it is hard, if not impossible to measure the good we do. Certainly, this is no less true for the over 45 organizations and projects that Buddhist Global Relief funds each year. Solving hunger is especially challenging because there is no single cause for hunger. If it were simply a matter of providing enough food to meet the nutritional needs of a child or its family today, we could do that. The issue becomes how to ensure that this same child and family continue to have sufficient food tomorrow and the day after, particularly when they are faced with the overwhelming challenges of civil strife, climate change, outdated farming techniques, poverty, illiteracy, natural disasters, inflated food prices, inadequate infrastructure, poor health, disease and now a pandemic.

Expressing thanks to Buddhist Global Relief

The experience of the Maha Bodhi Maitri Mandala Arunachal Branch is proof that by joining together, we can make a difference, no matter how intractable or complex the problem. People of good heart, motivated by compassion and focused on what is essential, can open up the future to a child and to a community, if only they are focused on the fundamentals and are willing to try.

David Braughton is the vice-chair of Buddhist Global Relief. He has worked for over 35 years in human services related to a range of human needs including refugee resettlement, employment and youth services.

Feeding Schoolchildren and Elders in a Himalayan Township

By Carla Prater

Since 2019 BGR has been funding the food program of the Mahabodhi Centre in Tawang, in the Indian Himalayas. The program provides three nutritious meals daily to over 200 people:165 children, elders, resident monks, and staff.

Students enjoy a meal at the Mahabodhi school, Tawang

Tucked into a valley more than 11,000 feet above sea level, in the Himalayan mountains of Arunachal Pradesh in northern India, there is a small town called Tawang. In this beautiful region, there is a side of life most summer tourists don’t see.

Because of heavy snowfall from November through March, during the winter Tawang is nearly cut off from the rest of the world. Few vegetables and fruits are available in the markets, and those that are are too expensive for most people to buy. For this reason, residents have to survive on cheese and dry vegetables until spring arrives, when the roads to Assam state, stretching 200 miles, again become motorable. Lacking nutritious food, children and vulnerable elders are subject to malnutrition and chronic health problems.

In 2010 Ven. Panyarakkhita, a monk who was born in Tawang and had come back to found the Mahabodhi Positive Living Society, met an eighty-year old widow living by herself in a bamboo hut. With no relatives to care for her, she was neglected and lonely. This encounter inspired him to found the Mahabodhi Old Age Home, where elders in need of care and protection would be treated with love and kindness and can live in safety, dignity, and peace.

Feeding elders at the Mahabodhi Old Age Home

On its six-acre campus, Mahabodhi Centre Tawang also provides housing, food, quality education, and health care to local children, with boys’ and girls’hostels housing over 160 children. There is a school for children in grades K-8, and a new effort supporting young women pursuing higher education.

The school offers a broad-based modern curriculum, while seeking to promote the development of compassion, self-knowledge, wisdom, and responsibility for others. Knowledge and skills are balanced with attention to attitudes and values.

The school children visit the elderly residents on Sundays and holidays, helping them with simple tasks. The elders are encouraged to continue their traditional customs, with a kitchen of their own where they can prepare their favorite dishes. Visitors enjoy hearing of the many experiences the elders have lived through.

Since 2019 BGR has helped to fund the center’s food program, which provides nutritious meals three times a day to over 200 people, including 165 children, the elderly residents, monks, and organization staff. With adequate food, the children and elders enjoy better health and are thriving in a supportive environment. Your generous donation will mean a great deal to the future of the children of Tawang!

Fruits are essential to good health

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Beneficiary testimonies

Vayama, a 10th grade student:

Since 2014 I have been a student here. I am happy to know that food aid is provided by Buddhist Global Relief. Due to the food support, we are receiving healthy and nutritious food and all the children are fit and fine. We also get healthy fruit three times a week on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, such as apples, oranges, grapes, pears, plums, and pomegranates.

Your support is helping us immensely to keep physically and mentally strong. We feel deeply grateful and thankful to Buddhist Global Relief for your most important support in terms of education and food aid.

Suvaca, also in the 10th grade, writes:

I have been associated with Mahabodhi Tawang Centre since 2013. I am very happy to know that Buddhist Global Relief is supporting our education. We are getting tuition in such subjects as mathematics, science, English, and history. We also get to listen to Dhamma and practice meditation, which helps us to develop our mind and concentration. We go to study in a government school, but we are provided a good education with special classes by Mahabodhi Tawang Centre. Apart from special classes, we receive career counseling, personality development, health tips, and other self-development programs.

If there was no support from BGR and MTC, we would not have received a good quality education. I feel very lucky to have such support. On behalf of all the school children I express our big thanks and gratitude to Buddhist Global Relief for your invaluable support to us.

Norbu Drema, teacher at Mahabodhi School:

I have been closely associated with the Mahabodhi Society since my childhood days. I completed all my education from schooling to teaching profession in Mahabodhi centers across India. And I feel truly privileged and honored to be back in the same institution where I was brought up and educated. I have joined Mahabodhi School in Tawang to render my service as a teacher. I am blessed to be serving in this center because of what society has offered me till today. I am deeply grateful and thankful to Buddhist Global Relief for supporting our education and food project programs in Mahabodhi Tawang Centre.

The center is striving its best to impart good education with your committed support. Children are given extra tuition in various subjects. Educators and resource persons are invited to give career counseling, self-skill training, and other important educational information. Graduates of the school also visit and involve the children in sports, games, and cultural events to enhance their personal development and confidence level.

On the other hand, this center is also providing wholesome food to the beneficiaries. The novices, staff, children, and elders are living happily and taken good care of by the society.

I look forward to your continued support to Mahabodhi Tawang Centre through education and food aid projects.

Carla Prater is assistant director of Buddhist Global Relief.

Vocational Training for Women in São Paulo, Brazil

By Carla Prater

Founded by two sisters who are professional social workers, GAIA – Group for Assistance of the Elderly, Children and Adolescents – is a non-profit organization acting in formal and informal education and social work in São Paulo, Brazil. The founders saw many needs in their low-income neighborhood of Campo Grande in the south end of São Paulo. Their first effort was to start a little preschool, which was so successful that they soon had two schools, which serve families in the area, giving the children a good start on their school careers.

They soon found other ways to serve, including providing vocational training for the many women whose schooling was minimal. These women require public services that are overstretched and unable to meet the demands caused by their lack of access to healthy food and dignified living conditions. The project supported by BGR is intended to offer better living conditions to 120 women, through workshops, talks, and courses designed to give them skills as formal or informal workers earning money to supply their families’ basic needs.

Two types of training were offered: eldercare and sewing. About forty women participated in each of these classes. The women were instructed in pattern-making, cutting, sewing, and finishing their work so it was ready for sale in a Christmas bazaar. The eldercare group attended lecture sessions covering legal and social issues, physical care techniques, and field trips to care facilities, as well as hands on practice sessions in how to assist bedridden patients.

The project ran into some serious issues halfway through as COVID hit São Paulo very hard. However, GAIA was able to pivot quickly to provide modules for online learning. The sewing classes switched to videos explaining how to do projects and the videos were posted online for the students’ use. Almost everyone in Brazil has a cell phone and the students were able to access the content online.

The instructor was thrilled with how things turned out. Cilene, an instructor of the sewing workshop, says that she has learned not only how to teach in-person classes but also virtual classes, a useful new skill for her. She says: “GAIA and BGR, thank you so much for the confidence you placed in me this past year. I hope to be able to honor my commitment in 2021 and continue the in-person classes. Always count on me!” The video classes are available at this link: http://www.grupogaia.org.br/index.php/blog.

The eldercare class also had to pivot to online training for their second group, which worked out better than expected. A student named Graça said:“I’m here to talk about the free elderly caregivers course. I really enjoyed participating in the two weeks of interaction and exchange of information. The teachers who participated were clear and objective, which facilitated learning. Thank you GAIA and BGR.”

Juliana, a participant in the eldercare workshop, said: “I first want to thank GAIA and BGR for this wonderful course for caregivers, which was very useful for me. All the classes, all the lectures we saw, taught me many things that I didn’t know before. I learned much about nutrition too! The last class, with the nurse, was wonderful.”

A video explaining the course is available at: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1076376292811179.

At the beginning of the pandemic, GAIA purchased materials and set up a voluntary seamstress task force. They made 1600 masks, which were distributed to the community and donated to other communities as well. These are very poor regions, with few resources and little governmental assistance. GAIA also purchased food and mobilized the donation of resources and food. They distributed 370 basic baskets in June, July, and August. BGR support was fundamental and essential to this emergency effort.

Carla Prater is Assistant Director of Buddhist Global Relief. Transplanted to Brazil by missionary parents at the age of twelve, she remained there for the next twenty years and speaks fluent Portuguese. During her professional life she worked as a researcher at the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center at Texas A&M.

Urgent Aid to Women and Children in Cambodian Prisons

By Patricia Brick

LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights NGO

A BGR project with LICADHO (the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights) provides critical aid to incarcerated pregnant women and new mothers and their children.

The Cambodian prison system is plagued by overcrowding, squalid conditions, and widespread corruption. Detainees’ rights are often neglected, and Cambodian prisons do not provide detainees with essentials, such as nutritious meals, clean drinking water, quality medical care and sanitary living conditions. Children under the age of 3 are allowed to live in prisons with their parents, where they are exposed to gruesome prison conditions and lack essential nutrients at a crucial point in their physical and mental development. As of June 2020, more than 100 children were known to be imprisoned alongside their mothers.

A BGR project with LICADHO (the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights) improves the quality of life for incarcerated pregnant women and new mothers and their children. The Early Years Behind Bars (EYBB) project provides food, including rice, dried fish, and soy milk, as well as hygiene materials such as soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and laundry detergent, to pregnant women and mothers with children. The project team also interviews the women to monitor the conditions of the prisons, ensure that the materials provided meet the women’s needs, and determine if any additional medical or legal support is needed. In the project year that ended in June 2020, the project had benefited 205 children and their mothers as well as 90 pregnant women across 16 prisons.

According to figures from our partner, the prison population in Cambodia has increased from 21,900 in 2016 to nearly 39,000 in March 2020, the result of a crackdown on minor drug offenses; nearly three-quarters of people in detention had not yet been given the opportunity to stand trial. In a prison system with a capacity of 26,593, overcrowding was a grave problem even before the Covid-19 pandemic began spreading among incarcerated people worldwide. With as many as 530 prisoners forced into a single cell, with limited access to clean water, “Covid-19 safety measures such as physical distancing and frequent hand washing are impossible,” our partner reports. Government reforms announced this summer to potentially lower the number of prisoners have been slow to take effect.

Our partner reports that following the outbreak of the Covid pandemic in Cambodia in March, for several months the project teams’ access to the prisons was curtailed. Team members were required to leave the food and hygiene materials with prison staff to distribute, and in one case were not permitted to leave food and materials for the incarcerated women for several months. Access was reopened as of late July.

Our partner shared three stories of incarcerated women who benefited from this program. Their names have been changed to protect the women’s identity.

Kunthea, a 32-year-old mother of two, was two months pregnant when she was arrested without a warrant on drug-related charges in July 2019. Our partner writes: “She was forced to confess and thumbprint the record without knowing what the document said … In April 2020, a judge sentenced her to 10 years in prison and fined her 20 million riel, which is equivalent to approximately U.S. $5,000.” She gave birth to her daughter in March 2020 and brought the infant to prison, where she is serving her sentence in a cell shared with seven to twelve other detainees. Kunthea was unable to provide sufficient milk to exclusively breastfeed her daughter, and her family cannot afford to provide additional food for the new mother or her infant. The EYBB project provided milk powder, food, and other essential items for Kunthea and her baby.

Leakhena was arrested on drug-related charges in September 2019 and received food from EYBB during her pregnancy and postpartum to supplement the meager food provided by the prison. She gave birth to a healthy daughter in June 2020. Her sister is currently caring for the baby outside of prison.

Bopha was also arrested on drug-related charges last autumn and also was “forced to confess and thumbprint the record without knowing what it was.” She gave birth to a baby girl in June. With her husband also incarcerated and lacking family outside of the prison who could care for the baby, Bopha had no choice but to keep the infant with her. She shares a cell with thirteen other detainees. The EYBB project provides her with hygiene items and food, which she described as being enough that she doesn’t feel hungry.

Patricia Brick is a staff writer for Buddhist Global Relief. This story is based on reporting from our partner LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.