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From Coonabarabran to Bangladesh with Love

From Coonabarabran to Bangladesh with Love

This is an extraordinary story in which members of Coonabarabran Uniting Church have become involved in making a difference in the lives of children from the slums of Bangladesh.
No doubt many of you are racking your brains to think just where Bangladesh is. It is a relatively new nation formed in 1971 out of the former East Pakistan, right next to India in the Bay of Bengal, sometimes known as the armpit of India. A country the size of Tasmania that accommodates some 150 million people. A beautiful green country, situated on a river delta, it is known for its water lilies, pink pearls, and the world's longest beach. However there is much hardship for the people of Bangladesh, with a per capita income of US$444 a year and an official literacy rate of 47%. 

It was through the chance encounter of Bangladesh pastor, James Karmoker, who was studying in Dubbo for two years that a number of members of Coonabarabran Uniting Church banded together in 2006 to form Restore International, an Incorporated Association with the aim of providing hope for children in situations where there is no hope.

President Jane Nelson-Hauer recalls: "All my life I have taught Sunday school and children's Bible clubs. There was always a missionary story and I delighted in researching and telling stories from all over the world to the children; sharing the goodness of God and the wonder of the gospel though the adventures of the missionaries. My favourite was Amy Carmichael who rescued young girls who were being prostituted to the Hindu temples in India. I always thought: one day I would like to work with children in the developing world, but I never imagined how that would happen. You know I even wrote to some of the well-known mission organisations and asked how I could become involved but it wasn't God's time for me. Then I met this little man from Bangladesh with the big grin. I could see he had the call of God on his life and I challenged him to seek God's purpose for his time in Australia. I never imagined he would come to me and ask if I could help him to implement the vision of his church which was to start a school for children from the slums. My first response was: no, it's too big. I can't do that. But as I talked to my friends both in and out of Church I could see the whole idea lit a fire in people's hearts. I could feel the Holy Spirit arising, bringing faith, and I knew this was it. This was an opportunity to be grasped, would I run with it or let it go and continue to do the same old, same old things I had always done?"

The vision of this first project of Restore International Inc. is to provide a basic education to children from the slums who would otherwise grow up illiterate. To help parents find hope for their children and see the difference an education could make for their future.

Pastor James Karmoker returned to Bangladesh in November 2006 and (thanks to a grant of $3,000 from the NSW Central West Presbytery of the Uniting Church) was able to create 3 classrooms accommodating sixty children based in his local Church, the Shion Free Baptist Church. There was much preparation required in working with the various local religious communities and the Bangladesh school system. Finally the Shion Free School officially opened just prior to Easter 2007 with 3 classes: pre-school, kinder and year one. All of the children are malnourished when they begin. As part of the enrolment process, each of the children is given a health check and ongoing monitoring of both health and learning takes place. Each day the children receive a breakfast of bread and fruit when they arrive and then they have lunch before going home. The Bangladesh curriculum is followed and children from Shion School are performing well against their peers from other schools.

It has been a story of multiple small miracles. Capping it all has been the ongoing financial provision. In spite of efforts to seek a regular income through sponsorship and commitment, these have not been forthcoming so there has been no guarantee of income. Year after year targets are met and all those involved marvel at the goodness of God.

Over the years there have been a variety of people call in, share fellowship, bring knowledge and expertise. Emma Starr a primary school teacher from Coonabarabran has visited on numerous occasions, spending 6 months in Bangladesh in 2008, working at the International school in Dhaka and spending her spare time at the Shion school helping the teachers develop their resources and teaching methods. In 2011 Priya Kirubakaran who works in the IT industry in Brisbane raised funds for a computer room. She spent six months at the school, setting up a network of 5 computers and developing a computer curriculum.

People ask how this promotes the gospel. Are we not being fools spending our time and money educating children of the poor in a far away country that is full of corruption and doesn't care for its own? As Tim Costello of World Vision teaches in his series "The Faith Effect", it's about bringing in the Kingdom of God, about justice and equality. The school is run by a church; it is staffed by teachers who pray daily that they can share the love of God with the children. On Sundays, in their own time, they go with the Pastor and visit with the families, familiarising themselves with the circumstances of each child and providing pastoral care to the family. The role of the school is to educate; it does not address religion.
The role of all churches is to share the gospel. The Shion church runs Easter and Christmas activities to which all are invited. Dubbo Baptist Church has funded the Christmas party each year and there have been up to 900 children bussed in from all over Dhaka to hear the story of Christmas.

After six years, Restore is in a time of change. There are now 75 children, many of whom are rapidly turning into teenagers and thinking about their future careers. James Karmoker has become General Secretary for the National Christian Fellowship of Bangladesh and relinquished his role of chairman of the board to Uttam Chakraborty who has managed community development projects in Bangladesh for many years. There is an expansion of the project to include community development and there is much excitement amongst the parents about the new sewing project. Future plans include further vocational training for the children who come through the school and an outreach program into a rural area which would provide a source of food.

The success of Restore International is dependent on the creation of relationships between Australia and Bangladesh and the integrity of its financial commitments. Without an ongoing relationship and without a first hand report of exactly what is being done with our hard earned Aussie dollars, we could not expect people to continue to give so generously. It is a partnership in the gospel between the people of two churches so far apart, united in bringing hope and changing lives. 

Jane Nelson-Hauer
For further information, see www.restoreint.org