Hasina has had an interesting life: she is part of the Bihari community, a group of around 300,000 people living in camps across Bangladesh. Many are descendants of people who fled violence in Bihar, India in the 1940s, to live in Bangladesh (at the time East Pakistan).
The Bihari minority group, who speak Urdu – a different language to most of the population – were consigned to these camps and have been living there ever since.
For Hasina, life in the camp is precarious. Her one-room home which she shares with her family has been demolished twice: once after Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 and then again in December 2012. She tells us: “I cannot sleep at all; I’m always worried. When I cannot sleep, I am really very tense about my family.
“Our main concern is eviction. We’ve been evicted twice, and the government demolished our camps. They did not force us to leave the camp, so we had to rebuild our own home at our own expense, in the same place, but it is very expensive. We are very poor people.”
Her son-in-law, Israfil, explains: “She always has the sensation that everybody is revolving around her, and she feels very sick. She’s been so nervous for months that her blood pressure is also fluctuating.”
Hasina kindly invites us back to her home, which is less than five minutes’ walk from the targeted eye health screening for the Bihari community. “You are welcome to our camp to see how we are living, how many families are sharing only one room – you can see with your own eyes,” she says.
For Hasina, her fears of eviction and the daily difficulties of living in an informal urban settlement have been heightened over the past six months due to her deteriorating sight. “I cannot see properly; sometimes I get stumbled, sometimes I get hit by walls and doors,” she explains. “I’m also afraid of going to the toilet. I am afraid of going to some places alone due to my visual problem.”
For most of us, the thought of making our way through narrow winding paths, across uneven concrete sometimes covered in animal faeces from the livestock along the way, just to get to a toilet, is quite uncomfortable. This journey is made all the more difficult if you can’t see clearly.
Hasina’s home consists of one room, divided with some furniture, and it takes a little while for us to understand exactly where everyone sleeps. Her daughter, son-in-law and one-year-old granddaughter Salma sleep on one side, while she stays with her husband on the other.
But during the day, her son and his wife also spend their time in her home too. They rent a room close by and look after Hasina’s six-year-old grandson Sakib, but they are only allowed to go there to sleep at night. They prepare food in Hasina’s home, at the end of the beds, where there is a slim walkway.
Hasina’s eyesight is also affecting her family and their income. Israfil tells us: “I drive a tuk tuk but I can’t concentrate on my work because she looks after my child and if she cannot see properly, she might hurt herself. I have to stay home sometimes.
“We actually saved her from falling and getting hurt, and at this stage if she gets hurt, that will really be very painful for her.”
Her daughter Nigar adds: “She cannot see anything with her left eye. Before, when her eyes were okay, she could wash her clothes, cook, look after my children, but now she still she tries to cook, but often mixes in a lot of salt or oil in the food. I suggest she sits and rests but when she still tries to do things, I get really worried.”
Fortunately, Israfil heard about the free eye screening when attending their local mosque, and brought Hasina: “We are very poor, we might not afford it (if it wasn’t free).”
When Hasina arrived at the camp, she was registered, her eyesight was checked, and she was examined by a doctor, who diagnosed her with cataracts.
She was then referred for surgery at the Community Eye Care and Research (CERC) hospital in Rangpur. We visited the hospital the following day, hoping to see Hasina before her surgery, and in an amazing stroke of luck, she had just arrived, so we were able to wish her well. She replied: “I’m feeling really good. I’m afraid, but I think after the operation I will see. I want to see the people who are around me clearly.”
The next day, two days after we first met a very subdued Hasina, her doctor videocalled Asma and Rafiq, two members of the Sightsavers Bangladesh country team, after he had removed Hasina’s protective eye patch. This time, Hasina was smiling with joy.
Hasina needed to wear a protective patch for one day after her operation and continued to wear dark glasses for four to six weeks to protect her eye from sunlight and dust.
Hasina received treatment under our Right to Health project, which is funded by the UK government through UK Aid Match, and is designed to reach people from marginalised groups.
Note: The eye health screening camp and interview with Hasina took place in February 2020, before any cases of the COVID-19 virus were reported in Bangladesh.
Since this story was published, programme manager Asma has confirmed that Hasina has now had her second eye operation and is doing well and is now able to do all of her household activity. Asma has been working with our partner hospitals to ensure they are taking all hygiene precautions during the pandemic.
Dr Moira Chinthambi received a Sightsavers scholarship to train as an ophthalmologist and now works on our inclusive eye health programme in Malawi.
Alinafe Zaina is studying clinical ophthalmology in Malawi with the help of a scholarship provided by Sightsavers’ inclusive eye health programme.
We’re working with partners in Cameroon and Senegal to ensure people with disabilities are able to take part in every stage of the political process.