Azimunnisa lives in a crowded informal settlement in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka.
Originally from Kolkata in India, Azimunnisa and her family fled her homeland when she was just three years old, along with hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees escaping violence. As a minority immigrant group in Bangladesh, the Bihari community has endured decades of discrimination, and their living conditions remain extremely poor.
The homes in the camp are cramped, with little living space and limited access to safe water and sanitation. Azimunnisa’s house is at the edge of the settlement, near a bustling road full of street vendors, livestock such as cows, goats and chicken, and roaming stray dogs.
It’s difficult to imagine how it might feel to navigate such a loud, lively area without being able to see properly.
Azimunnisa struggled with limited sight for six years. Then, one day in 2009, when she was crossing the street near her home, she heard a tuk tuk with a megaphone on the roof, inviting residents to a pop-up screening camp where they could get their eyes checked for free. This form of public health announcement, known as ‘miking’, is common in Bangladesh, where otherwise people have limited means of staying informed about how to access local health services.
“I went to the camp and saw the doctors examining the patients,” Azimunnisa explains. “The doctor saw me and he said that I had cataracts in both eyes and I needed an operation. On the same day, the ambulance took me to the hospital.”
The free eye camp and transport was provided by Sightsavers’ Seeing is Believing project, which delivered more than 49,000 sight-saving cataract operations and just shy of 100,000 pairs of glasses in Bangladesh.
“I was not afraid of the operation. I had one eye operated and then after a few months, the second eye”, Azimunnisa recalls. “Before my operation, it was really very difficult. But since the operation I’ve seen things very clearly.”
Her grandson Rubel proudly tells us: “Even today my grandma wakes up in the morning, does everything in our house, washes our plates, bathes our goats. She can see everything.”
Since her operation, Azimunnisa has become an advocate for eye health. “I always try to deliver and disseminate the messages,” she tells us. “If anyone is having problems with their eyesight, I tell them to go to the eye hospital.”
Restoring Azimunnisa’s sight has also meant that she’s been able to continue helping other local women, through her volunteer work as a traditional birth attendant. She smiles and with a glimmer in her eye, continues to give us an insight into her life now:
“I am experienced in delivering babies through traditional birthing methods, so whenever women need to give birth, I go there and help with the delivery,” she says. “But I never take money from anyone.”
It’s clear that Azimunnisa is proud of her work and of the family she shares her home with.
“I have five sons and two daughters and a total of 25 grandchildren. All of them live very close,” she says, contentedly.
And like grandmothers all over the world, Azimunnisa enjoys a cuppa and a chat when her relatives come to visit.
“I drink tea, I don’t like veg and rice, so I have toast and tea. Ten-to-20 times a day I have tea, and I ask him,” she says, gesturing to her grandson Rubel, “to fetch it for me from the store. When somebody comes over, sometimes it becomes 50 teas!”
Although the Seeing is Believing project is now coming to an end, Sightsavers’ work in Bangladesh is far from over. We continue to reach the people most in need of healthcare, particularly the Bihari community, through our Right to Health project. Find out how we’ve been reaching the Bihari through pop-up screening camps in the north of Bangladesh, an area even more deprived than Azimunnissa’s.
Professional photos: ©Sightsavers/Reza Shahriar Rahman
Phone photos ©Sightsavers/Kirsty Bridger
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