National | GENERATIONAL CHANGE

A chance encounter led Hiroki Watanabe to Dhaka, where he is tackling child poverty through education

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

It was a sight that presented such a stark contrast to his own fortune; a young boy standing at the entrance to a slum in Phuket, Thailand, as Hiroki Watanabe passed by in a luxury bus on his way to a yacht race.

Watanabe, now 37, remembers the encounter, which occurred in 2001, as a turning point in his life, and the trigger that has led him to helping children deprived of opportunities to develop their potential.

Today, Watanabe — now based in Bangladesh — is preparing for the opening of his third educational institution near Dhaka, with the aim of offering learning opportunities to underprivileged children in the developing country. He chose Bangladesh knowing how frequent natural disasters impact the country’s economy and communities, and force children onto the streets.

“People are used to seeing children on the streets selling things or begging for money since they’re born, so it’s part of the local landscape. It’s so obvious that they don’t regard it as a problem,” Watanabe said, in a recent interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo.

According to the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), nearly one-third of the population of around 150 million lived below the national poverty line in 2012. The institute also projects the number of street children is likely to rise to some 1.61 million by 2024.

Watanabe wanted to ensure children from impoverished households had access to education, and he wanted to act fast. So he flew to Bangladesh with some ¥1.8 million he had saved as a student, and with only basic Bengali skills, willing to take a risk.

“If you start thinking about saving money or gaining experience, you’ll always find excuses to postpone the move. You may still believe you’re not ready after three, five or even 10 years,” Watanabe said of his decision to leave Japan for Dhaka in December 2002, three months after he graduated from Kanazawa University. “I was afraid I might miss the right time if all this enthusiasm I had faded away.”

During his first week in Dhaka, he toured about 10 teahouses per day to learn Bengali through conversation with locals.

He also enrolled in a four-year Bengali language studies program for foreigners at the University of Dhaka, which granted him a student visa and a chance to meet like-minded local youths who were aware of the nation’s social issues.

Together with eight friends he made, Watanabe began organizing open-air classes in 2003, hoping to draw street children’s interest in education.

They named the group Ekmattra, which roughly translates as “one horizontal line.”

“We thought this line, like the one used to connect different characters in the Bengali alphabet, could connect people of various religious beliefs, different cultures, varied life philosophies, backgrounds and different economic situations,” Watanabe said.

In an attempt to draw children to the open-air lessons, they offered cultural classes where children could sing or dance.

“Children are very honest; they’ll leave if they find something boring but will stay if something interests them,” Watanabe explained.

They also struggled to convince the parents of those sent to the streets by their families to allow their children to attend.

Watanabe lamented that although children in Bangladesh can attend school for free until the fifth year in elementary school, many families are reluctant to send children to schools, knowing they will lose a source of income.

“It’s more convenient to send children to the street, because parents who have never been to school don’t understand how important education is,” Watanabe said. “The school is free but that doesn’t mean it’s accessible.”

In 2004, Ekmattra opened “Children Home,” a shared community space where children are fed, clothed and housed, and learn social skills and ethical values to better integrate into society while attending local public schools.

The home’s staff help children with homework and share their knowledge on how to debate and speak in public. The residents can also receive training from professional dancers, voice coaches and other specialists. The facility is now home to 50 children.

Ekmattra has gradually earned a reputation as a place for children to grow.

Six months after the launch of the home its 15 residents received a standing ovation for their performance at a local festival, where the children sang, recited poems and spoke of their dreams with pride in front of an audience of several hundred.

“It was an unforgettable moment for me to see how they had changed and gained confidence,” Watanabe recalled, adding that the performance convinced other families to enroll their children as well.

About 30 percent of the cost of operating Children House is covered by donations from people who are registered as “foster parents” to finance children’s education and other supporters who assist with smaller payments.

Ekmattra also generates income from other initiatives, including agricultural projects run on the group’s land on the outskirts of Dhaka, and sales of handicrafts made by children at the shelter.

The group also produces documentaries and promotional films for organizations operating in Bangladesh, including Japanese firms and groups.

Some of Ekmattra’s films were also made to raise local awareness of the problems surrounding street children, Watanabe said, recalling the group’s initial struggle to get financial support from locals.

“We would often be told: ‘Bring money from abroad, why do we need to pay for it?’ ” he recalled.

Hoping to improve children’s chances for a positive future in areas outside the capital as well, Watanabe’s team is planning to open Ekmattra Academy in Haluaghat, located 170 km north of Dhaka, next month.

“If we want to solve the problem of street children we shouldn’t be focusing just on Dhaka but should help change the economic situation in other areas as well, to prevent children in those regions from ending up on the streets of Dhaka,” Watanabe said.

The academy will serve as a boarding school for boys, where they will be able to gain professional skills in areas such as computer technology, film production, art and creative design, and English. The students will have a chance to learn about their environment and how to benefit from local natural resources, to develop expression and planning skills, and to foster creativity and teamwork through a cultural program focusing on stage performances. The facility will be able to accommodate up to 160 children.

Watanabe has engaged local leaders from fields such as sports and music, to organize workshops and lectures that inspire and motivate the children.

“Through such encounters, students can learn about different lifestyles and mindsets,” he said.

The group hopes to raise about ¥11.1 million through crowdfunding to support children in the following months, and to engage more individuals and organizations in support for the street children.

Watanabe hopes the children schooled with Ekmattra’s assistance will develop a sense of responsibility for the country’s younger generations, and pass on what they learn to others.

Six of Ekmattra’s first students are now attending local universities.

Among them is Dipu, 19, whose studies specialize in motion graphic design. He now works for Ekmattra, teaching younger children. Nasrin, 18, wants to become a lawyer. Rajib, also 18, plans to become a journalist.

“They don’t hide their background; they feel proud of their achievements,” Watanabe said. “Their words will resonate more with the younger generations . . . and I’d like to pass this business on to them. I hope that other people will follow suit, and help solve similar problems in other countries.”

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society.