Once a freedom fighter for his country, Rafiqul Alam has spent the last 40 years continuing to fight for his people - this time from poverty.
Fighting for freedom is in Rafiqul Alam’s blood. After Bangladesh’s Liberation War, when he fought as a soldier, he could have easily settled into politics or government administration but instead chose to serve the poor.
Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-vulnerable countries in the world. Sitting at the tip of the funnel-shaped Bay of Bengal, its coast and offshore islands are highly susceptible to cyclones and tidal surges. It is on one such island, Hatiya, that Alam and his organization Dwip Unnayan Songstha (DUS) focuses its work—and has ever since the 1970s, when a cyclone followed by armed conflict killed at least 10,000 people.
The consummate humanitarian
Bangladesh’s poor coastal communities are dominated in many ways by poverty, illiteracy, disease, and natural hazards. Every year the country suffers from cyclones and tidal bores (tidal waves that surge up rivers), and every year for the last several decades, Alam and his DUS colleagues have been on the frontlines of emergencies with relief, recovery, and relocation programs.
But Alam understood from the start that aid alone would not bring lasting change to people’s lives, so he has focused on projects that could alleviate poverty, empower community members, uphold human rights, promote health, and educate the public on disaster preparedness.
Driving through the communities in his Jeep feels like being in a parade. He is constantly greeting and waving to the people he passes. (“Did you go to school today?” Alam asks each child he meets on the road.) He routinely puts his Jeep at the disposal of the community, driving pregnant women to the hospital, helping a student get to school, and transporting goods in emergencies. His mission is to make sure people’s lives are better each day, and he’s willing to put in whatever long hours—or decades—it takes. It’s obvious how much he cares, and after years of expressing his caring in countless ways he is deeply loved.
Stand with local leaders like Rafiqul: Ask your member of Congress to introduce the STRIDE for Self-Reliance Act, which will help put frontline communities at the heart of emergency preparedness and response
Relocating the most vulnerable
Every disaster that hits Hatiya Island leaves behind the wreckage of homes, farms, schools, and businesses, and many families lack the resources to start over. Over time, storms, climate change, coastal erosion, and other hazards have left thousands of Hatiya families homeless. So for the last 30 years, Alam has fought land pirates and called on authorities to grant government-owned land to homeless families to help them rebuild their lives. So far, he’s succeeded in helping 2,500 families relocate, an effort he considers his greatest success.
And Alam didn’t just secure land for the families: he also made sure that the land titles included the names of wives as well as husbands, so that women are able to claim the land as their asset, too—a rare occurrence in Bangladesh, and a victory for women’s rights.
The families can now reestablish their homes, farms, and businesses out of harm’s way, paving the way for them to earn sustaining incomes that will help push them out of poverty.
As poultry farmer Reshma Begum says, “Rafiqual Alam did not stop his work by only giving us land or relocating the homeless on new islands. He continues to dream more about our lives than we do. He has trained farmers to cultivate saline-resistant crops, given businesses to men and a woman, established schools for children, and saved us from calamity.” DUS programs have helped Begum grow her business so she now earns more than ten times the typical family income of $30 per month.
Dreams for the future
Over the years, Alam and DUS have received backing from international organizations like Oxfam to support their work in Hatiya. He’s very appreciative, but he believes there is room to do more.
He is confident that his organization could benefit from bigger grants from international donors like the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). And that those donors would get more bang for their bucks if they engaged directly with local groups like his.
“You can’t make a successful plan if you are sitting in the city and hope to implement that plan on the island,” says Alam. Local people, in other words, need to be involved from start to finish.
And if anyone has the talent, experience, and support to implement community-led plans, it’s Alam.
As Shah Alamgir, who participated in a DUS land initiative put it, “Rafiqul Alam is a fighter. By giving his sweat and blood he brought freedom to this country. And he is now relentlessly fighting against poverty and the consequences of natural disaster to save the people of these coastal islands. Because of him today I have a place to live and sleep in. He is indeed a fighter with a heart full of dreams for his people.”
Right now less than 2 percent of annual humanitarian assistance is used to support local humanitarian organizations in emergencies. It’s time to put more aid resources and decision-making where they should be: in the hands of local humanitarians in countries affected by disaster, conflict, or other crisis.
This story is part of an Oxfam series that highlights local humanitarians who are leading disaster prevention and response in their countries – working to ensure communities are protected and empowered in disasters, conflict or other crisis. Though Oxfam may not fund every project or organization featured in the series, Oxfam stands in solidarity with all those around the world working to right the wrong of poverty.