Sir Fazle Hasan Abed’s legacy lives on
I returned to Dhaka this week and at the airport, somehow, I felt as though there was a guardian missing. I could not hold back my tears coming back to a Bangladesh where Sir Fazle Hasan Abed was no longer with us.
Anyone who has grown up having him as The Social Entrepreneur in their lives will understand this emptiness.
There are certain people whose lives are overwhelmingly bigger than an ordinary human life -- whose reach extends towards the stars and whose actions are beyond a normal person’s capacity of reaching.
Sir Abed, known to me as Abed Phupa, was such a person.
I am not here to write about his achievements -- I can hardly begin to do that. I want to write about what he meant to me, and in spite of our lives being so immersed in our work, his deep care for me and my love and respect for him.
When I started Friendship 18 years ago, Sir Abed was already a legend in the field of humanitarian work.
His own relief efforts in 1971, followed by the foundation of Brac in 1972, its micro-finance program in 1974, its empowerment of landless women through Village Organizations all over Bangladesh, Brac’s schools in the early 80s, the remarkable success of its social entrepreneurship through Aarong, and on and on and on … I wondered who could do so much!
And he never stopped. He went on to establish Brc Enterprises and Brac University, with its standard-setting programs, including in public health research and development studies.
Brac continues to make innovations and newer programs, even though it seems to already have everything, from dairy to IT. How could one person actually do so much, so successfully?
In him I also saw a man who understood the deep needs of the poor, and was able to envision the future and start dealing with future problems today.
The fact that such a person could exist stayed in my mind and heart somewhere as I struggled to pioneer the first NGO ship hospital in the world. The fact that this one man had done so much gave me hope and courage that it was possible!
I met him one evening in 2003, and as I sat next to him for dinner at the residence of the French ambassador, he asked me about Friendship’s hospital ship. He already knew about it, as I had confided in him a couple of years before. Yet he wanted to know more.
He had heard about the floating hospital’s launch and wanted to truly understand what I had envisioned for its future, how I was planning to operate it, and why I was wanting to operate it in the chars.
I remember sitting with him for nearly an hour explaining to him the pain I felt upon seeing the people, the ultra-poor, living in such a devastating environment -- the worst state of human living I had seen in the country.
I told him of the dream I had of trying to take health care to them, and to bring them dignity and hope and the opportunities that we have had and that our children have. I remember stressing that these were ultra-poor people who had nothing -- trying to explain to him just how critical the difference between the poor and the ultra-poor was.
In my naivety, I didn’t realize that keeping him listening for so long was perhaps not in the protocol of things, and that a man like him already knew all this. Yet, he listened.
And at the end of the evening he told me with a smile: “You remind me of myself 20 years ago.” He reiterated this statement to me many times subsequently, even in public. Every time I heard these words, I was as touched and as honoured as the first time he had uttered them at the French ambassador’s residence.
He loved this country and its people. They, I think, were his first love, and afterwards it was Brac.
It is the same for me with Friendship. Many have told me that Brac was his first love, but I do not believe that. No man can do what he has done if the vision is not beyond an organization.
In the last days, I remember sitting by his side and telling him that actually, neither Brac nor Friendship was the important thing. Important are the people for whom we are striving -- the people of Bangladesh. He nodded and said, “yes.”
The last time I saw Abed Phupa, he was in an advanced stage of his illness. As I sat on the ground beside his bed, with Tamara and Asif by his side, he held my hand to his heart and repeated over and over to them and to me: “You are a good girl, you are such a good girl.”
I will hold his last words to me, his love for me, and his blessing, always in my heart.
Our common love and solidarity for our beloved country was our bonding. I think he knew that we both loved the people of this country beyond ourselves, and that this love provoked a responsibility not only for words which flow from our mouth, but to act.
That too, not over five or ten years, but for over four decades for him, and today for nearly two decades for me.
He has shown us what giving heart and mind for the people of this country truly meant.
On and off over the years, we always met, always shared a mutual bond. Often I wish I had met him more, and I think he also would have liked that as well. Whenever we did meet it was always with deep affection for each other.
My respect for who he was and what he has done for the world and for the people of Bangladesh is boundless.
I am so honoured that he had lived amongst us, that he has left his legacy for us all. That he enabled us to dream a dream beyond and bigger than what we are.
By his last words to me, I am honoured to have known him and honoured that he has touched my life and has touched Bangladesh with what many would consider … the impossible.
Runa Khan is the Founder and Executive Director of Friendship NGO.