Remembering the BRAC founder on the first anniversary of his passing
“If you don’t give us a chance, then who will?”
That summed up my first encounter with Abed Bhai. I was in my early 20s, fresh out of university, and visiting Bangladesh after living most of my life overseas. I had no prior knowledge of who Abed Bhai was, or what he stood for. Yet, something inside compelled me to implore with him for an opportunity; and relent he did, fortunately.
The trajectory of my life changed because of that initial meeting, and years later it changed again with my joining the original team in 2004, that was tasked with establishing the James P Grant School of Public Health, (JPGSPH) BRAC University.
Abed Bhai was without doubt a fearless visionary and he brought the same spirit in challenging us about the direction of the school. A School of Public Health was something that Abed Bhai had envisioned for many years, and it was his dream that developing country health professionals receive a quality degree and contribute to making a difference in their homelands.
He was very clear about the absolutes: It had to provide opportunities for disadvantaged students; it had to be competitive and of international standard; and it had to attract students globally so that they could learn first-hand real-world knowledge on public health in the developing world. As a result of his vision and guidance, the JPG School has been recognized internationally, continues to attract students from abroad, and is a leader in public health research in the country.
Abed Bhai was a tough task master but he was also a patient listener. He was open to ideas and willing to be challenged. He placed trust on the individual person, provided encouragement, and built confidence for people to take on leadership roles. When he asked me to take on the helm of the school in 2013, I was initially reluctant and overwhelmed at the thought.
I had reservations, but he persuaded me to take on the challenge, and very calmly explained that my hesitancy to take on this role was without merit. Today, thanks to the dedication of my wonderful colleagues, the school continues to grow, taking inspiration from Abed Bhai’s ethos and his constant quest for excellence.
For a person of such stature and achievements, nothing was too small or big for getting the work done. If that meant picking up the phone and calling a program officer or asking the security guard about his wages, or needing an intervention in a program, he would just do it and not wait for someone else. I was fortunate and privileged enough to work closely with him and see first-hand his way of working.
His attention to detail, knowledge, wisdom, humility, and commitment to making a difference was astounding and truly inspirational. Abed Bhai changed millions of lives, yet remained grounded in the service of others; and he did it without fanfare or any expectations of fame.
On the first anniversary of Abed Bhai’s passing, I fondly remember the person who gave me my first career break, and who will always hold a special place in my heart.
Sabina Faiz Rashid, PhD, is Dean and Professor at BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health at Brac University. All views expressed are solely of the author.