“You are American? I speak English. Will you speak to me? My name is Sanjay.” He sticks his hand through the crowd of children surrounding my camera.
I take Sanjay’s hand. His grip is firm. The sun is hot today, blasting through the perpetual haze of dust and smog hanging low in the air. You can’t open your mouth without tasting it on your tongue. Sanjay wears a hat with a flat brim that looks fresh from the store. He’s also in shorts. Something men in his culture never do. He looks different than the others I’ve met today. Perhaps there is more life in his eyes than most.
“Where are you from in America?” he asks.
“California,” I tell him. “Your English is excellent.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” He speaks slow and deliberate, handling with care every syllable as to not mispronounce a single word. “I am excited to have a conversation with you. I love your language. It can be very… elegant. I have been studying English for years. Ever since I saw an American Tom Cruise movie.”
Even in broken, third-world countries, you cannot escape the television. Men will run cables for hundreds of miles to hang a small screen in the corner of their bamboo and tin roadside tea shack. Men will spend hours standing around, spilling into the street, drinking tea and watching whatever the signal is picking up.
Sanjay tells me Tom Cruise is his favorite American actor. “I watch all Tom Cruise movies. One day I want to… go to Hollywood. I want to be an actor.”
Sanjay would fit right in to LA culture. He’s good looking, strong, and just confident enough to make me immediately like him.
“You’re never going to believe this, Sanjay, but I live in Hollywood.”
He wants to know what it is like. I don’t have the heart to tell him it’s not as pretty as it looks on the big screen.
“I cannot afford to get there. I want to study acting, but there is not a single university in all of Bangladesh where you study acting. So I will study business. I will start my own business.”
“I hate knowing you won’t be able to act. I think everyone should follow their dreams. I don’t want you to give up on becoming an actor.”
“Just pray for me.”
“I will absolutely pray for you.” In a community of Hindus it will be difficult to not exclaim, “Excuse me?” when they ask you to pray to your God instead of theirs.
“Can you tell me what your favorite movie is, Sanjay?”
“Every Tom Cruise movie.”
I laugh. “You know there’s a lot of talk about his personal life in America. Some people don’t like him because of the way he behaves. What do you think about that?”
“I don’t much care about… personal life. I did hear he separated from his daughter. I just like his movies. He’s got a good face. Good hair.” He says he also listens to American singers and wants to know my favorite band.
“Jimmy Eat World.”
“Jimmy? Eat? World? I don’t know them.”
“I didn’t think you would. I don’t think it’s your style, Sanjay. So there are no acting classes or universities in Bangladesh? What about India? Have you considered going over to India and acting in Bollywood films?”
“Shahrukh Khan is my favorite actor. He is my role model. I definitely think I have a shot in Bollywood.”
“Him and Tom Cruise.”
“Of course. Of course.”
Khan is often referred to in the media as the “King Kahn.” He is the “King of Romance” and the “King of Bollywood,” having acted in over 75 films and is currently the most nominated actor in Bollywood of all time.
I want to know what Sanjay needs to get to India so he can pursue acting over there.
“It’s all about money, you know? My parents could not afford. We live here in this community. We want to do other things, but we cannot afford to make our dreams come true.”
This community is a series of narrow alleyways and apartments stacked upon apartments, clotheslines running from building to building. You must push rugs and pants and shirts out of your way as you walk. The ground is littered with trash and urine. Chickens and stray kittens and forgotten children follow you around every corner, begging for food, begging for their picture to be taken. The door to every home is open. The occupants creep outside to confirm that yes, it was a white man that just walked passed their home. The brick and mud beneath my feet is wet even though I’m told it hasn’t rained in Dhaka for months. One block over the buildings stop and open up into a cement courtyard with water pumps and potholes. Naked children sit in red buckets usually filled with Cokes and beers at American barbecues, their mothers pouring water over their heads. A small child, a girl no older than five, walks into the center and pulls her pants down. Here she urinates in the same area her neighbors bathe.
Sanjay’s parents are sweepers. The entire community started out as a community of sweepers. Brought over from India and handed a push broom to clean the impossibly muddy and waste-filled city streets of Dhaka. Even though Sanjay believes he cannot afford to make his dreams come true, his parents dream of only the best for Sanjay and their daughters. Which is why they work seven days a week to support his private coaching lessons in English, reading, and writing. He is able to afford this because of his parents involvement in what he says Food for the Hungry calls a “Savings Group.”
“Food for the Hungry came a few years ago, back when all of us had nothing.”
When Food for the Hungry enters a community, the goal is to leave within 10 years. “If you’re not leaving, you’re doing something wrong,” I was once told by a friend who travels the world working with humanitarian efforts. FH arranges child sponsorship, but they are not child-exclusive. Sponsorship ensures a child’s education which prevents young girls from getting married when they are only thirteen. FH staff walks with these people daily, teaching them how to provide for themselves. Once the community is self-sustaining, FH leaves.
I look around. Anyone in America would consider what these people currently have as “still nothing.” But their neighborhoods are full of storefronts and food and smiling children.
“But now we have much. We have each other.”
It’s as though everyone here in this place was dealt a crap hand in poker, but instead of folding they decided to put all their cards together to see if they could come up with one half-decent hand.
Savings Groups started when someone asked if people in the community could commit to sacrificing a handful of rice once a week. A handful of rice turned into one cent. One cent turned into five. And five into ten. Savings groups are now weekly gatherings of 15 to 20 women. They each collect 10 or 15 taka per week (about five cents), and place the money into a bank account opened up in their names. As their capital grows they have the opportunity to individually invest in things like livestock, opening up a shop, or investing more into their child’s education. They draw out a loan from the Savings Group account, invest, and agree to pay the loan back with a two percent interest.
And because Sanjay’s mother is involved in a savings group where they also learn literacy, law, and proper nutritional values such as vegetables have vitamins, his parents are able to help him pursue his dreams.
“They are devoted to their children continuing their studies,” Sanjay tells me, smiling. “So we don’t have to live the life they came from.”
“You have wonderful parents, Sanjay. Do you know that? I am so glad they believe in you.”
“We are very grateful to you people for sponsoring us,” Sanjay says. “I have been sponsored before.”
“But not anymore?”
“No. I don’t know how this happened. But now I passed primary school. Next I have exams. But there is no sponsor. I lost my sponsor. But it’s no problem.”
“Did it make you angry when you lost your sponsor?”
“I wish I could meet them in person one day. I want to tell them something. I want to thank them for changing my life. And my family’s. Without sponsorship, we would not be having conversation.”
“Sanjay, what is your last name. I don’t want to forget you. Perhaps someone in America will want to continue your sponsorship?”
“My last name? No. It’s okay. You won’t remember my last name. It’s okay. It’s too long.” He looks to the translator who has joined my side. The children spilling out of doorways and climbing atop each other’s shoulders to get a better look at me all laugh when Sanjay turns to them. He takes my hand, grips my shoulder, flashes a killer smile. “You can just call me Sanjay Cruise.”