Quaker International Centre, Dhaka (Dacca) 1950-1964
Quaker relief work in Dhaka began during the Second World War, when the then Indian province of Bengal suffered a severe famine. The Friends Ambulance Unit, together with the Bengal Women’s Food Committee set up canteens around the province, to help prevent those destitute from converging on Calcutta, eventually feeding around seven thousand people. Arthur Moore, a former editor of the Calcutta Statesman, came to work of the FAU and in the spring of 1944 set up 24 canteens in Dhaka.
In 1950, the American Friends Service Committee established a Quaker International Centre in Dhaka. The central purpose of the centre was reconciliation work between India and Pakistan, following the violence that accompanied the Partition of the two countries.
Dhaka was one of the locations for Asian International Student Seminars, which started in 1950, and the Asian Conferences for Diplomats program, which begun in 1955. One major objective of these was improved communications between Pakistan and India. As described in the AFSC’s report on the centre in 1956, it provided ‘a setting of warmth and hospitality where responsible people may gather freely to explore approaches to peace.’
During 1956 the centre helped United Nations and Pakistani officials to train volunteer social workers and teachers.
Bernhard and Pamela Klausener became directors of the centre in 1960. By that time the focus had shifted towards poverty relief and urban development, with the work being jointly sponsored with the Friends Service Council of Great Britain.
The centre was in the middle of one of Dhaka’s slum neighbourhoods. One of the volunteers from that time, a British nursery nurse with some medical training, describes her work.
I was to set up a nursery school there and train teachers for it, and to run a doorstep clinic. Quite literally a doorstep clinic. We had a little walled yard where the women could come in without being seen, and I sat on the doorstep and did basic first aid and gave out medicine for simple ailments.
Oh, but we did everything. We ran literacy classes for the rickshaw drivers. We gave classes in childcare. And some of the women, whose husbands had been to England or American on scholarships, they came to us to learn English – what I call ‘cup of tea’ English.
Official reports from this period record around 200 people a day taking part in adult literacy classes, art and sewing groups, a kindergarten, and night classes for children who had to work during the day.
In May 1963, a cyclone took thousands of lives and left more thousands homeless in what was then East Pakistan. The Pakistan government requested help from the Quaker Centre to lead a team of social workers sent to the area for relief and rehabilitation efforts.
A corps of volunteers, both Pakistani and Western, was sent to reconstruct one of the most damaged villages. In one month, 172 bamboo huts and two primary schools were rebuilt, three new wells were sunk, and a model cyclone shelter constructed. In parallel with this, three hundred children were provided with food and four hundred and fifty received medical care.
In 1964, the Centre was turned over to trained local staff, and the AFSC staff travelled to West Pakistan to explore possible sites for a new programme. By that time health, education, and vocational training programmes were being run in the compound by a local government agency, while a women's clinic was being run by another committee and a series of sewing and literacy groups for adult women were being operated as a private enterprise. The AFSC expected to continue to contribute financially to this program for a short time but it was expected that the neighbourhood groups would soon assume full responsibility.
Almost immediately after this, the fragile peace between India and Pakistan over Kashmir broke down, and war broke out in 1965. The work that Quakers had done in Dhaka and other centres in India and Pakistan provided a basis on which Adam Curle and Joseph Elder were able to provide a conciliation channel between the two countries.