Life was not kind to Shajenur Begum, a member of the 'Bede' (a nomadic ethnic group) community in Savar, when she had to make a living off snake-charming and selling amulets.
But with a little help, Shajenur is much better off now, providing education to her three children.
Her turnaround started in 2015 when the 35-year-old started work in a garments factory, a kind of profession not too many people of her community undertake.
“Now I live with dignity, like others in society,” said Shajenur.
Shajenur's is not an isolated story. About 300 people from the community, on the outskirts of Dhaka, have also been connected to the mainstream, thanks to efforts by former Dhaka SP Habibur Rahman since 2014.
In a conversation with The Daily Star, Habibur, now a deputy inspector general at the Police Headquarters, shared what inspired him to work for the underprivileged community.
After being appointed as superintendent of police for Dhaka district in October 2014, Habibur took measures to curb crimes, particularly trade of contraband drug yaba at Savar Bede Polli, one of the largest gypsy colonies of the country housing some 15,000 residents.
Though the crime rates fell in other areas, the scene in the Bede polli remained unchanged, Habibur recalled.
“I visited the area, held meetings with my officers and decided to include Bede community leaders to hear their suggestions on reducing crimes. Fifteen leaders from as many clans joined the meeting.”
The leaders told the then SP that their people faced financial hardships, pushing them towards drug abuse and trade. It would continue unless alternative jobs were created, especially for the women and younger people.
They said they were hit hard by poverty and could not sail out to other areas due to dying rivers. Moreover, people were losing interest in the traditional Bede livelihoods like snake-charming, monkey show, magic tricks etc.
“Their stories moved me. As a citizen and as a police officer, I decided to do whatever I could to help these people,” said Habibur.
“I personally went to government offices, NGOs, and well-off people to engage them in my endeavours.”
With the help of some affluent people, the officer set up Uttaran Foundation that has trained 200 young Bede women till date. They are all now employed at different RMG factories, including Uttaran Fashion, built at Bede polli by the foundation.
Thirty-five young men received driving lessons and a dozen received six-month training on computers, according to Habibur.
Habib has also helped about 74 young people to get jobs in government and private service, and in police force as well, Bede community leaders told this paper.
Uttaran Foundation has built a coaching centre where tuitions are provided free of cost, and is currently constructing a school in the Polli. A mosque and an eidgah (prayer ground) were also built by the foundation. It also built a computer training centre.
At the coaching centre, 125 students of different classes are getting free tuition. Around Tk 35,000 are spent every month to run the centre.
The foundation provides Tk 6,000 annual stipend to 26 college students. The officer also persuaded the deputy commissioner to give 277 decimal khas land on lease, to build shelter homes for homeless Bede families.
The foundation has also set up three clothing stores, which are run by Bede youths in Savar.
According to Bede leaders, all these initiatives have pulled down the number of drug peddlers and early marriage rates, and increased the number of children in schools.