Indianapolis photographer Katie Basbagill documents life of refugees in Bangladesh

ndianapolis photographer Katie Basbagill traveled to Bangladesh in December to report on Indian Muslims living in refugee camps. | Photo by Michelle Pemberton / The Star

Story by Kay Kemmet | Indianapolis Star

Writer’s note: Through this article, about an Indianapolis photographer traveling abroad, I wanted to tell not only her story but the story of the Biharis, an under-represented group in Bangladesh. I believe I accomplished that with this defining moment lead from the photographer’s time in Bangladesh. This story ran on the front cover of the Indianapolis Star’s metro section.

Abul Kashem talks about his dream with fire in his eyes. Kashem sits at a wooden desk in a dimly lit classroom. He tells two Americans with big cameras about his life through an Urdu-speaking translator. The air cools after dark in the northern Bangladesh city of Rangpur.

He wants to become a doctor. He wants to help his people.

One of the Americans, Indianapolis photographer Katie Basbagill, leaves her seat in the middle of Kashem’s story. She walks to the bathroom, fighting tears along the way.

Basbagill visited Bangladesh in December to tell stories like Kashem’s, but she wasn’t expecting the 18-year-old’s dream of becoming a doctor to affect her personally.

Kashem’s intensity surprised and amazed Basbagill, 30.

“He was so invested in it. You knew he wasn’t going to stop until he knew that he was going to become a doctor,” said Basbagill, who also has traveled to Thailand, India, Haiti, Costa Rica, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Colombia, Swazi- land, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya to report on human rights issues.

Basbagill grew up in a middle-class family on a farm in Indiana. As a child, when people asked her about her dreams, she knew they were attainable. Where Kashem lives, “dreams are a luxury,” Basbagill said.

Kashem and his people, the Biharis, live in makeshift camps throughout Bangladesh. The Biharis are Indian Muslims who migrated to Pakistan but were stranded in Bangladesh during the Pakistani civil war in the 1970s. Most tried to return to Pakistan when Bangladesh broke off and formed its own country. But more than 40 years later, 300,000 Bihari refugees still live in more than 60 camps throughout Bangladesh.

“They can’t afford to have dreams, because their purpose in life is to have enough food to eat,” said Saima Hassan, director of planning and marketing at OBAT Helpers, an Indianapolis-based organization helping provide education, health and vocational opportunities to the Biharis.

OBAT Helpers started helping the Bihari people in 2004 when founder Anwar Khan visited a refugee camp. The organization has since established schools, health clinics and computer training and tutoring centers. OBAT Helpers also has pro- grams to build wells, micro-finance small businesses, teach vocational skills like sewing and empower the Bihari people. Basbagill traveled to Bangladesh to take photos of the organization’s programs.

“It’s incredible to know that there is this issue going on that very few organizations are focused on at all, and one of the only organizations that is focused on it is here in my hometown,” Basbagill said. “Indianapolis really is home to a lot more internationally focused work than one might assume or realize.”

Basbagill’s photos are featured in an art exhibit, “Forgotten,” at the Harrison Center for the Arts through Friday. While Basbagill’s photos aren’t for sale, a photo book with the same name costs $25 and can be purchased at the Harrison Center. The 60-page book outlines the history of the Biharis in Bangladesh and features

Biharis like Kashem through Basbagill’s photography.

“It’s not about painting a picture of these super sad, super poor people who are living in Bangladesh,” Basbagill said, “but it’s about continuing to work alongside of them to give them the tools.”

Basbagill hopes the “Forgotten” exhibit and book start conversations and encourage people to learn about the Biharis and OBAT Helpers’ work to help them. She hopes the exhibit moves to other organizations outside of Indianapolis. When Basbagill isn’t traveling, she takes photos at weddings in Indianapolis as Bohemian Red Images.

She also wants people to engage with and relate to the stories in the book and be inspired to help others through organizations such as OBAT Helpers. She doesn’t want her audience to think of the Biharis as another group

of underrepresented people living in poverty. She wants them to relate to their individual stories and learn about the resilience and generosity of the Bihari people.

“It’s not an economic lesson,” Basbagill said. “It’s a lesson about humans and humanity. It’s a lesson about tenacity.”

Growing up in the one of the poorest neighbor- hoods in Bangladesh hasn’t extinguished Kashem’s fire. He tutors at an OBAT school to provide for his family of seven — he’s the family’s sole provider — and still makes good grades, unheard of grades.

If he becomes a doctor, he would be the first Bihari kid from “the camps” to do so.

“I thought, ‘This guy is going to make it,’ ” Basbagill said. “The reality is that some people might not.”

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