Karla Hovde is serving as a social media assistant for one year with Basha. She is from the United States and recently graduated from Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia with majors in digital media and art.
When I was in college, I knew that I wanted to do a year-long program after graduation that would combine internship and service. I wanted to get experience in digital media, my field of study, before I pursued a career. But more importantly, I realized that I have been given so many opportunities and blessings in my life, and I felt like it was time to start giving back.
Initially, I looked into programs within the US, because the idea of serving internationally for an entire year seemed like something only other, braver, more confident people did, not me! But when I heard that Mennonite Central Committee‘s one year service program for young adults (SALT) had a social media assistant position open in a place called Bangladesh with a company called Basha, I was intrigued. When I learned that Basha works with women survivors of trafficking, I was convinced. I am passionate about women’s empowerment, and I could tell that Basha would be the perfect fit. The chance to use my digital media skills to serve an important cause persuaded me that this was the opportunity I was meant to take. Ten months later, and I can say that it was absolutely the right decision!
My roles at Basha are varied. I started out mostly making videos about Basha, taking photographs of people and products, and developing SEO strategies for Basha’s website. When another volunteer who was running all the social media pages and doing all the graphic design work had to leave suddenly, my responsibilities expanded. Now I manage all Basha’s social media platforms, create content for the social media pages, maintain the website, film and edit short videos, take photographs, create a variety of graphic design for print and web, and even train new staff and match saris for kantha and chunky knit products!
I love my work at Basha, but living and serving in Dhaka, Bangladesh has not been easy. In fact, Dhaka ranks only behind of Damascus, Syria as the least livable city in the world. With an estimated population of 20 million, Dhaka was a huge shock coming from my hometown in the Midwest of the US, which has a population of 2,000! Going through culture shock is a difficult and ongoing process, but I have surprised myself in my ability to be flexible and to adapt to circumstances. Now the thought of navigating the city alone by bus or rickshaw seems normal rather than terrifying!
There are so many lessons I have learned during my time in Bangladesh. I have learned that I can make do with so much less. I don’t need more than 7 sets of clothing. I don’t need air conditioning, even when it is 100 degrees for weeks. I don’t need so many of the things we spend money on in the US because we think we need them. I have also found what I do need. I need my family. I need friends. I need people to worship with each week. I need a time and a place to exercise. I need to see the sky.
I have learned how to be independent to a much greater extent than even four years of college taught me. Living 7000 miles from your support system will do that to you! I have also learned to be dependent on people wiser than me and and to accept decisions made by people who understand this culture better than I do.
I have learned and grown so much professionally. Learning the theory in college classes and putting it into practice in a business setting are two very different things! I can now see myself doing digital media related work as a career. I also know that I can’t just get a job that pays the bills. I have seen that I don’t have to work in nursing, social work, education or peace building to combine service and career, and that’s a lesson I want to carry with me in whatever career I pursue.
One of the biggest challenges I have faced while working at Basha is trying to understand the lives of the women who work here. Their lives have been different from mine in every possible way, full of hardships, poverty, exploitation, and indescribable trauma that I have never experienced in my sheltered, privileged upbringing. I have no reference to be able to understand their anger and their pain. I don’t know if I can say that I’ve overcome this challenge, but perhaps I have gotten a little better at having an attitude of love and compassion rather than one of judgement without thought.
My advice for young people considering volunteering internationally is DO IT! Even if you have doubts, concerns, or fears. Up until about 2 weeks before I officially signed up with SALT, I was convinced that a year volunteering in a foreign culture was something other people did. I believed that I wasn’t cut out for an experience that big and scary. I had conversations with a few people I trusted who had done international service before, and their perspective made me realize that the Ideal International Volunteer I had made up in my head doesn’t exist. So my advice is that everyone who does something like this will struggle, no matter their qualifications. And it isn’t about changing the world but about being changed yourself by joining the work that is already being done in the place you serve. It will be one of the hardest things you will ever do and one of the best things as well.
I’m looking forward to finding ways to continue to support Basha after I go home. I can raise money for Friends of Basha, I can buy birthday, baby shower, or Christmas presents from Basha’s retail partners, but most importantly I can tell the Basha story and mission to every one I know. I can share the stories of women who have gone through so much hardship, yet have changed their lives with little more than a bit of education and a safe place to work. I can share about the children who would never have gone to school and would have grown up to be exploited themselves, who are now thriving and planning for bright futures. I can share about these beautiful kantha blankets and the women who are keeping their traditional craft alive and pulling themselves out of poverty at the same time. There’s so much we can do to help Basha, no matter where we are in the world!
“You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”
― Kahlil Gibran