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Swim programme aims to prevent 18,000 child deaths in Bangladesh

This opinion piece is almost 10 years old

Katy U’ren of Drumchapel High School visited Bangladesh before meeting Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar and learned how Unicef’s partnership with the Commonwealth Games is helping disadvantaged children learn to swim

I left Glasgow on my first flight alone, feeling apprehensive but excited. I couldn’t wait to see what it was all about and, of course, meet the children.

The Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka was so different: the people, their dress, the heat (36 degrees) and it was just so busy. The road journey was crazy too, so many pedestrians along with tuk-tuk rickshaws and cows and goats just wandering along the roadside, so bizarre!

It was a long, hard drive before we reached our destination. En route I couldn’t believe it when I was told that an estimated 18,000 children die from drowning every year in Bangladesh. In this low-lying country, where floods are more and more common, over 80% of those children drown in ditches and ponds within metres of their homes. In the 1 to 4 year age group, it’s a bigger cause of death than pneumonia or malnutrition.

When we finally arrived in Netrokona we were met by a crowd of excited and inquisitive children. I was introduced to a woman who had two children ready for swimming lessons and was the owner of the large pond nearby where the lessons were about to begin. It was a worrying deep green colour and I had to say to myself “I must keep my mouth closed, but even then it’ll be very difficult not to swallow some of it!”

The water was warm – excellent! And the children were characters just like those back in Drumchapel, it didn’t matter that we didn’t speak the same language, we still seemed to connect, even though learning their names was so much harder. The reaction of the watching villagers was so funny too, breaking out into applause. I felt such a positive sense of community and recognition for the children’s achievement, conquering their fear of water and learning to stay safe. Everyone knew the importance and the impact of Unicef’s work here.

I was also overwhelmed by the strength of the young woman teacher, Jehenara. She was so strong and controlled at only 21, the kids totally respected her. Her poise seemed even more remarkable when I found out that her two-year-old cousin had drowned less than a week earlier. She told this story without emotion and it affected me more than I could have imagined.

The reaction of the watching villagers was so funny too, breaking out into applause.

She was just so strong, I had no idea what to say. Here she was back teaching so soon after her family tragedy. It was unbelievable and so inspiring. I wondered too what her efforts were doing for the status of women in the community as she was a focal point for this life-saving work, in control and being recognised for it.

After the lessons I met two little girls, Meem and Sharifa. They were so cute, just like two little best friends would be back in Scotland. Sharifa told me that she fell into water last year. Meem grabbed her hand and shouted for her aunt to help her and luckily she was rescued. The risk is ever present in the lives of these children, reminding me just how important this work is for this community and countless others across Bangladesh.

As the filming concluded (I couldn’t believe I was making a film to be shown in Glasgow at Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony) I wondered what the kids at school will think.

I then got to meet arguably the world’s greatest cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. My dad Graham used to play and he’s a huge fan.

I had to fly to Mumbai in India to meet Tendulkar, I must confess I didn’t know much about him before the trip but when we got there it was pretty obvious just how much of a star he is in this part of the world.

This was my key moment for the opening ceremony and trying to remember my lines alongside a cricket legend like this was so nerve wracking. It was reassuring to see he was a bit nervous too and it all went well.

As I boarded the plane home again, I struggled to comprehend the range of experiences and emotions I’d had in such a short time away. I was gutted that it was all over but those experiences, particularly meeting those inspiring children in Bangladesh will last a lifetime.

Katy U’ren is head of health and wellbeing at Drumchapel High School, which is Glasgow Sports School of the Year. Katy’s commitment to children has seen her chosen as one of Unicef’s Commonwealth Games Flying Scots. Her story will be told, along with five other and their high profile travelling companions, during a unique fundraising moment for Unicef at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in Glasgow on the evening of 23 July.