CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh (BP)--Fish and chicken used to fill boys' plates only twice a week. Now, thanks to the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund, boys living in two hostels in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh have protein every day in their diet.
Life is not easy for families living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, an area bordering India and Myanmar that once was protected for tribal people groups.
Civil unrest plagues the hill tracts, but many of the health issues of the 1.3 million people there are caused by malnutrition. UNICEF reports that in the three hill tracts districts -- Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban -- 43.4 percent of teens ages 13-19 are anemic.
Southern Baptists, through their World Hunger Fund, provide food for boys living in Bandarban Boys' Hostel, which houses 55 boys, and Sajek Boys' Hostel, home to another 22 boys.
These hostels, run by the Bangladesh Baptist Church Fellowship, allow boys educational opportunities otherwise unavailable in their rural communities, said Burt Galvin*, who oversees Southern Baptist ministry in Bangladesh and northeastern India. By staying at the hostels, the boys can attend school in town.
There are several other hostels for boys and for girls in the area. The hostel system is well-known throughout the Christian community and provides a Christian learning environment as well as Christian discipleship.
"We have seen a transformation of tribal people in just one generation," Galvin said. "First and foremost is the spiritual transformation that takes place when the tribals leave Hinduism and Buddhism and embrace Christianity. Along with that, when these groups become Christian, they immediately see a need for education."
Most of the tribal Christians come from a non-literate background. In part, their newfound desire for education may be because they now want to read God's Word, Galvin said.
"The result has been amazing," Galvin said. "Christ has truly transformed the tribals. Education through the hostels has been part of that."
Most areas in the hill tracts have schools for children in grades 1-3 but do not offer any higher-grade levels. Some students who have excellent grades upon finishing third grade may receive admission into schools elsewhere, but those opportunities are few. Boys with less-than-stellar marks do not have much hope of continuing their education.
"Culturally in Bangladesh, only students who make excellent grades from their first days in school will be considered, allowed have any opportunity to continue up through the grades," said Finn Aurora*, a Southern Baptist representative who serves on the board of directors for the Bandarban hostel.
The Baptist hostels meet this need for education in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Christian tribal leaders responsible for admissions select which students should go to the hostels. Boys usually come to the hostels at about age 9.
"The few tribal leaders who have received education in the past, in particular the Christian leaders, see the significant lack of education holding the tribal people back from both development within themselves as well as receiving Christ and discipleship in following Him," Aurora said.
During the past year, 22 boys at the Bandarban and Sajek hostels made professions of faith in Jesus, he said.
"Four families of students made professions of faith after hearing the Gospel because their child was living in the hostel," Aurora said. "Two of the students in the hostels made commitments to the ministry."
During the 2009-10 school year, $8,373 from the World Hunger Fund provided the budget for adequate meals and a nutritious diet for the boys who live in the two hostels. Before the World Hunger Fund was applied, the boys had only two meals a day and fish or chicken only twice a week.
"While the students realized they were still afforded the opportunity to attend school, obviously they were hungry at times and knew there was a shortage of food," Aurora said.
Now they have three meals a day and protein every day.
"Funding allowed us to properly feed the students of those same tribal farm families who are striving to provide an education for their children," Aurora said.
The families of the children in the Sajek Boys' Hostel are generally subsistence farmers, like many of the families in the hill tracts.
"They grow what they can, gather what they can in the jungle areas, and trade or work in addition to that to make ends meet," Aurora said.
The Sajek hostel's recent growth from five students to 22 has increased its operating budget needs.
"We are praying about additional support for this hostel as we expect the families in the area to seek admission of new students each year," Aurora said.
Aurora's prayer is that more children can be educated.
"These students are the hope of their families for future support and income," he said. "It is these same students who will soon lead their home communities and be responsible to meet the physical and spiritual needs of their community."
Aurora asks that you pray:
-- For the tribal children in each of the hostels to develop into mature Christian leaders.
-- For more churches and volunteers to catch a vision for praying for these who will be future leaders among Bangladesh's tribal minority.
-- That the tribal people would recognize that education, training and discipleship are blessings from God that enable them to develop and lead their families and communities without dependency on outside sources.
*Names changed. Caroline Anderson is a writer in Asia for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. For more information on how you can support the World Hunger Fund, go to http://www.imb.org/worldhunger.
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