A group of Wilkes University students that traveled to Bangladesh this month to help a rural school got an education of their own as they survived riots and a monsoon.
The students were set to spend spring break in the impoverished village of Gush Kande, but unrest and safety concerns delayed the trip. Tensions in the nation settled down in April and most of the group was finally able to complete its mission last week. But unrest in the Asian nation erupted once more while they were there.
The students received an email from the American Embassy shortly after they landed in the nation’s capital of Dhaka on May 2 alerting them of a planned peaceful protest scheduled for May 5 near their hotel.
“It was supposed to be peaceful,” said Ryan Wood, 22, a communications student from Kingston who made the journey and documented the trip with both digital photos and video. “It turned into a riot.”
The students watched the clashes from the upper floors of the Hotel Pacifica, at one point even heading up to the roof to observe the uproar. They said they never sensed they were in danger, but the explosions and gunfire still made them uneasy.
When the students first arrived in Dhaka, they checked into their hotel and headed out on a three-hour van and boat trek to the remote village.
Not long into their work to install a homemade solar panel-topped shed that will power a generator powerful enough to charge each of the five iPads that the university is donating, the skies opened and a monsoon swept in. The rain and wind lasted two hours.
“It was like something out of a movie,” said mechanical engineering student Eric Danko, 22, of Dallas.
They then got back to completing the generator that will benefit the 500 students and teachers at the Subilarchar Anwar Memorial School.
The villagers were poor and barely had food, but the university students said they fed them, helped them when they could and offered both thanks and tears when the Wilkes students left to head back to Dhaka.
The riots started the next afternoon and a second round were scheduled to begin the next day, but the group, which included Perwez Kalim, a professor of mechanical engineering at Wilkes, flew out before they began.
They returned to JFK Airport in New York on Wednesday. Some ate fast-food, others took in the grass and trees and odors of America that are much different from what they were smelling in Dhaka, which included garbage, rotten vegetables, burning leaves, sulfur from the tap water and body odor, according to mechanical engineering student Dustin Hough, 21, of Chambersburg.
Their return to Wilkes-Barre capped a journey that began in September, when they were tasked with developing, designing and building an alternate energy source to power devices that will allow Internet-accessible devices to work in a town without electricity. They also had to figure out the logistics of getting the materials to rural Bangladesh.
Todd Oravic, 22, an English major from Ashley, said the trip will help the students there to receive better educations, but it also gave the Wilkes students a lesson.
“It was extremely educational,” Oravic said.
While Wood, Hough, Oravic, Danko and Joshua Haag, a 22-year-old business major from Bethlehem, made the trip, two Wilkes electrical engineering students — Christa Tutella, 22, of Wilkes-Barre, and Suliman Alhojairir, 29, of Saudi Arabia -- helped with the project but could not make the trek.
The reaction the students received in the foreign country was different than they expected. The anger and unrest there is not against Americans or foreigners, the students said.
“This is purely two political parties in Bangladesh that hate each other,” said Danko. “They didn’t have anything against us.”
The villagers, on the other hand, were extremely appreciative of what the Wilkes students did for them.
“Ridiculously thoughtful and receptive,” is how Wood described their hosts.
With the journey in their own history books, the students that went said they would go back “in a heartbeat.”
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” said Danko.