Neela Center: An Eternal Flame

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The humanitarian efforts of Neela Centre, a haven that provides love, care, and essential skills to children with disabilities, enabling them to lead purposeful lives.


Located at 55/1 Solmaid, Road 25 in Block A of Vatara, Dhaka, and surrounded by slums and narrow alleyways, the Neela Center stands on an unexpected patch of green land, refreshing and unique in its spaciousness and noble intent. Founded 15 years ago by the UK and Netherlands-based Banyan Trust, the Neela Center is, first and foremost, a school aimed at improving the lives of underprivileged and disabled children in the Badda/Solmaid area. Despite its classification, the institution has rarely remained confined to its definition as just a school, identifying more and more as an education and training centre through its wide spectrum of activities.

Currently supporting around 150 children, with at least 30 of them placed under home-based care by staff and community members, the Neela Center equips children with disabilities from disadvantaged backgrounds, and their families, with skills that can make their lives more meaningful. These skills are delivered to them through vocational training programs and activities and include special education, stitching, and honey packaging, to name a few.

Founders Marc Tolud and Annie Larner have always maintained that The Neela Center should be a 100% Bangladeshi institution that understands the needs of the communities it serves. Tolud feels that humanitarian organisations in developing countries get steered by their funding bodies which have their own agendas to fulfil. The organisations have no choice but to comply, as that is where the money is coming from.

To make sure that the Neela Center does not follow in such myopic footsteps, The Banyan Trust handed over the management of its operations to the Disabled Rehabilitation and Research Association (DRRA) in Bangladesh. Winner of the Rokeya Padak in 2022, and Executive Director of the DRRA, Ms. Farida Yesmin, has since run the centre as a labour of love. Farida Yesmin explains that the Neela Center’s primary aim is to craft tailored solutions for individuals facing handicaps, whilst living in very challenging circumstances.

Instead of operating solely as a school, the Neela Center employs a multi-faceted approach to address the problems of the community members who come to them. Already a success story of the relaunched project under DRRA is a fashion workshop, where family members of the children and members of the community find much-needed employment. In addition to generating income for the families, the workshop also offers older children the opportunity to work there once they become adults. This creates sustainable opportunities and promotes a path towards economic independence for children with disabilities.

At the Neela Centre, 60% of the mothers are single. They were abandoned by their husbands as soon as they gave birth to a child with disabilities. A key aim of the Neela Centre is to provide support to these mothers, as part of its holistic approach, and create jobs within its vocational and commercial framework to include activities such as the sewing unit and to employ them as auxiliary members of the teaching staff – all ways for them to make a decent, dignified living.

Mothers, when not helping out, can often be seen bonding together in the shade of the large mango tree in the yard, or in the large sheltered recreation room. For them, the Neela Centre is the true definition of a safe space.

As an integral part of the community, the Neela Center is rarely able to extricate itself from other, peripheral problems that plague the women and children of the surrounding slums and affect their ability to take in the offered skills.

Take, for instance, the steadily climbing inflation in the country. For the disabled children of the project, the situation is often so dire that the daily nutritious meal they receive at the Neela Centre is their only meal of the day. To combat malnutrition amongst the families, a generous corporate sponsor has stepped up with a monthly food package programme. The centre saw a similar scenario during the pandemic, and the largely donor-run organisation once again stepped in to help the families with cash to buy food and pay for their rent.

Another key issue that often requires a non-academic, but pro-humanitarian approach, is Bangladesh’s battle with climate change. Being a country that is one of the hardest hit by the consequences of extreme climate events, each major flood brings more displaced children from other parts of the country to the centre’s doors. The Neela Centre strives to make a difference for everyone and has admitted as many as 21 new students in the past few months.

The Neela Centre, for children and young people with special needs, can aptly be compared to a microcosmos that reflects what is happening on a larger scale in Bangladesh. As a project with fifteen years of experience in the field and counting, both local and international partners concur that there is, slowly but surely, a shift in the government’s attention to these children and the extra help they need. Tolud remarked that Bangladesh’s rapid transformation in supporting people with special needs reflects society’s powerful drive to make a difference.

There is growing support from the Bangladeshi business community, and charitable individuals and educational institutions from the local community also show an increasing willingness and generosity to help out with the expenses of the centre, such as paying for a weekly yoga teacher for the children, or painting murals to beautify the classrooms without charge. Larner, one of the founders and Chair of the Banyan Trust UK gratefully shared that witnessing Bangladesh’s evolving support for special needs is nothing short of amazing.

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