Remarks by USAID/Bangladesh Mission Director Janina Jaruzelski at the USAID Iftar

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Assalamu aleikum and good evening.

I’m delighted to be here tonight to share in this celebration of the holy month of Ramadan. It is always pleasure and an honor for me to attend Iftar, whether it is in Bangladesh where I am currently Mission Director, or in Egypt, where I served from 1997 to 2001, or other Muslim-majority countries I’ve had the opportunity to visit. I am especially pleased to have the chance to celebrate here in the United States with all of you this evening.

Ramadan is probably best known for the ritual of daily fasting. But Ramadan is also a time for reflection, devotion, generosity, discipline, and sacrifice. And for all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the values of peace, of sharing, of family and community are universal values that we all share -- regardless of faith or nationality.

These values are also fundamental to the goals and objectives of our work in development, where we try—everyday—to make the world a better place—a more prosperous place, a more healthy place, or a more fair and harmonious place for all people, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or other difference.

During Ramadan, people from all walks of life – from rickshaw wallahs and day-laborers, to school-teachers, doctors and CEOs – adhere to the day-long fast. Doing so takes strong commitment since currently, Ramadan coincides with some of the longest and hottest days of the year.

As you may know, Bangladesh is the third-largest Muslim-majority country in the world in terms of population. During the holy month of Ramadan, Bangladeshis are gathering with family, friends and colleagues for Iftar – much as we are doing here this evening.

Together, they are gathering around the family table, eagerly waiting for the Magrib prayer so they can break their fast. In Bangladesh, Iftar usually starts with the traditional dates in honor of the Prophet who we know broke his fast during the first Iftar with three dates. Bangladeshis then typically continue their meal with traditional Bengali Iftar specialties like deep-fried eggplant, puffed rice with dal, hearty halim soup, super-sweet jilapies , and seasonal fruit. This year the seasonal fruit is mango and I must say that Bangladesh has—without a doubt—the best-tasting mangoes in the world, although I fully realize everyone says this about the mangos in their country.    

As you all know well, understanding and respecting the influence of religion and culture is essential in development work, and I am glad to say that USAID has a long and successful track record of working with Muslim religious leaders around the world; in Bangladesh, in Senegal, Egypt, Jordan, and Malaysia. We are proud to work with imams, mohlavis and other Islamic leaders, seeing them as allies and advocates in advancing socio-economic development in their communities. As respected and knowledgeable leaders, they have an important role in helping citizens see the importance of childhood education, healthy behaviors, and basic human rights. I’d like to share a few examples of how USAID has partnered with religious leaders in Bangladesh to drive development initiatives.

More than a decade ago, USAID began a program in Bangladesh to formally engage imams and educate them about specific development activities. Known as the “Leaders of Influence” program, USAID provided more than 20,000 religious and other community leaders with training on national development goals and emphasized the importance of democratic governance, tolerance, and understanding, which are essential to achieving these goals.

USAID support helped develop the book “Family Planning in the Light of Islam.” This book provides Bangladeshi imams with important information about reproductive health in the context of Islamic principles, while rooting out misconceptions about birth control. As a result, these leaders are better able to counsel their congregations and help them make informed decisions on family size and proper birth spacing – all while connecting these principles to sacred hadiths and the holy Quran.

One of USAID Bangladesh’s flagship health programs is the Smiling Sun network of health clinics, which now provides basic healthcare for the poorest women and children in all 64 districts of Bangladesh. This is one of our mission’s most popular programs—so much so that the UK’s Department for International Development recently made a $29 million contribution to the program. USAID’s Smiling Sun health clinics involve religious leaders from all faiths as key members of “Smiling Sun Community Support Groups,” which oversee the clinics and make sure the services are high quality and meeting the needs of the community. Over the past two years, these support groups have referred more than 2 million patients in poor and underserved communities to seek basic healthcare at their local Smiling Sun clinics.

Under our “Protecting Human Rights” activity in Bangladesh, we have involved imams in combating domestic violence. Imams play a critical role as members of community-led "Social Protection Groups" in preventing child marriage, sexual harassment, and gender-based violence. Since 2012, we have trained 1,200 imams in partnership with Bangladesh’s Imam Training Academy, and we continue to work with these imams to address domestic violence, which is a major issue in Bangladesh. 

And under the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad program – or ASHA, USAID support builds health and educational facilities in communities with large Muslim populations. In Bangladesh, a partnership between U.S.-based Global Health Ministries and The Livingstone Evergreen Advancement Foundation constructed the “Livingstone School Bangladesh.”

This secondary school features a lab, a library, and a playground, and provides quality education for middle-school-aged children in the rural area of Parbatipur in the northwestern part of the country.

These are just a few examples of what we, as a Mission, are doing to align the pillars of development with the pillars of Islam to make a difference in the lives of millions of people—a great percentage of whom are Muslims.

Before I close, I want to thank the Center for Faith-based and Community Initiatives for organizing this wonderful event. I would also like to extend my heartfelt wishes to all of you for a peaceful and blessed month of Ramadan.

Thank you very much and Ramadan Mubarak.

Washington, D.C.
Issuing Country