KU law students create organization to provide clothing, blankets to Bangladesh poor

Madeline Heeren and Aqmar Rahman, law students at Kansas University, give a T-shirt to a child in a slum on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh last summer. After their trip to Bangladesh, Heeren and Rahman co-founded United Across Borders, a nonprofit organization that aims to provide clothing and blankets to the impoverished in developing countries.

Buy a Shirt, Give a Shirt

What: With each purchase of a Jayhawk Nation T-shirt, the profits will go toward manufacturing a T-shirt or blanket for someone in Bangladesh.

Where: T-shirts are for sale at the KU Bookstore in the Kansas Union, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd.

When: Shirts are available starting this week, and they will be reordered on an as-needed basis.

Cost: $20

Donation Drive

What: Donated clothing and blankets will be distributed to people in Bangladesh.

Where: The drop-off location in Lawrence is the KU Bookstore in the Kansas Union, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd.

When: Items may be dropped off during regular store hours throughout April.

How to Help

For more information about United Across Borders, go to unitedacrossborders.com or visit their Facebook page.

Kansas University School of Law students Aqmar Rahman and Madeline Heeren climbed into a car on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, one summer afternoon after meeting some locals in a densely populated slum on the outskirts of the city.

Earlier that day, the two handed out a few extra KU T-shirts they brought with them on the trip. At one point, Heeren found herself surrounded by at least 100 Dhaka children, each vying for one of the cricket bats she was passing around.

“You see these people and they have what we consider nothing, and yet they’re so happy,” Heeren said. “They’re so willing to provide you with food that they don’t have the means to be providing you. They’re people who really appreciate life and anything you do to help them.”

Heeren and Rahman stayed in the city for three weeks last summer, working with a handful of garment factories on compliance with safety regulations.

The students were inspired to travel to Bangladesh after the collapse of an eight-story commercial building last spring in Savar, a subdistrict of Dhaka. Employees of the clothing factory inside the building, called Rana Plaza, were ordered to return to work the day after cracks were discovered in load-bearing pillars. More than 1,000 people died in the collapse and more than 2,500 were injured.

However, it was in the slums, and not inside the factories, that Heeren and Rahman saw the most need for change.

The garment industry makes up 80 percent of the Bangladesh’s $24 billion in exports each year, according to a report by the International Science Congress Association. In November, the monthly minimum wage for the garment industry’s approximately 4 million employees was bumped up from 3,000 taka, or $38, to 5,300 taka, about $68. Even with the increase, Rahman said, it does not equate to a livable wage.

The effects of this were visible to Heeren and Rahman as they made their way through the Dhaka slums.

“I noticed that a lot of the kids, they didn’t have clothes on,” Heeren said. “Or they were begging for money so they could get new clothes. We saw there was such a discrepancy between being able to produce so many clothes at such a low price and yet people there can’t even afford to purchase them.”

After donating their T-shirts and cricket equipment, Heeren and Rahman got into their car and drove deeper into Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city of 15 million people. Immediately, Heeren shared an idea that had formed through the course of the day.

“We got into the car, Maddie had the idea, and we started immediately,” Rahman said.

During the rest of the summer months and into fall and winter, Heeren and Rahman worked to form a nonprofit organization, United Across Borders. Their mission is to empower impoverished people throughout the world by providing education and basic necessities. They will start with donating clothing and blankets to people in the Dhaka slums.

United Across Borders partnered with the KU Bookstore to start a “Buy a Shirt–Give a Shirt” program. Starting this week, the KU Bookstore will sell co-branded Kansas Jayhawk and United Across Borders T-shirts. The profits, donated from the KU Bookstore, will go toward manufacturing T-shirts and blankets in Bangladesh factories. The items manufactured in Bangladesh will be donated to people in Dhaka.

In addition, the KU Alumni Association will organize clothing and blanket donation drives at each of its 63 chapters this spring. A donation drive will take place in Lawrence in April, and anyone looking to donate may drop off items at the KU Bookstore in the Kansas Union, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd.

Blankets are an important part of the equation, Rahman said, because of the intense cold in Northern Bangladesh. Last January, about 80 people died during a cold snap, which included the lowest temperatures recorded in the country’s history.

“People need the blankets very badly to keep their whole families warm,” Rahman said.

Eventually, Heeren and Rahman want to involve other universities in United Across Borders.

If there is enough interest in the organization, Rahman said, they would like to provide the same necessities to people in other developing countries. After that, they plan to start toward their goal of establishing a route for impoverished people in these countries to receive an education.

“That’s one of our goals down the line, to be able to empower people to provide for themselves,” Rahman said. “Education really is the avenue to get to the next level.”