The Hard-Working Hero Providing Hope for the Underprivileged

Sara Noel, DCI volunteer

Sara Noel, DCI volunteer

Phrases of Bangla filter into the room from the living room and kitchen. Relatives, some of whom traveled from a few states away and some of whom came all the way from Bangladesh, cycle in and out of the dining room, stopping to introduce themselves or make small talk. It’s two days after Thanksgiving, and with a house full of guests on a Saturday just after dinnertime, the head of the household, Dr. Ehsanul Hoque, is upstairs in a meeting that is running late and has an interview still ahead of him later in the evening.

Working at all hours of the day, during the holidays, and during the weekend is nothing new for Dr. Hoque. In fact, the previous two days were the first Thanksgiving he had ever celebrated in his eighteen years in the U.S. Born in Barisal, Bangladesh, the father of two has been conducting research, learning complicated surgeries, and speaking to the public since the day he arrived, striving to earn enough success and garner enough support to get people to listen to him and help in his ultimate goal: to make a difference in his home country of Bangladesh and similarly impoverished areas.

He is well on his way. In 2003 he started his own child sponsorship based charity, Distressed Children and Infants International (DCI), with Yale School of Medicine colleague Dr. Brian DeBroff. The charity has become a successful and multi-faceted web of support for those suffering in Bangladesh, particularly for the visually impaired. In the last year, Dr. Hoque left his position at Yale to devote all of his time to DCI. Working seven days a week and long into the night, Dr. Hoque has given up his time, energy, sleep, vacations, medical career, and essentially sacrificed himself in order to accomplish the goals he is so passionate about.

Walking into DCI’s home office, a room over Dr. Hoque’s garage, it’s hard to believe it is the home of an international organization that sponsors over 1100 children. Five or six desks and tables are arranged around the room, covered in computers, binders, and paperwork. A man and a woman are sitting on a couch across the room, finishing up their meeting. A box of donated laptops sits on the floor and a few pictures break up the blank white walls. It isn’t until one sees the oversized computer monitor sitting on Dr. Hoque’s desk, or catches a glimpse of the thick eyeglasses he sports, that one of the underlying motivations for his work starts to become clear.

Dr. Hoque was born with congenital cataracts. His condition, which can cause permanent blindness if not detected within the first four to five years of childhood, is caused by either a vitamin deficiency or a case of the measles when a mother is pregnant. Though Dr. Hoque was lucky enough to have his condition detected early and to have a family that was financially able to support the seven surgeries he underwent by the age of five, his thick eyeglasses hint at the visual impairment he still lives with even after these surgeries.

These glasses were the subject of much pain during his childhood. Kids at school used to call him “kana,” the Bangla word for blind. One boy who sat to the right of him would take away his glasses, wave a number of fingers in his face, and ask him how many fingers he was holding up.

“I had [an] inferiority complex,” Dr Hoque explains, as this sort of behavior was a daily occurrence for him. While the pain of these memories is clear in Dr. Hoque’s hesitation to talk about how he was treated, he says, “I bear the scars of my vision impairment, but I consider myself one of the lucky and fortunate ones—I was able to get treatment.” Thousands of Bangladeshi children are not so lucky.

Dr. Hoque believes that his personal struggles keep him connected to the people of Bangladesh, and now he has put himself in a position to help those visually impaired children he understands so well. Through the infrastructure set up for DCI’s Sun Child Sponsorship Program, Dr. Hoque has been able to implement the Childhood Blindness Prevention Program. The program provides free eye exams, free eyeglasses, and even free eye surgeries to the families within DCI’s project areas; an essential development in a world where, according to the World Health Organization, half of all childhood blindness can be avoided by early treatment.

The Childhood Blindness Prevention Program is a natural development from the early program Dr. Hoque developed while a student in medical school. He would pass out seeds and help teach expecting mothers about proper nutrition and agriculture to try to prevent the vitamin deficiencies in pregnancy that can lead to congenital cataracts. He would tell the women, “Look, these are my glasses. I have a problem,” using his own struggles to inspire them to help their unborn children. The program spread to his fellow students and other medical schools, and it was eventually expanded and incorporated into the infrastructure within DCI.

The complex infrastructure and advisory committees already set up for the Sun Child Sponsorship Program have also allowed DCI to implement a disaster relief program, an orphan support program, a child rights awareness campaign, and a general healthcare program.

“Poverty alleviation requires a highly interrelated approach,” Dr. Hoque explains. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, more than 40% of Bangladeshis are below the poverty line, giving Bangladesh the third largest number of poor people after India and China.

DCI works to improve the education, healthcare, income development, schools, and communities within its project areas, helping every individual, not just the sponsored children, in an effort to make sure every part of the system improves and the poverty cycle can be broken. “I didn’t think initially that so many things were involved,” Dr. Hoque says, and it is clear the organization has grown larger and more complex than he ever anticipated.

When Dr. Hoque first decided to become a doctor to help those struggling around him in Bangladesh, he never even expected to leave his home country. He imagined traveling around to the villages within the country, helping those who needed him. Eventually he realized, “If I come out of the country, I can help more efficiently,” and in 1990 he moved to America to do just that.

It was here in the U.S. that he learned what he was really capable of. Recalling some early research and a complicated microsurgery in hearts, Dr. Hoque explains that he had thought the microsurgery procedure was “impossible for human beings.” After eight or nine attempts at the procedure, Dr. Hoque told his boss that he could not do the surgery. Upon hearing that Dr. Hoque had only made eight or nine attempts, his boss told him, “You have to try at least 100 times.” With a lot of practice and hard work, Dr. Hoque eventually became an expert in the procedure, something that would have been difficult even for someone with perfect eyesight. Other doctors ended up coming to him for training. Now Dr. Hoque believes “nothing is impossible for human beings.”

He carries that refusal to accept failure and extreme work ethic into all of his work with DCI. Even with over 1100 sponsored children, numerous additional programs, and a family of his own to worry about, Dr. Hoque continues to expand his organization.

The Sun Child Sponsorship Program has taken a distinct step away from other sponsorship programs by emphasizing the importance of the sponsors as well as those who are sponsored. Dr. Hoque actively encourages American young people to sponsor a child or, better yet, create a sponsorship team. He strongly believes that the money collected through the sponsorship program is not the most important thing; “the most important thing [is] learning.” He says that the union of children in sponsorship teams teaches them about leadership and educates them about the problems of the world.

“Young people have more fresh ideas,” Dr. Hoque adds, insisting that youth involvement in DCI is a huge advantage to the organization. While many charities focus solely on a specific impoverished area, Dr. Hoque explains “America is my country,” and he wants to help the American people as much as those suffering in Bangladesh.

Every person who helps or volunteers for DCI becomes a priority. Dr. Hoque believes in being “partners in success,” never hesitating to write college recommendations, find people internships, get people medical assistance, or grant lowly college students interviews if they’ve helped DCI in the past. He is constantly thanking everyone who is willing to help his organization. “He’s not just looking to help those 1100 kids who are at the end of the line,” DCI volunteer Philip Noel explains, “He wants to help everyone and anyone in between.”

While Dr. Hoque’s desire to help everyone he comes into contact with and to help those struggling in Bangladesh in every aspect of their life is certainly noble, it’s also an extremely large undertaking. Many of the people Dr. Hoque works with will speak of receiving emails at two, three, four, and even five o’clock in the morning, leading many to wonder if Dr. Hoque even sleeps at all. “The phone [in the main office] is always ringing,” Noel says, “He’s talking to this person and he hangs up, and then it rings again and he’s talking in Bangla… He barely gets any sleep, and he probably rarely takes time to eat.”

Dr. Hoque shows no signs of slowing down either. He first began trying to help in Bangladesh when he was fifteen, and now he believes he’s finally on the verge of being able to do something on a larger scale. Now that the DCI system in Bangladesh is almost perfected, Dr. Hoque hopes to use this system as a model to move the organization into other developing nations.
Seeing all of the time and work Dr. Hoque puts into DCI at this stage in the game, it’s difficult to imagine him spreading himself any further. Recently Dr. Hoque has started to experience some trouble with his eyes again. Because he never really rests, his condition has only grown worse. In spite of everything, however, Dr. Hoque says, “I [now] have the confidence, the mental power, so that, even if I get blind, I will continue to do this job.”

In an effort to direct all money towards those who need it in Bangladesh, Dr. Hoque has been reluctant to put anyone on salary for DCI. Because most DCI volunteers have regular day jobs, there currently isn’t enough manpower for Dr. Hoque to do all that he wants to do, so he takes on as much work as possible for himself.

Dr. Hoque believes that, given the medical treatment he was able to receive as a child and the life he is able to lead in America, it would be selfish not to remember and try to help those in his home country. “Looking at my daughters living in America, I remember those distressed children in Bangladesh. I feel that they could have been one of them.”

His passion and dedication to helping the underprivileged is clearly what is most important to him. “It’s like the reason he lives is because he’s got this passion for this cause,” Noel says. This is not hard to believe, as getting him to talk about himself and not just DCI was no easy task.

For a man whose doctor recommended he not even be sent to school as a child, Dr. Hoque has certainly come a long way. With a medical degree, PhD, and an international organization under his belt, Dr. Hoque can teach people a lot about hard work and genuine compassion for humanity. Ever the optimist, he says “I know my effort will be a small drop in a big ocean, but it will still be something.”