Young Saudi Doctor Nada Al-Naji discusses her volunteer work in Bangladesh and how it positively impacted her world perspective:
After the trials of medical school and an intense internship, I decided to fulfill my childhood dream of volunteering in a developing country, a journey I hoped would allow me to help a community in need while also giving me inner-peace.
As my destination, I chose Bangladesh, a nation with a significant population of migrant workers living in Saudi Arabia. It is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with a total population close to that of Russia.
Upon leaving my comfortable life in Saudi Arabia, I was not sure what to expect from my first trip to a developing nation. Would I be able to adapt or would I cut my visit short and return home?
Twenty-four hours following my arrival, I had settled into Cox’s Bazar, a small city in southern Bangladesh, whose shores were washed by the Bangal Bay while the sun dropped slowly beyond the world’s longest sandy beach.
As it turned out, adapting to my new surroundings was relatively easy. Life was very simple, but the city was much more crowded than what I was used to back in my hometown of Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
The activities of my everyday life in Bangladesh were more or less the same as they had always been – going to work in the morning, mothers coming into the hospital with sick babies, watching children going to school, having lunch with colleagues, and chatting about politics and religion. It felt like home, though it was nothing like it.
After living for a long time in Saudi Arabia, or perhaps any country in the world, a person starts conforming to a certain model of living and places limits on her imagination and dreams. Over time, she begins adopting the ideas and lifestyles society promotes.
When I returned from Bangladesh, a Saudi newspaper requested an interview to discuss my experience. Due to certain cultural taboos in Saudi society, I was hesitant to accept. I did not know if people would react positively to a woman travelling by herself.
When I finally did the interview, I was pleasantly surprised by the response I received, as many people, young and old, asked me questions and were eager to hear about my experience. I noticed a certain glow in their eyes and a palpable sympathy toward my stories about poor and sick Bangladeshi children.
Had these same stories been about children in Syria or Bahrain, the response would likely have been different. Instead of offering their sympathies, many would have asked about the political or religious groups to which those children belonged. In some cases, I may have been exposed to personal attacks, for helping children from certain unpopular groups.
While Saudis are very capable of sympathizing with others, sectarian and political biases propagated by the media have influenced popular perceptions and negatively affected public opinion on humanitarian issues around the world.
My time in Bangladesh was an incredible experience in service and humanitarian giving. It also taught me much about my home country, helping me appreciate the degree to which natural impulses to help our fellow man have in ways been distorted by media biases.