Current BASHA board members (left to right) Rabsa Sikder, Shifa Hossain, Raisha Rahman, Afiya Rahman, Sadia Laisa. Image courtesy of Shifa Hossain.
The Bengali Association of Students at Harvard, fondly called BASHA, evolved during the pandemic as a means of connecting students from Bangladesh and West Bengal. The Mittal Institute spoke with co-treasurer Shifa Hossain ’23 about BASHA’s evolution on campus.
Mittal Institute: Shifa, can you tell us a little about yourself, and what prompted you to join BASHA?
Shifa Hossain: I am a Junior concentrating in neuroscience with a secondary concentration in global health and health policy. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, but my family is originally from Dhaka, Bangladesh. I first found out about BASHA through my friend, Isheka Agarwal, who mentioned that they created a new organization for those who are affiliated with the Bengal region or are interested in learning about Bengali culture.
There are two unique factors about the organization that pulled me to join: the inclusivity and the name. BASHA is not the first Bangladeshi organization at Harvard, but it is the first Bengali organization. When I first heard about it, I was excited to join an organization that encompassed students from Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, especially because I had many friends from West Bengal. Doing so has allowed us to attract a greater audience and be as inclusive as we can with students on campus. Every email sent via our mailing list includes the phrase “all identities are welcomed” to encourage anyone and everyone to come and engage in our events. The second part that was attractive to me was the name BASHA. While the full name is a bit lengthy, the acronym is the heart of the club. BASHA means “house” in Bengali, but it is really the individuals in the club who have made it a home on campus.
Shifa Hossain, co-treasurer of BASHA.
Mittal Institute: Could you tell us more about BASHA’s origins?
Shifa Hossain: This group was created during the pandemic to raise awareness regarding the rise in COVID-19 cases in the Bengal region, as well as around the cyclone that hit during the summer of 2020. These events had devastating effects—individuals lost their homes, livelihoods, and loved ones. In our first month, we were able to establish a one-day conference with speakers from BRAC (a leading NGO), icddr,b (a Bangladesh-based international health research organization), and ICCCAD (a leading organization researching climate change and development in Bangladesh). We were able to publicize the conference among Harvard students and held it over Zoom. Using the pandemic and Zoom to host events for students to virtually meet other Bengalis at Harvard during the pandemic helped solidify our organization. It also provided a space for participants to learn more about the culture. Even though we began during the pandemic, this aided the ability to form intimate connections during a time of isolation.
Mittal Institute: What is BASHA’s main focus – what do you hope to bring to the Harvard campus?
Shifa Hossain: BASHA strives to establish a space for Bengalis on campus to celebrate our rich culture and heritage and speak our mother language. The Bengali culture is incredibly dense, from its ties with British colonialism and its appreciation for the arts, and from poetry to literature. However, this culture is not recognized on a global platform like others; thus, we want to showcase it to Harvard’s campus—a college flourishing with diversity, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Recently, we noticed that there are a great number of Bengali students attending the graduate schools of Harvard. We plan to begin including graduate students in our events as a means for undergraduate students to interact and see representation in various fields. It would also be great for the graduate students to meet others from the different programs at Harvard.
BASHA strives to establish a space for Bengalis on campus to celebrate our rich culture and heritage and speak our mother language. . .We want to showcase our culture to the Harvard campus—a college flourishing with diversity, ethnicities, and backgrounds.
Mittal Institute: Can you tell us more about some of the campus events that you coordinate?
Shifa Hossain: BASHA hosted its first Pohela Boishakh Mela (Bengali New Year’s Fair). Pohela Boishakh is a joyous occasion throughout all of Bengal where people celebrate the arrival of the new year. Traditionally, women wear red and white saris to mark the auspicious occasion, while men dress in their best Panjabi. The day is full of colors and flowers to foreshadow the flourishing year to come. Not only is this occasion celebrated greatly in Bengal but throughout the Bengali diaspora. Cities throughout the world host their own Pohela Boishakh Mela, where individuals dress in traditional clothes and eat local Bengali street food’ shop for Bengali clothing items and accessories; and listen to and watch live performances. We also added a compilation of resources to aid Bengalis, whether it is help for immigration, citizenship, or healthcare.
The idea got started because BASHA members remembered their own experiences with melas and realized that BASHA would not be complete without its own. The biggest challenge to bringing this mela to life was the fact that we were still a young club. This is our first year in person and second year being an established organization. None of the board members had ever taken upon such a large project, though we have hosted smaller events consistently throughout the year. However, it was the enthusiasm from the board members of BASHA that really made it happen.
We started planning this mela during our December winter recess and spent the next three-to-four months researching the culture and decorations and finding a way to establish the booths at the fair. One thing that I admire about those in Bengal is how crafty people can be. Some people can create some of the most beautiful pieces from such normal and simple pieces. This is what we were able to do for our own fair as we created the booths, the stands, and the decorations from scratch. Moving forward, we aspire to include a greater number of pieces to represent our culture.
BASHA’s first Pohela Boishakh Mela (Bengali New Year’s Fair). Images courtesy of Shifa Hossain.
Mittal Institute: How has BASHA positively impacted your Harvard experience, and how will this translate to your career after graduation next year?
Shifa Hossain: BASHA has been one of the most fulfilling experiences I have had at Harvard so far. Here, I was able to find an intimate community of students who are just as excited to introduce Bengali culture to Harvard’s campus. Being part of this organization has allowed to me learn numerous aspects of my culture that I did not know previously. I even surprised myself with this inherent pull I had for my culture, especially living outside of Bangladesh. This community was something I did not realize I desired living back home. Growing up in Los Angeles was a constant reminder of the need for Bengali representation in every sector and field.
After graduating from Harvard, I plan to use the resources and tools I acquired to serve the Bengali community in Los Angeles, more specifically in the medical field. Growing up, there were many individuals who were always searching for a Bengali physician. The language barrier not only poses a great constraint, but the cultural barrier is as well. These are essential to build a strong and intimate physician-patient relationship, and I will strive to do my part in closing this gap as much as possible.
I was able to find an intimate community of students who are just as excited to introduce Bengali culture to Harvard’s campus. Being part of this organization has allowed to me learn numerous aspects of my culture that I did not know previously. I even surprised myself with this inherent pull I had for my culture, especially living outside of Bangladesh.
Mittal Institute: How can our readers become involved or learn more about BASHA?
Shifa Hossain: BASHA strives to be an all-inclusive organization. The best way to learn about BASHA is through our Instagram page, as we are constantly posting about our events. We also have a Group Me that allows students to communicate freely to others. Lastly, our mailing list allows members to have access to our RSVP links and serves as an official means to publicize about our events. Potential members can have access to all three by filling out this Google form: https://forms.gle/dszfb1Nn7NModZwN8.