A great friend of Abbé Pierre and Emmaus International, Zafrullah Chowdhury died on 11th April 2023 in Dhaka (Bangladesh) after a full life, exemplary commitment and courage, and struggles that resonate so deeply with Emmaus International’s current values.
This friendship began with his meeting with Abbé Pierre on 15th September 1972, six months after the independence of Bangladesh. As a young doctor and ‘fighter for freedom’, Zafrullah had set up a makeshift hospital with friends behind the front line. Once peace was restored, he looked for funds to create a People’s Healthcare Centre in Savar (in Bengali: Gonoshasthaya Kendra, GK) to treat the poorest people in rural areas. The British NGO Oxfam pledged half of the necessary amount; Abbé Pierre paid for the other half.
Emmaus International invited Zafrullah to its general assemblies in 1988 and 1996 and published several articles on GK or requests for help in its newsletter.
Invited to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Emmaus in Orléans on 26th September 1999 to represent Asia among eight ‘great witnesses’, Zafrullah recalls the 1972 meeting after which Abbé Pierre took him to discover poverty on the streets of Paris, showed him the work of Emmaus and said to him: “Remember one thing: it is the poor people of France who are trying to help the poor people of Bangladesh. The task I entrust you with is to make sure that the poor of Bangladesh receive our help, this help from the poor people of France.”
Zafrullah continues: “The knowledge and wisdom that Abbé Pierre shared with me gave me the courage to fight against the big pharmaceutical companies. At the People’s Healthcare Centre, at every annual meeting, we asked the questions that were in line with what Abbé Pierre asked me to achieve:
- Are we reaching the poor?
- Are we really working for the poor?
- Are we succeeding in our task?
- Are we winning against oppression?
He concluded: “I can assure you, dear Abbé Pierre, that we will remain united and that we will succeed in your and our struggles against hunger, poverty and oppression“.
On 27th January 2007, after Abbé Pierre’s death, Zafrullah said: “Abbé Pierre will remain as the guiding spirit and light throughout my remaining life. (…) We will miss Abbé Pierre physically, but he will be with us all the time.
The exemplary work of GK and its founder has earned them many international awards. The most important is the Right Livelihood Award (alternative Nobel Prize), awarded in Stockholm in 1992.
Here is an extract from a message from Franco Bettoli, president of Emmaus International, in December 1996 for the 25th anniversary of GK:
“On an evening in September 1972, the meeting between Abbé Pierre and Zafrullah Chowdhury was a kind of “meeting of the minds” and sealed a moral contract, a mutual trust that has never been refuted. (…) Over the past 24 years, Zafrullah and GK have not only not forgotten that first meeting but have fulfilled their contract beyond all expectations. Emmaus International is happy and proud to have made a decisive contribution, via its founder, to the birth of GK.”
In December 1997, Abbé Pierre declared:
“Daring to do what is in Savar required that one foresee not only the difficulties that are inevitable in an innovative undertaking of this magnitude, but also the persecution, which can go as far as wanting to kill, on behalf of those who live within the enormous forces of the global pharmaceutical industries. You have won! dear doctor…”