Bangladesh Alumni Update: Nalifa Mehelin and Humans of New York

The portrait that Brandon took of Nalifa. Nalifa sits on the sidewalk with her feet in the gutter on a quiet street in Dhaka

“So what would you say your biggest challenge is till now?” asked the man with pure curiosity in his eyes, sitting on the sidewalk of one of the busiest streets of Dhaka. I looked in the eyes of the girl and said his words in my language. The girl sighed and said, “I had to leave school because my father could not afford it. Now where I live, I see the school going kids every time when they pass by my house. I could have been one of them. But I am not.” A few questions later, from the corner of my eyes, I saw the man wiping a tear of his face. Brandon Stanton not only hears stories, he feels them with all his heart.

“Hi, Nalifa. It’s Brandon. I was just wondering if you are free on Tuesday. I am currently at Cox’s Bazar. Will be flying to Dhaka tomorrow. So if you can, we will meet somewhere and discuss the work?” It’s not every day that you receive an email from Brandon Stanton, creator of Humans of New York (HONY). Over-excited, enthusiastic, and flushed with adrenaline, I went to Dhaka for the work. My job was to accompany him in his photo walk and interpret the interviews all along.

We took about 8-10 interviews. Throughout the day we kept on chitchatting about random things; mostly analyzing the cultural contexts and differences. With a pressing curiosity, I asked him how and why he thought I am capable of this job. He referred to the video that I had sent. I gushed all over in the video about my trip to New York City for the very first time. I told him everything that I could possibly summarize in that 45 seconds. Every time I think of that night, it brings out nothing but happy memories. He said the excitement showed in my face and he thought I would be perfect for this job.

What I most liked about Brandon was his humility. “Yeah, I don’t take myself that seriously”, he had said. Despite being one of the most talked about celebrities in the world, he is incredibly easy to get along with and impossibly humble. Perhaps that is the reason why random strangers open up to him and share their stories. Stanton gives you the comfort, the assurance that no matter how you are or what you conceive yourself as, I am here to listen without any judgment. In a world of chaos, perhaps all we crave for is someone to actually listen to us.

During his journey, along with taking photos, Stanton took up the educational responsibility of Remon, a 15 year old boy living in Dhaka. While he was on his photo walk, Remon came up to him and started talking to him in English. Amazed by the boy’s eagerness to learn, he got Remon admitted into the Canadian International School and agreed to bear all his educational expenses. Just like that, he’s slightly transforming the world into a better place than he found it.

As I was heading back after finishing my day with him, I kept thinking about my day with him; running every possible detail in my head again and again. More often than not, the amazing opportunities you have pave a way for more amazing opportunities. The journey of Global UGRAD was amazing and worthwhile enough for me to reiterate the stories. That one crazy night somehow led me to meet Brandon Stanton, the phenomenal human from New York. And one crazy shot at the Global UGRAD application led me to have that night in New York City.

Written by Nalifa Mehelin, Bangladesh, 2017-2018 Global UGRAD student at the University of Connecticut

Brandon Stanton and Nalifa with other “Humans of Dhaka”,
a boy aspiring to become an inventor.