Shams and Haque

Mir Shams and Tania Haque celebrating the Bengali New Year, “Pahela Baishakh,” in Bangladesh in 2008, or Bengali year 1415. Haque is wearing a traditional red sari. The Washington couple will lead the virtual Vacation Bible School event.

The 2020 Vacation Culture School (VCS) is on — and online. The third annual program organized by “Neighbors United — Undoing Racism” and Peace Lutheran Church will take place Sunday, Sept. 20, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Zoom. Register at Facebook.com/neighborsunitedmissouri or by emailing vacationcultureschool@gmail.com.

The event will follow a similar pattern of the previous two years’ programs. Food, crafts and personal stories will allow participants a glimpse into a new culture. If the event is successful, organizer Aimee Appell said there will likely be more virtual events to come. 

“A lot of the people who help out with VCS have education backgrounds, so we are brainstorming creative ways (to meet),” Appell said.

‘Shubho Noboborsho’ or ‘Happy New Year’

The main VCS event will be “Pahela Baishakh,” a Bengali New Year celebration. Originally scheduled for April to coincide with the beginning of the Bengali calendar April 15, the virtual celebration will be led by Washington couple Mir Shams and Tania Haque, who both grew up in Bangladesh.

“It’s a really big celebration for us,” Haque said. “When I was there we had events all day. Everyone wears a traditional Bengali dress, a sari, in white and red.”

Perhaps the most important part of understanding a different culture, and therefore of VCS, is tasting its food. Instead of dining together at the event, participants will receive a recipe for a traditional rice and lentils dish called khichuri they can cook at home. Appell said they made sure every ingredient is stocked at Washington grocery stores. Shams and Haque make it frequently at home because it’s so easy.

Also getting the virtual treatment is the usual themed craft, which is normally done in-person as a group. It is custom for Bengali artists to ring in the new year by collaborating on large installations of street art called an alpona. The finished pieces are miles-long, hand-painted collections of thousands of individual, intricate patterns. VCS-goers are encouraged to create their own miniature alponas with sidewalk chalk ahead of the event. 

Before all that, however, Shams and Haque will identify the Bengal region on a map for those who don’t know it. The historical Bengal region covers modern Bangladesh and a small state in eastern India called West Bengal. It’s one of the most densely populated regions in the world, with more than 250 million living in about 2,100 square miles.

Haque said she is used to having to explain to people where Bangladesh is. She hopes the event Sunday will let people know about the country and its culture. Appell seconded this. 

“Our goal is to raise awareness that Washington is not homogenous,” Appell said. “Our goal is to build relationships.”