A Globetrotter Eyes the Road to Home

Rahnuma 'Elora' Shehabuddin '91

MORE THAN ONE Radcliffe senior has had trouble communicating with her parents this year. But only one can blame Saddam Hussein for cutting the phone lines.

Rahmuna Shehabuddin--known to friends as "Elora"--was doing thesis research in her native Bangladesh when she heard the news: Her parents and two sisters were among the millions trapped by the Iraqi army in Kuwait City. Her mother and sisters were released in September, but her father, the ambassador from Bangladesh, would remain a hostage in Baghdad for two weeks, before finally leaving in October.

"Sure, I was worried," Shehabuddin says. "But they were in Lebanon in 1975, so I figured they knew how to handle themselves."

As an international student at Harvard, Elora knows how to handle herself, too. After growing up in India, France, Lebanon, Bangladesh and Poland, and attending boarding schools in England, Shehabuddin learned to fend for herself in a foreign culture.

But the constant moves--most recently to Cambridge for her four-year stint at Harvard--have not diluted her sense of identity, particularly when it comes to her feelings for her native land. If anything, she says, a life of globetrotting has increased her sense of nationalism and commitment to her country's people.


Truth be told, she actually wanted to attend Yale. "Since I hadn't visited the schools, I wanted to choose Yale since everyone [in England] picks Harvard," Shehabuddin admits. "But my parents said, 'You have no basis for that decision.' And so I picked Harvard."

Shehabuddin had little trouble adjusting to her "second choice," and, even at a university that prides itself on the diversity of its student body, Shehabuddin has found a way to stand out.

Fluent in Bengali, English, French, German and Hindi, she has spent much of her time here working on public service projects on campus and around Harvard. She has participated in projects by HAND and Phillips Brooks House. She has volunteered at a battered women's shelter in Central Square. And she has served on the board of Education for Action.

"She's seen things in a very different way than a lot of us here," says her blockmate in Leverett House, Rachel Allen '91. "She's a lot closer to the fact that a lot of people in the world are suffering, and I think that makes her commitment a lot more personal than most people's."

Little wonder, then, that Shehabuddin has directed her attention homeward whenever possible. She spent last summer working for an organization that gives loans to the landless in Bangladesh. The organization has helped 800 thousand people, she says, but 50 million landless people remain. She wrote her senior thesis in the Social Studies Department on the struggles of women to take control of their economic destiny.

In the process, Shehabuddin learned much about the plight of her homeland. "You get a sense of what you have and what 50 million people don't," Shehabuddin says of her experience. "And you feel the responsibility."

Back on campus, Shehabuddin helped organize the relief effort that sent donations from Harvard students to her flood-stricken nation.

But Shehabuddin has not been afraid to take up more controversial causes, and this fall, she actively opposed the War in the Gulf. Shehabuddin says she was particularly angry that so few students on campus seemed to "care about those Iraqis during the war because they are just Arabs."

Shehabuddin says she knew she was in the right, but she says she never expected her stance to provoke such hostility from even some of her closest friends. One, she recalls, pointed out than it was Hussein who had nearly killed her parents, and that forcing the Iraqis from Kuwait would allow her to return to her house.

Shehabuddin didn't apologize for Hussein. But she did have an answer: "You just do not kill hundreds of thousands of people for my piano."