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Bengal Bouts fighters reflect on service abroad

| Thursday, March 7, 2019

While fans in attendance at last week’s Bengal Bouts finals believed they were witnessing the end of a four-month boxing season, the men in the ring, gasping and bleeding for a common cause, saw something quite different — another beginning to the larger, seemingly endless fight to protect Christian minorities in Bangladesh.

According to Bengal Bouts captain senior Cam Nolan, Bangladesh has a population of around 170 million people but is only around the size of Wisconsin, making the country densely populated. Since Christians make up only about a half percent of the country’s population and are often not ethnically Bengali, these Christian tribal groups rarely have access to the same resources and privileges of other residents of the country.

“Their government doesn’t even acknowledge they exist basically,” two-time Bengal Bouts boxer junior Chris Lembo said. “They don’t give them any public or private education, any healthcare, any help in the law system or anything. So they’re basically seen as non-existent to anyone.”

Helping to combat this injustice are the Holy Cross missions in Bangladesh, who, using the money generated through the Bengal Bouts tournament — including over $137,000 from this season alone — are able to successfully support these struggling communities in areas the local government has consistently failed, Nolan said.

“The Holy Cross educates them, they give them a church, they give them a community [and] they represent them in court,” Nolan said. “They are a power to be dealt with, and they protect a lot of these people that are underprivileged and would otherwise be harassed and taken advantage of.”

Nolan and Lembo, who traveled to Bangladesh as part of an ISSLP program in the summers of 2016 and 2018 respectively, volunteered as English teachers for the tribal children while at these various parishes and hostels. However — whether it was playing soccer with the students after class or sharing a meal with the village in the evening — the two men said they learned through their experience their role as a teacher was often secondary to their role as a fellow human being.

“The hardest part of it is you quickly realize that you don’t get to change the world,” Nolan said. “The biggest thing you can do is simply be present, I’d say. You know, how much is two months of English really going to change these kids’ lives? Not a lot, but you get to see what the funds have done for the past 89 years and will continue to do. So, it’s really just about being present, bearing witness and having the experience and coming back to Notre Dame fully committed to Bengal Bouts, fully committed to making sure this club survives.”

Nolan said coming to terms with this realization and learning to accept the village’s generosity was challenging after seeing the intense poverty of the local families, many of whom live in mud houses and survive on a household income of only around one U.S. dollar per day, Lembo said.

“It tears at your heart ‘cause you’re like, ‘No, don’t love me. I want to love you. I want to serve you,’” Nolan said. “And you spend so much of the summer being served by these people and eventually you just have to allow yourself to accept love because that’s honestly the most you can do to them, is to be a gracious guest sometimes. That’s all you can do. And that was such a weird paradoxical lesson to learn. God, that was difficult. … That was difficult.”

In the classroom, Lembo said his average day with the students consisted of roughly two hours of English lessons followed by an hour or two of dancing, playing games and, of course, boxing. Interacting with the students in these ways produced a wide array of memorable moments, one of which Lembo said was one of the highlights of his life.

“The kids at the end of the class were begging [him and his co-teacher Ben] to sing. … We were like, ‘No, you guys have to sing for us first.’ And they agreed,” Lembo said. “And all at once, in unison, they sang the Notre Dame alma mater, like, to us. To us. We asked them to sing for us and they sang our alma mater, and we actually started crying. … I couldn’t believe it.”

Nolan said the true impact of his time in Bengal Bouts did not fully register to him until this year’s tournament when, after advancing through the quarterfinals, he came up short in a hard-fought semifinal matchup, ending his boxing career at Notre Dame.

“As soon as I was done … I knew I lost. He was better than me, and I was fine with that. But I just wanted to cry,” Nolan said. “And it was ‘cause I felt this metaphysical bond between myself and this experience that I had after freshman year. The door was finally, in so many ways, closed. That I was driven to love the club. I was driven to fundraise. I was driven to train and teach all these kids in the Bengal Bouts program because of this love for these kids [in Bangladesh]. … And it was heartbreaking, but I was telling myself, ‘I hope it’s enough. I hope I’ve served you well.’”

(Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified a competitor’s year. The Observer regrets this error.)

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