Friday, May 4, 2018

The world’s largest refugee camp through the lens of a Kiwi Mum of three

A Rohingya refugee sits in the shade and overlooks the camp
The upcoming monsoon season will mean houses like this are at huge risk 

I don’t know about you, but for me, the words, “Rohingya, Muslim, Myanmar, persecution and Rakhine State” make my eyes glaze over with confusion. Those terms and places are so far from my everyday reality as a Kiwi mum. But a few weeks ago, things became personal when I arrived in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh—the largest refugee camp in the world. I spent four days taking photos and listening to people’s stories.

Rusham's husband was killed as they fled to Bangaldesh.
What’s been going on? 
Myanmar is a country in Asia. Most of the country are of the Buddhist Religion, but there’s about a million people that live there called the Rohingya Muslims that have been hugely persecuted. They have been denied all citizenship rights and are therefore considered stateless - even though they’ve lived there for centuries. Sick of the restrictions and oppression, a group of Rohingya people attacked police points to show their frustrations. Days later, the Myanmar government retaliated. The Rohingya people were killed, tortured, raped, burned alive, and humiliated. Those lucky enough to escape made the week-long walk or the life-threatening boat ride to Bangladesh’s Cox’ Bazaar.

What does it look like?
The refugee camp is a tiny10kms square. Many New Zealand farms are bigger than that and yet a million people live in this camp. Most of the trees have been cut down for firewood, leaving nothing but a dust bowl. Makeshift tents sit tightly packed on precarious edges of, hill after rolling hill, making them vulnerable to landslides during the impending monsoon season.

Inside Cox's Bazar

The steep, dusty hillsides are at huge risk for mudslides in the upcoming monsoon season

A child plays outside his tent and next to open sewerage inside Cox's Bazar.

Girls are at risk for many forms of abuse in these camps
What are some of the challenges?
Children in the camps are at risk for child marriage, violence and abuse. There are documented cases of Rohingya girls being sought as child prostitutes and teenage girls being sourced for human trafficking. Everyone I interviewed knew someone that had died in the violence. Many had been raped. Each carried the extreme trauma of having fled their home, lost everything they owned and seen horrible things as they made the journey.  Holding the hands of those who are crying uncontrollably as they recount the horror of what they experienced is a humbling and sobering experience.

Arefa*, 25 sits inside her tent with her daughters
Meet Arefa*
“I decided to leave Myanmar 8 months ago after my husband got shot, my house burnt down and I was raped in front of my children. The military came into our house to look for my husband and found him hiding under the kitchen table. The beat him up in front of my four daughters, (aged 8, 5,4 and 18 months old) and then killed him. My daughters saw this and were screaming. They loved their Father very much. Even now if we talk about him they start to cry. Shortly after this, I was raped. Finally, I managed to escape with some of my in-laws and it took us 9 days to reach Bangladesh. I remember we were all starving. It is a very terrible life we are passing here. We only receive rice, dahl and oil from the authorities. We used to have our own food in our garden.  One of the hardest things for me is not being able to provide snacks for my children. My daughters cry because they are hungry and want snacks. I can’t give them that anymore.” 

Where does God fit in?

Tears sting my eyes as I share that story with you. Those darn snacks had me sniffling for days. You know, I’ve been a Christian for most of my life. But honestly when I see the level of suffering, the abhorrent conditions people live in and the injustice of it all, I don’t understand it. I do know that I believe one day God will restore everything that’s broken and justice will be served. I also know that the Bible teaches me that it’s my job to love my neighbour, to give generously and to engage with situations like this. One day God’s going to right every wrong, but right now he’s using organisations like Tearfund and people like you and me to do it.  

What can I do?
Tearfund’s partner is in Cox’s Bazaar delivering multiple programmes including skills training, English lessons, sewing classes, sports activities, women’s groups and trauma counselling. Best of all, The New Zealand Government has promised to match dollar for dollar all donations Tearfund receives up to $150k. But we have to act quickly to raise the money before June to get the matched funding.  Please join me in helping the Rohingya people who have suffered so much, by giving to Tearfund’s programmes in Cox’ Bazaar.

You can help by clicking here.

*Name changed for privacy*

"Come for a walk with me", I said. And so we walked up and down the narrow alleyways outside her home in the worlds largest refugee settlement and we laughed at the silly boys and played hide and seek and she showed me her new home here. What a beautiful child

A young Rohingya refugee caught my eye as she played outside her tent.

*The views expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Tearfund New Zealand.*

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Behind the Nets

Oh my goodness gracious, I've been so excited to share these images with you and now finally, finally, finally I can! You may recall that in December last year I went on a trip to Ghana. I was travelling with Compassion Australia to help them gather photos and stories for this years Hillsong Colour Conference. Well, Colour launched last week and so today I bring you the 14 images that meant the most to me.

But first, read this.

Ghana hosts the largest man-made lake in the world. It's beautiful, but there's a very dark underbelly to it's beauty. The slavery of thousands of children that are brought to work on it. Recruited as young as five for their little fingers to untie nets, their ability to hold their breath for long periods of time and their inability to fight back. We met children that were once enslaved on this lake and spent days untangling their stories and listening as hard as we could to help understand the situation at hand for them and their friends. Behind every net is a story. 

Compassion International has one goal. Releasing children from poverty in Jesus name. In every developing country that comes to life in a slightly different way. But in Ghana, on Lake Volta it looks like making sure every child in their program is known, loved and protected. By sponsoring a child with Compassion, that child is placed in school, given nutritious food, and a safe place to play aware from the allure of evil traffickers preying around their villages. I hope these images help bring a small part of that reality to life for you.


A Compassion Project on Lake Volta

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

12 photos that meant the most to me on my latest assignment to Congo.

It's not easy for me to edit photos like these. I go to bed and see their eyes as I try to sleep. I remember all too well. The smell, the temperature, the harshness of the environment they live in and the context in which we met. Right now, in this very moment, even as you read these words, there's a silent crisis unfolding in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year (on average) 30-50 people crossed the border each day. As of January, those numbers are closer to 500 per day. Medical Teams International are also there, right now, providing emergency and ongoing medical care to these precious people - now refugees.  Here's the 12 photos that meant the most to me from my trip two weeks ago.

This mother and child woke up a couple weeks ago and realized their entire village had packed up and left. Gun fire sounded in the distance and so she grabbed a bag and her other children and walked to Uganda. As she crossed the border we met and hopped into this UNHCR truck together.  I sat in the back of that truck with other refugees like her to a transit center where they began their new lives as refugees escaping the violence and conflict of their home country. When the truck slowed down to pass over a speed bump I took this shot.

Waiting in line to be bio-metric registered as refugees by UNHCR, this young boy caught my eye.

On arrival at a border point/transit centre Medical Teams International provides health screening and immunisations for incoming  refugees.
This little 18 month old baby girl weighs 6 kilos (13 pounds). Her parents have both died and her grandmother (in red) is now her caregiver. The Medical Teams International staff are coming alongside her to provide nutrition support to help her grow.
This is what it looks like to register as a refugee in February 2018 on the border of Congo to Uganda. This Mum caught my eye, as did her beautiful children. Exhausted. 
Living conditions for 2700 Congolese refugees arriving into the transit centre on the border of Uganda

Standing in the doorway of the MTI clinic this beautiful little girl lost her Daddy just days earlier. Her and her two sisters and baby brother are now refugees living in Uganda.
Health Screening is an important first step for refugees arriving into Uganda. Babies that need food will get it, Mums that need medicine will be given it and children that are sick will be seen and cared for.

The "'pharmacy"' inside a transit centre is this grey box filled daily with medicines to help the huge influx of refugees coming in.

I noticed these boys being registered and immediately went to inquire. "'Unaccompanied children"' the registrar said. We talked for a minute or two about the background details he was getting from them 6, 8 (twins) and 12. And my heart sank.  Took this photo then turned away and let the tears slip down my cheeks.

New arrival family unpacking their things.

Seeing hundreds of people wait in line for food is a hard thing to experience. I think its the dignity element and the control element that bother me the most. 

To support the work of Medical Teams International please visit

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of spending a few days with the team at Medical Teams International. Their work seems them provide medical care for hundreds of thousands of refugees here in Uganda. But the crisis that's captured their attention right now is the one happening right on the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year 30-50 people crossed per day. But as of January it's been around 400-500 people per day. This is a small selection of some of the images that meant the most to me on my most recent trip.

Friday, January 26, 2018

4 One minute videos that show what its like to arrive in a refugee transit center

The last few days have been equal parts swearing (under my breath) and praying. The truth is it’s hard not to whisper a swear word to yourself when you see an almost 18 month old that weighs 6.2 kilos because of malnutrition. It’s hard not to swear as you watch a woman give birth in a makeshift hospital tent inside a refugee camp. It’s hard not to swear when a woman rushes into that same medical tent to say a one week old baby has been abandoned and hasn’t been fed since who knows when. As the quiet gasps escape my mouth I find myself immediately turning to pray.

Right now there’s an invisible crisis happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo and I’ve just spent three days listening to horrendous stories and witnessing first-hand the tremendous influx of refugees coming out of there. It’s invisible because hardly anyone’s talking about it and honestly, I get it. It certainly feels to me like some country in Africa is always at war and Congo’s often the culprit. It’s become part of the wallpaper of our lives.

But in the last few weeks things have escalated significantly in Congo. For most of last year 30-75 people crossed the borders from Congo to Uganda each day. But since around Jan 1st 2018, that’s gone up to a whopping 500 on average per day.  Thousands upon thousands of families now wait up to a week at a transit centre before being transported to the nearest refugee settlement about 7 hours drive away. My assignment was with Medical Teams International who are THE provider of health and nutrition services for all of these Congolese refugees. Their operations in Uganda also extend to other borders and they have about 1500 staff working around the clock to provide healthcare services to these very vulnerable people.

I often wish I could take you all with me on these trips so this time instead of sharing photos, I’m going to share four one minute iPhone videos that will hopefully help bring it to life even more. No filters, no editing.

Video 1:  ON ARRIVAL: After crossing the border of Congo into Uganda, refugees wait until the UNHCR trucks arrive at the border to take them to Nyabatande Transist Center. The minute they hop of the truck, this is what happens to them. In a rare quiet moment I took this quick video. (1:39 seconds)

Video 2: HEALTH SCREENING: After health screening and food ration cards are given, families make their way over to the health clinic. Within ten minutes of arriving in this tent on my first day I watched as a woman gave birth on the exact bed you’ll see on this video. Silently and without any fuss. The head was already out when she hoisted herself onto the table and began to push. She was a frail little thing with a steel resolve. The huge rip in the side is for impromptu air flow. The MTI women attending to her were confident, calm and professional and had that room cleaned up after her delivery within minutes. She then lay on that floor with a cardboard box folded in half for a pillow. Her baby sleeping peacefully under the one blanket she had to her name.  (1:01 second)

Video 3: INSIDE THE ACCOMMODATION: The line for the Office for the Prime Minister (people in charge of camps) and UNHCR is usually hundreds long. The sheer numbers and the smell are often overwhelming. The day before I took this video I spotted a group of four young boys aged 6-12 huddled together and all alone. I enquired as to their situation and discovered they had arrived without parents at the camp. Three of them were in matching t-shirts and it took everything in me to stop the tears from falling as I looked at how scared and vulnerable they were in that moment.  Who would help them get food? Who would give them a blanket to sleep under? Who would kiss them as they went to sleep that night inside those big red buildings you’ll see in this video? (1:10 seconds)

Video 4: FOOD. What are refugees eating? How do you serve 2700 people on any one day? This is a video of one of the kitchens. (56 seconds)

Medical Teams International is an NGO with an incredible reputation both here in Uganda and around the world and I’ve had the privilege of seeing their work in action in multiple locations. The main health issues they are facing right now with Congolese refugees are malaria, respiratory infections and malnutrition. The MTI team is large and powerful. They are efficient and effective and they have their work down to a fine art. They are caring and kind whilst also firm about procedures and practices being at the highest standard possible in this unique situation. The context within which they are working is all consuming and exhausting and most staff are working 8am-8pm. When a convoy leaves (carrying 600 people to the refugee settlement) they are up at 4am to get everyone ready.

I count it as one of the most incredible privileges to be asked to help bring these stories to life. To shine a light on some of the darkest places in our world and to share the work of remarkable NGO’s giving everything they’ve got.  I have no answers for you or myself as to why things are the way they are.  I have hope though. I see it in the faces of staff committed to working around that clock to bring healing. I see it in the smiles of mothers who are handed a blanket and some utensils to help them cook again for the family. The dignity of that is not lost on me. I see it in the bouncy nature of little children running around after soccer balls donated by people like you and me to help distract them for but a moment from the pain of losing their Daddy last week. And I see it in you, the people that read this blog as you comment, ‘like’, share and donate to continue to keep these organistions running. No matter what story I bring you, your compassion doesn’t run out. Your interest doesn’t wane.  And your love, action and prayers for these people is felt and changes things.


Sunday, December 17, 2017

The moment that 'broke' me last week

South Sudanese refugee children take in the view
My goodness, it’s been one heck of a year. Does anyone else feel like they’re hanging on by a thread waiting for January to come!? #anyone #anyoneatall? I write to you from a very small plane currently mid-air on my way home to Kampala. This is my rhythm. I do a trip and then I write. I find it very cathartic. Helps me get those feelings out.

I’ve just finished a week-long trip with World Vision – my last one for the year. And before you even question why someone who has worked for Compassion and Tearfund would choose to do an assignment with them, I’d like to knock that one on the head. There is FAR too much going on in our world for any kind of ‘competition’. Far too much at stake. It’s going to take every single organisation playing their part to move our heaving mess of humanity forward. And I, for one, will not sit on the side-lines playing favourites. I’ve worked for about 24 charities since I began doing this and can see genuine merit in each model and approach to development. No NGO is perfect. We are all interconnected and we all need each other. It’s truly one of the greatest privileges of my life to bring the work on the field to living colour for as many incredible NGO’s as I can.

South Sudanese refugees are transported to their plot of land
But I will say - this year has taken its toll and I’ve been feeling it these last few weeks. I want to be real about that because Instagram doesn’t tell that part of my story very well. In my job I regularly get to see the aftermath of the very worst humanity has to offer. This year I’ve interviewed sex slaves from the Congo, former Isis wives in Iraq, unaccompanied children coming into refugee camps, child labourers and victims of war to name but a few. Every month there’s been a new story. Their stories, so precious to me. Each face, each family.

When I get home from a trip like this, the truth is that I usually can’t physically bring myself to look at these photos for at least a week. Sometimes more. I can’t even open the Microsoft Word interviews on my computer. It’s just all a bit too much. 

South Sudanese refugees are transported to their plot of land
I find it so ironic that I do this kind of work. I was the girl in school who couldn’t bear to listen to stories of the Holocaust or anything like that. Could.Not.Handle.It. Barely handled the freaking news. Tim once tried to have me watch a documentary on child soldiers and I flat out said no. I prefer shopping at the mall and reading Your home and garden magazine. And then one day I found myself sitting at a bus stop in downtown Kampala and I met a former child soldier. He was a mass murderer and here we were sharing an apple together. We became fast friends and one day when he was at our house for dinner he told me how he was abducted as a child and forced to become a child soldier. All of a sudden this ‘issue’ came to life before my eyes.  I remember literally shifting my physical position on the couch and leaning in to every word that softly came out of his mouth. I remember hearing how he would purposely shoot in the air and close his eyes as they ambushed a village just so that he would miss shooting people. History had all of a sudden become personal. And history now had a name and flesh and was eating my spaghetti Bolognese!

That was the catalyst point for me. I then started reading books on child soldiers and learning all I could. Today, it feels like I cover a new humanitarian issue every single month and each issue then becomes personal.

A sweet South Sudanese baby whose
spent his life living in a refugee camp #iphone6
But for the first time this year I went on a trip and I didn’t ‘feel’ it. Usually I have a moment each trip where the emotion bubbles over and I cry. Sounds silly, but for me, that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s during a three hour interview where the excruciating details are all just too much, and sometimes it’s in the privacy of my room later that night. But for whatever reason this one particular trip I wasn’t feeling it. It was a hard hitting subject matter I was dealing with but ‘I’d seen worse’. And I lamented this to Tim. I never want that to happen again.  I want to feel it deep. Every. Single. Time. I want to feel it like Jesus feels it. I want to see these people the way he does. Photograph them the way he would. I want to listen to them, ask the right questions and stand in awe at the organisations pushing back the darkness.

So this week with World Vision I was praying specifically that God would ‘break’ me again. And he did. #typical. I was taking some photos when out of the corner of my eye, my colleague, Laura, alerted me to an elderly woman creating quite the scene. Apparently she’d be in the Reception Centre in the Refugee Camp for four weeks and was supposed to have been resettled to her plot of land after a couple of days. Instead she watched as day after day, truck after truck took more and more people away leaving her behind. She had fled to the refuge camp with no family and she had no idea where they were. She’d come to Uganda carrying her handbag and that was it. Her worldly possessions were piled up beside her in a neatly tied heap. All of them were things that had been given to her in the past few weeks. And here she was saying that she was going to board this truck by force. She wanted to be resettled. Hated staying in those long tents where over 200 people sleep each night. Sadly, her plot and shelter were not ready yet and so in absolute defeat she struggled to lift her items onto her head and make the embarrassing walk back to her tent. 
*Not the woman I'm referring to*
iPhone photo from earlier this year

My camera now slung behind my back I took one look at her and my eyes welled up with tears. She looked just like my Grandmother. But she was a single woman, all alone in a massive refugee camp with no-one that knew her or could help her.  So I made my way over to her and, with the help of two grown adults, lifted her bundle onto my head. Tears streaming, and I mean, streaming, down my face at the injustice and the lack of dignity for her and thinking with every step how I’d hope someone would do this for my grandmother. About halfway along, Laura could see I was struggling and so took the bundle onto her head and walked her 'home'. Even now, tears well in my eyes as I think of the beauty of that moment. She then sat down next to her and just rubbed her back. There was nothing to say, no translator around. Just a deep sense of our shared humanity.

Reflecting later I was reminded that “because Jesus loves us, he allows us to feel pain that draws us to him.  And in the midst of pain He weeps with us for a world that is not as he intended, for sorrow that he did not design.” Katie Davis.

So with that beautifully tender moment to end the year on, I’m off to take a break for a few weeks. A good, proper break with my family that are flying in for Christmas. I hear self-care is all the rage these days. After all, I’ve got some Your Home and Garden magazines to catch up on.