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.*