Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The 11 photos that bring to life the Rohingya crisis for me

The camp is a sprawling mess of  hundreds of thousands of dusty makeshift shelters set atop hilly, shaky terrain.

"When words fail me I shall choose to focus with photographs.”

So the truth is that this week as I stood in the middle of the world’s both largest and fastest growing refugee camp, word’s failed me. Something, that if we know each other, you'll know is very, very rare. Wink Wink.
See, I was feeling a lot of pressure to get some social media-esque videos up as fast as I could for my bosses (and for all of you) and yet every time I turned on my iPhone to show you what I saw and to try and explain it, I just couldn’t. Couldn't find the words. 

After all, how does one put into words what it feels like to sit in a bamboo hut in almost 40-degree heat, as you listen to a mum bravely telling you her story of survival from genocide? Or when you see a little child barely able to sit up because of malnutrition? Or a father left to raise five daughters after their mother was brutally killed?

Of course the journalist I was hosting from Newshub, TV3, Michael Morrah did a wonderful job of putting words to it all. Here’s five stories from this week that we made while on the field together that played on 6pm news on New Zealand’s national news network.
Please click on the hyperlinks under each Story to see the clip

Earlier this year, you may remember I found myself here at the height of this crisis, watching it unfold. Children and adults alike were traumatised, dehydrated and exhausted. They stared into a void, without even the energy to cry.  What I saw last week was that this crisis is not over. People really are in a desperate state and we need to stay with them, to keep caring. These people are not allowed to build a permanent home, not allowed to work, not allowed to send their children to high school, not allowed to even leave the camps. If they choose to go back to Myanmar, the persecution would most certainly continue.

So this is my little way of bringing this crisis to life through photographs. Trying to show you why this means so much to me. These are the images (taken in April and last week) that bring it to life the most for me. I’ve written a wee caption to explain why.

I hope you see what I see. 

The scale of this crisis is enormous. Close to a million people live within 10 square kilometers. 
Modena shared with me how she lost her husband and is now raising 8 daughters by herself. She feels sad that she is prohibited by the government to work and so therefore cant provide them with pretty dresses and chocolates on Eid (Muslim festival happening last week) because they have no money. Pictured below is Modena with her youngest daughter.

 I cant imagine what it must be like for a mother to have to throw faeces down a rubbish filled embankment mere meters from your house. The overcrowded conditions of the camp mean that sanitation is a huge challenge.

I think it's the kids in the camps that capture my heart the most. They deserve toys, safe places to play, a roof that wont leak and enough food to eat. And yet, that's a luxury. 

One boy I met called Hamid is 19 years old. On the way his best friend and brother were shot. Shortly after, he heard the sound of a baby crying in a village that had just been decimated. He found a five-month-old baby girl amid the rubble. Together they now live in the camps. Hamid was a star student in one of Tearfund's projects English classes. Now employable, after finishing the course, the little money he makes as a volunteer sustains him, his family and this little girl.  
I remember this young girl telling me that every time she eats rice she cant help but think of her Daddy. He loved rice, just like her, and now he's dead and so is her brother and rice could never taste the same again.

At a nutrition clinic for malnourished children I spotted this sweetheart cuddled up next to her Mama. Malnutrition in the camp is now at emergency levels and so this center is a lifeline for her, and her Mum.

Reflecting on my week in the camps, two things give me hope. The incredible determination and resilience of the Rohingya people and the growing community of Tearfund supporters getting stirred up to stand with these people. Please consider making a donation to help this critical work continue.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The truth about expat friendships

The woman in question - Alicia.
Wearing her Sunday best. 

So I’m sitting here at my desk on a Wednesday afternoon after what turned out to be quite an emotional morning. See, my friend Alicia is leaving after two years of living and working here in Uganda and we had a farewell thing for her today. And when it came time for my turn to speak around the table about how amazing she is and how much we’ll all miss her, I couldn’t even speak for fear the lump in my throat would spill over. Couldn’t even say one word.

That’s because I feel like I’ve had enough goodbyes to last me a lifetime. Tim and I sat down at dinner last week and counted by name 187 friends that have left in the last five years we’ve called Uganda home. 187. And I’m over it. 

Let me rewind a bit. When we first moved here I remember people talking to me about how “amazing the community is here” and me rolling my eyes. Ok people, you can have your freaky deaky weird little ‘community’ and I’ll be justttt fine over here living like a normal person thanks. See, what fresh off the boat me didn’t realise is that when you move to a place like Uganda as an expat (someone who lives in a country that's not your birth country) your friends become family. Fast. They have to. You have no family, no ‘old friends’ and you don’t know anyone. So friends have to become like family or you’ll drown in the bureaucracy, drama, setbacks and frustrations. You’ll lose your mind when your power goes out for the third time – today. Swear black and blue when your water is cut off for no reason and want to punch someone in the face when you get asked for a bribe - again. But not with friends by your side. Oh no. With friends you’ll not only survive this crazy town, you’ll thrive in it.

See there’s no time for small talk, chit chat and bullsh*tting about how you feel living here.  You’re all just trying to keep your head above water and these friends you find yourself living alongside are the only ones who get it. Like really, really get it.  And so you go deep quick. You go quick because you or they might be here three months or three years and neither of you really knows which one because that’s the very nature of this transient country and this transient expatriate lifestyle. But you need each other. And so you tell your secrets, see each other every single day (and I do really mean every single day) and you become Aunts to their children and intrinsically involved in every aspect of one another’s lives. You do X-fit on a Monday, a smoothie right after and grocery shopping all before 11am. That afternoon you hang out for a playdate and that evening you text each other about what you managed to make for dinner in a country where you have to go to four grocery stores to get what you tend to eat each week. Oh and then you do it all again tomorrow.

So you might be able to see why it’s catching up on me all this “Goodbye” stuff. Especially when you feel like with each goodbye goes a little piece of you. Moments you’ll never re-live, memories no-one else was there for but them. And it’s been like this all my life right? Not just Uganda but California, Sydney, New Zealand and Dubai. All places I’ve lived and said my fair share of goodbyes in.  And so when yet another friend left today it felt like on some deep level another part of me was leaving too. Memories, photos, tears and laughs left with her and stayed with me.

So I've been reflecting on this today, processing by writing to you. Ironically, that same girl who rolled her eyes at the concept of “true community” is now the same one wiping said eyes as one of her closest members of that community leaves.  And although my friend leaving today (and all the ones that have gone before her) can never be replaced, the one thing I know for certain is that for every goodbye in Uganda, there’s another Hello. 

It’s August. That means the Embassies are turning over their staff and the missionaries are moving into town for the school year and the aid workers are coming back from home assignment leave. See what I realized today is is that the silver lining to all these goodbyes is that somewhere along the line I said Hello. A lot. And Hello’s are fun. Hellos are promising.  So it's taken me a week to be able to post this but that's because it's the truth and the truth is sometimes hard to swallow. But today I said Hello again to someone. Turns out I suck at Goodbyes. But Hello’s  - well Hello's are what I do best. I should know, I’ve done 187 of them. 
Please know we NEVER dress like this. We decided to do Prom night in Uganda
and, well, these were the dresses we found.