Of space and belonging – Part 1

NOTE: The following serves as a personal account during my work in a refugee camp and what to me is an aftermath of genocide. Individual’s consent has been obtained prior to taking photos.

After what seemed like the longest few months ever, I went back home for winter break upon finishing my first ever semester of college! I was excited to be a part of Dhaka city again.  Two long flights and a long layover in Qatar later, I was finally home.

I have heard that the word home supposedly refers to a feeling and not always a place. While I was still getting over jet lag and was lying on my bed of roses, my country – my home – was in shambles. The most densely populated nation in Southeast Asia was facing a massive influx of people from Myanmar – our neighbouring country. There has been an ongoing genocide in Myanmar specifically targeting an ethnic Muslim group called the Rohingyas. They have been rendered stateless and have not been officially recognised by Myanmar since 1982. Originally inhabitants of Rakhine – an impoverished state in Myanmar that has lacked hygiene and basic amenities from as early as the 12th century –  the Rohingyas have had to escape due to widespread persecution by the Burmese military.

One of many Rohingyas who have fled to Bangladesh in hopes of a better future. The man in the above picture, hopes to open his own tailor shop someday.

The crisis at hand:

After Myanmar’s independence from British rule in 1948, an Act enlisting which ethnicities would receive citizenship was passed. This Act ruled out the Rohingya Muslims who were then given foreign identity cards which hindered them from pursuing proper jobs. Many Rohingyas lacked proper documentation of being present in Myanmar before 1948 as a result of which, their presence in the land was questioned and several crackdowns were carried out in order to eliminate them from the face of  Myanmar.

However, it was not until mid-2017 that the persecution took its toll and gained international attention. On 25th August, Rohingya insurgents armed with knives and homemade bombs attacked more than 30 police posts in Northern Rakhine owing to decades of communal violence and persecution carried out by the military. The Burmese troops backed by local buddhist mobs then began burning their villages and attacking the civilians.   The United Nations has termed the violence against Rohingyas to be the hallmarks of a genocide. Nearly 500,000 Rohingyas fled and thousands were trapped in the no-man’s land between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Bangladesh took immediate action and managed to set up refugee camps in order to provide a living space for the thousands of refugees that set foot into the country although most of these refugees still remain undocumented. I reached out to a program manager in a domestic NGO when I made up my mind to visit and work in one such refugee camp. I dragged my jet lagged body to Cox’s Bazar (located in the southern region of Bangladesh) five days after I landed in Dhaka. If you had asked what I thought I would see back then, I wouldn’t be able to answer you. Images depicting the refugee crisis on Doctors Without Borders Instagram page was the closest that I had gotten to the refugee crisis.

Enroute to Balukhali, D5 Rohingya Camp:

The camp that I worked in and some of the children that I taught. Most of these kids were camera shy.

For four weeks, I worked in a day care centre and taught the most wonderful group of kids English and Bangla. They’re fairly well versed in Arabic. I would also assist in translating for foreign officials who would work in the distribution of relief goods and medicine. Sometimes, I would help the doctor-in-duty keep record of the patient’s history. During one such instance, I chanced upon a 20-year-old girl. She was pregnant – said her husband had been taken away by the military as they were trying to escape. Their first child was a still birth and this was their fifth attempt at having a baby. Her face full of hope was soon replaced with tears of confusion when the doctor told her she was HIV positive. They referred to it as a “sickness” that she might pass on to her child for she did not possess the ability to understand how detrimental HIV AIDS is. The very same day, I also learned that hundreds of Rohingyas are HIV positive indicating that this is a prevalent problem in their community. I believe that I hit my breaking point that night. Let me tell you why – we live in a world where we obsess over 20-year-old celebrities getting pregnant as opposed to coming together to help this 20-year-old refugee and hundreds like her. I continued to work around diphtheria-stricken people, cried with mothers who had lost their sons, daughters who were raped and left to rot, fathers who failed to keep their promise of a better tomorrow. The living conditions in the camps are terrible and I’d fall almost once every day as I tried to tread the “stairs” to the day care. Toddlers would clutch onto the ground in an effort to climb from one piece of land to another. The huts that they reside in are primarily made of wood and plastic (see below). During monsoons, Bangladesh – especially the southern region tends to be a victim to the worst floods ever. Imagine what will happen to those plastic houses then? Imagine how it will feel to see the  life that you’re trying to rebuild, crash in front of your eyes yet again.

What now?

We are receiving help from the United Nations. Save the Children, Doctors without Borders, the Red Cross, UNICEF and so many other international humanitarian organizations. The Bangladeshi army has set up additional camps to be able to provide a living space for the thousands of refugees that are escaping from Myanmar. And why shouldn’t we help them? If our 147,570 km of land can support 163 million lives, surely we can support 700,000 more.

This experience changed me. I don’t know if it’s for the better or the worse. Surely my belief in humanity was initially tarnished only to be rekindled again by the passion for mankind that every single aid worker in the camps possess. But my real question to you is – when, if ever, will we learn?


Author: Mayisha Rahman

Hi! I'm an international student from Dhaka, Bangladesh and am class of 2021. As of now, I am an intended Biology major with a possible double minor in Health Studies and Neuroscience. I love talking about my experiences and sharing my ideas with anyone who'll listen.

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