Podcast Season 2 Episode 1: Communities in Crisis
You’ve been travelling for days, carrying what you could and bringing the family members who managed to escape with you. Now you’re in a foreign land, living in one of many makeshift shelters surrounded by hundreds of people from home who managed to do the same.
We’re talking about the Rohingya refugees living in camps across Bangladesh. How does this community come to terms with this new situation, keep themselves going and what support do they need?
In this episode we’re going to try and answer these questions by talking to some of those refugees. A few minutes from the Aid Station is Unchiprang camp, a hilly settlement of tightly packed shelters draped in tarpaulin and broken up with shoots of greenery and muddy paths.
The elderly makes up just over three percent of the refugee population, many of them arriving on the backs of their children.
Hamid is seventy-five and he’s here with his wife. They live with one of their three sons and his family. Coming to Bangladesh brings him the peace he never had in Myanmar…
‘At this age I don’t work anymore, I rest most of the time. Back in Myanmar, I used to work in the fields and catch fish with my five children helping me. When I damaged my hand I had to stop and let them take over. In Bangladesh I feel very much at peace. Here, we don’t live in constant fear of dying, or being shot dead, being abducted or burned alive. The military burned my village right in front of our eyes. We left everything behind and tried to escape into the jungle, but they caught us. I’d brought all of my life savings, 250,000 Kyat altogether and all of my identification papers. They took the money and tore up my papers. Here, we can finally close our eyes in peace at night.’
It’s tough to support large families and Rohingya refugees are not allowed to find work. Many have instead found ways to make money to supplement the relief items they get.
Since arriving in Bangladesh Abdul Siddique has found work and he’s trying to keep his family going
‘We lived a hard life in Myanmar. Whenever I got a chance to work on the fishing boats or in the fields growing crops, I would earn a little money that we could live on. When I was captured by the military, they beat me mercilessly and stole my money. I made it home and I brought my parents, my wife and children together and we started to pack our things to leave for Bangladesh. I sold everything we owned and we fled. Now in Bangladesh I’ve found work on the boats but most of the time I work as a day labourer. It’s not much but my family lives on it. I even manage to send my 3 children to school.’
Abdul’s not the only one. To support large families Rohingya males from the ages of 12 and up, have set up small stalls selling food and other items to camp residents. Others sell their relief items in the markets, sell firewood cut from the forests around the camps or take jobs as fishermen – all to make extra money for their families.
Back at the camp, Shofika is looking after the shelter her family lives in. While her husband is out laboring she cares for her family and keeping their small space tidy. It’s not much to look at, but it’s home.
‘There is my husband, myself and my two children in our family. I take care of my children everyday. I make them shower, I cook for them and I send them to school. When they’re ill I take them to the doctor.
In Myanmar we were very poor and couldn’t eat properly. The men from our family used to work on other people’s farmland and earned very little money. We did have a small piece of farmland that we raised ducks and chickens on but we had to hide them or they could be taken them away.
The peace we have in one day living in Bangladesh is far more than what we ever found in my whole life in Myanmar.’
Looking after three generations of Rohingya aged eight to eighty isn’t easy.So, lending a helping hand to the younger women are the grandmothers. Azara came here with her daughter’s family, not long after the violence broke out.
‘I live here with my daughter and her family. I don’t work as such but I do help her out with the household chores like the cooking and looking after the grandchildren. I’m happy living here. I am well and I eat better
For her, life is good here. There is nothing good to go back to in Myanmar and it might not end well if they do.
It’ll be better if they just kill us here instead of sending us back to Myanmar. If we go back, they will slaughter us. They have taken our land. If we go back, they will kill the young men. What will I do going back in Myanmar? I don’t have anybody there anymore.
Dr Neena Jain is the founder and executive director of Embolden Alliances, an organization working with local partners on local solutions. She just got back from Cox’s Bazar where she’s been working to develop their partner’s response to the needs of the refugees.
It was surprising to me to learn that the Rohingya refugees are actually quite densely populated within a fairly small amount of land area. From what I understand and now witnessed, the land itself was once jungle and now completely deforested. The people are living in conditions that have makeshift temporary shelters pitched on a rolling hill, previously jungle landscape that is now deforested and the pitch of the land creates significant challenges as well as significant opportunities for us to further strengthen their living conditions as well as what might transpire and probably will transpire with the coming monsoon season.
I was attending the logistics sector meeting and the global logistics cluster head as well as the engineering head had done a survey of the camp with an eye on disaster preparedness for the monsoon. It was remarkably striking to learn that a fairly significant amount of the Rohingya settlements were at greater than 80% risk of vulnerability in terms of landfire. So, while the settlements themselves may look fairly staple right now, we know that with the coming weather that will drastically change.
What kinds of support do they need and what is Embolden Alliances doing?
So, let me take it from a bigger, broader support level first. The Rohingya refugees are by all standards one of the world’s if not the world’s most vulnerable population at this present time. In terms of the support that we as any international organisation as any member of the worldwide community can offer them, its support to provide for their basic living needs as well as a return to their human dignity and a sense of hope and their own sense of betterment, for their own lives and their coming generations. So that means that everything that we need in our daily lives; food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare to schooling and safe play and livelihoods and a sense of safety and security, a sense of hope and a sense of building forward in a life that has been met with tragedy in their past.
In addition to that, this context deserves that we don’t forget. The problem with a protracted conflict or prolonged refugee crisis such as this, it doesn’t necessarily get enough attention. We tend to, as a general world, to pay attention to natural disasters much more and I think the message is very clear that is not going to solved in a matter of days and weeks, this is months and years and it deserves all of our compassion, empathy as well as action, very specific actions from international standards and guidelines to implement very evidence based and proven interventions to help these people on a daily basis as well as going forward. It also deserves our daily attention in terms of ‘this is on-going and what other tools can each of us bring as an individual, community member, as an individual within our own societies to bring awareness and advocacy and compassion and empathy to these people’.
In terms of Embolden Alliances, we continue to work with locally based partners to provide locally based solutions. One of the biggest push factors in the humanitarian response community has been that we need locally driven solutions even in the matter of crises and people who know their communities best, who know the circumstances and context on the ground best. How can we better strengthen them so that they can scale appropriately and meet the needs of any crisis whether it’s in this situation of a refugee crisis or any other context? So that is what Embolden is dedicated towards is maximising operations and programming and really enhancing the quality and standard of service delivery so that it can be sustainable, it can go farther, faster and for the same amount of dollars we can do more and we can make it last longer and really be about the populations being served with dignity with respect and with a meaningful future.
How are people coping with the circumstances that they’re in now?
I look at it from the various numbers of the sub-sets of the population involved. From the refugee community – I can’t speak on behalf of all the refugees – but there is a lot of tragedy and violence and abuse and torture that they are overcoming. A lot more needs to be addressed and a lot more opportunities to provide better services, better healthcare, better mental healthcare and a lot more opportunities for their own improvement of their dignity and regeneration of their dignity and of their own lives ahead in terms of a sense of as well as a sense of future.
From local Bangladeshi populations, after talking with a number of local staff who have been working to serve the refugee population since August, it’s really affecting them dramatically in terms of them taking the stories they hear and they wear them in their hearts themselves. It’s taking its toll on the caregivers as well as on the patients.
Then from the international community, there’s been quite a significant response from various international organisations but the pressures on all are very palpable and there’s a very strong pressing need towards this coming monsoon season, and the fear and acknowledgement that it could be worsened drastically by potential cyclones or both other potential weather-related disasters.
On top of that, there’s a lot of opinions and perspectives regarding the various governmental policies that are involved including not only Myanmar and Bangladesh but neighbouring China and India. People are quite aware and eyes are open in terms of what is happening with policies being made and not made. What is being allowed in terms of more permanent settlement for the Rohingya which is not a lot right now or permanent livelihood employment for them, the efforts towards repatriation and how far along that’s coming, that’s been stifled at various periods. The complexity is vast and there’s so many layers in terms of involvement and it’s hard to forget about all of those layers. This is not just a governmental policy crisis, this filters down to the individual human level in so many of the most deep and profound ways of human suffering which you could not even imagine.
‘My name is Saif and I am 10 years old. I live with my father, mother and sister. We are Rohingya. My parents were born in Myanmar but they left when they both were very young. I am in class six at school and I also go to the Madrasa. They teach us in the Myanmar language and we learn rhymes and stories about Myanmar.’
These are voices from the nearly seven hundred thousand refugees now in Bangladesh. They’re young and old, resilient and adaptable, trying to find normality in an unstable situation.
Yet, their crisis is decades old. Rohingya have been fleeing to Bangladesh and returning home since the 1970s. A new agreement which would see the latest Rohingya refugees return home has been delayed.
Until conditions for the repatriation are agreed, refugees like Saif continue to face an uncertain future.
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