Visiting Bangladesh as senior project manager for World Renew, it didn’t take long for me to get immersed in the magnitude of the Rohingya refugee crisis.
The day after being welcomed by the World Renew Bangladesh staff in Dhaka, I flew down to Cox’s Bazar with two other World Renew staff and three Tearfund staff to see the needs firsthand.
We almost didn’t make it due to the thick cloud cover. Unable to see the runway, the pilot decided to land in the nearby city of Chittagong where we had to wait out the bad weather.
As we waited to leave again, I could only imagine all of the Rohingya people living in makeshift camps in such rainy conditions.
Rohingya families are still fleeing violence in Myanmar. On the way down to visit the camps, sadly I saw many women with small children huddled under umbrellas. They had no other way to protect themselves from the weather. After fleeing the atrocities in Myanmar, some families don’t know where to go or what to do.
One woman I talked with was helped by some friendly Bangladeshis. They told her about the camps established by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and gave her money to get there. Finally, she could start to get help.
Her name is Safiri. She arrived in the Balukhali camp 15 days earlier, after walking for four straight days. Despondently, she confirmed that all 3,000 houses in her village of Dudong had been burned to the ground and her husband had been shot.
Sixty percent of women arriving have been raped by the military. Safiri, mother to six girls and six boys, decided to flee before dusk, fearing being raped when the army showed up that night. Some of her other family members are still hiding in the jungle. Safiri and her children hope to find them soon — maybe in other camps.
The trauma is so enormous, some can’t speak about it. Husbands have been blindfolded and beaten, tortured, beheaded or shot.
The need for psychosocial support services is going to be huge. Thankfully, this is something our World Renew Bangladesh team is already trained in.
As I talked with Safiri outside, my rubber boots began to sink in the muddy conditions because of all the rain that had fallen.
Graciously, I was invited into her new home, which is only a 6x12 foot room that she shares with nine of her children. Every day, new temporary camps with homes made of tarps, plastic, and bamboo are set up.
Three of Safiri’s children are married with kids so they have been given rooms next to her own.
In this camp, the IOM built one latrine per 20 shelters, but the pits are not deep enough and they’re filling up fast. I could also see pumps from wells that had been dug, one per 200 families, but Safiri’s teenage girls said there is not enough water for everyone which creates hygiene problems. Because of the limited water and sanitation infrastructure, there have already been cases of cholera.
Safiri’s family has received food two to three times since arriving in the camp. This is better than the chaos of food being thrown off trucks on the side of the road in the early days — sometimes hitting children.
However, Safiri says the food is not enough and it is hard to get wood to cook. Poor nutrition is becoming a massive problem so World Renew’s food basket is going to include nutrient-rich biscuits.
On my second day, we visited the Jamtoli camp in Cox’s Bazar. My heart went out to an 18-year-old woman, Toslima, whose baby boy was only five days old, born on the road fleeing Myanmar.
When Toslima went into labour, there was no hot water, no doctor, and no midwife. Someone she didn’t know came to help her deliver her baby. When I met them, her baby looked very pale and was not named yet, as the custom is to wait seven days to name them in case they don’t live.
When we went to the IOM offices in Cox’s Bazar to get maps, staff there told us they had just discovered a new camp of about 7,500 families the night before by satellite, after the weather had cleared. Families continue to come with nothing, and spontaneous camps continue to pop-up overnight.
Some fled with money or cattle as currency to pay the boat traffickers to cross the water from Myanmar. But those without the means had to walk days through the jungle, dodging landmines. Many come with injuries and health issues.
Trees are being cut down to make room for the new camps being set up. However, this will create problems in the years to come because it is removing the natural protection from storm surges in a country already prone to cyclones and flooding. But these new camps are necessary to provide shelter for Rohingya families. This is a disaster with many layers!
Visiting the Canadian High Commissioner’s office in Dhaka before I left, they shared that the prognosis of this crisis resolving was dim. It could last two, five, or even ten years. This is not going away quickly. There are some camps from an influx of Rohingya refugees in 1990 that are still in existence.
The first response planned by World Renew with our local partner, the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB), is food for Rohingya refugees. This is made possible through funding from Global Affairs Canada, and the partnership of many different members of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. It is much needed. Please pray for wisdom as World Renew and CCDB address this huge need.
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