Kahawaty Holds a Refugee Baby. Photo by Andrew McConnell. 
Shalayne Pulia
Dec 22, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

I believe our humanity is defined by what we do for others and the imprint we leave behind in this world. So when the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) asked me to go to Bangladesh and help support their operation with the Rohingya refugee people, I could not decline.

The Rohingya people are from the Rakhine state in Myanmar (or Burma), a country east of Bangladesh. They have been discriminated against, marginalized, and systematically persecuted for decades. Their homes and villages were set on fire; their family members were burned alive, shot, or slashed by knives. Some have survived rape, others have witnessed it. The ones who survived these horrors had to flee without a second thought. What they leave behind is nothing short of a living hell on earth.

On Dec. 14, I traveled from Dubai to Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh), slept overnight, and then caught an internal flight to Cox Bazar (a town on the south-eastern coast) the next day. Upon my arrival, I was briefed on the current situation at the UNHCR base. I slept another night in the coastal town and on Dec. 16, we ventured out in an official UNHCR van to the Kutupalong camp. It took a bumpy 1.5-hour car ride through congested city roads to reach the camp, which was rough. But the 120 km of coastline of fish farms and perfectly aligned bamboo trees in this scenic tropical paradise were nevertheless, beautiful.

The entrance to the camp, which hosts 33,000 of the Rohingya people who fled ethnic violence in Myanmar 1992 and on, looked like an open market. Children were running around barefoot, young boys came up to me with live chickens, and young girls counted money on the side. By this point, we were continuing on foot. As I started walking, I didn’t know where to look first. The hilly camp stretched far and wide beyond sight and imagination.


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My first stop was at the UNHCR non-food distribution where the organization distributes core relief items. I met some of the organizers and very brave, young refugee men who were volunteering.

There, I also met a woman named Sumuda. She arrived to the camp with her family and was happy and grateful to be receiving aid. When asked about her journey to the camp, she told me that she had to hide in the jungle for several days with her young children. She was extremely worried that she would be sent back to Myanmar. But, she said that if the situation settled back home, she’d be happy to go back. She just wanted to live a peaceful life with her family.

Kahawaty Embraces Refugee Woman. Photographed by Andrew McConnell.

Along the way to my next visit, I met several children carrying other children. It was painful to see these vulnerable babies carrying other babies like flimsy dolls around the rugged camp. They are meant to be living their childhood, not bathing and feeding other babies.

The camp was buzzing with refugees working different tasks. Young men carried large metal pipes for the sewage. I noticed one of them had an extremely blue and purple arm. He disappeared before I could ask him if he was okay. I saw old women struggling to carry packages on their backs in the harsh sun. I saw young boys in every corner cutting bamboo and wood for various purposes and young girls neatly placing objects for sale on cardboard.

Refugee Kids at Kutupalong Camp

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The government in Myanmar has systematically discriminated against the Rohingya people since the 1970s. The Myanmar military says that Rohingyas are not a national race. Myanmar's government has even stopped recognizing the term "Rohingya" and prefers to refer to the community as "Bengalis.” They are denied citizenship under a 1982 Myanmar law. They are restricted from freedom of movement, adequate medical attention, state education, and civil service jobs—life’s basic rights.

One 87-year-old man I met had experienced the full extent of these injustices. He has fled from his home four times in his life: first when he was 15 years old, second with his current wife, third with his children, and this time with his grandchildren. He tells me they are not safe back in Myanmar. They cannot pray in a mosque. The military has burned their houses and killed their family members and friends. He started to cry when telling me how hard the military had beaten his back. I promised him that the world would know about his story and the story of his people.

Refugee Man Surrounded by Family Tells His Story to Kahawaty. Photographed by Andrew McConnell.

Next, I met 18-year-old Hamida, who had been in the camp for four months with her sister. While they were in Myanmar, she survived a military raid by fleeing to the neighboring jungle. Their entire village was burned. Her husband had been shot in the chest and died on the spot. The military had raped many girls right in front of her. Her only child and her parents also died of illness back in Myanmar. And when she arrived to the Kutupalong camp, her brother-in-law was supporting her but there wasn’t enough food for her and her sister’s eight children. We had to explain to her that due to the heavy influx of people, the congested camp had a big demand for supplies. She didn’t want to go back to her life in Myanmar. She came here to save herself.

Most refugees have walked for days to seek safety in Bangladesh. Others had to use makeshift rafts to arrive in the country. They are exhausted, traumatized, starving, thirsty, and many have bullet wounds. Some say they have not eaten since fleeing their villages and have been surviving on rain or groundwater. I met one such refugee, a woman named Salama Hatu, on one of my stops as well. A translator helped me find out that she had fallen and broke her hip on her way to the camp. Her journey was tough. She arrived in Bangladesh after 15 days traveling on foot through the jungle with her children. They found some houses on the way where they received food, but sometimes, they would starve. I also found out that, her husband died from an illness one year ago, and due to her injury, she is unable to adequately support her children in the camp. She eventually wants to be able to send her children, ages 11, 9, and 5, to school for an education and she also hopes to go for medical treatment to fully recover.

Refugee Mother Talks to Kahawaty. Photographed by Andrew McConnell.

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The Rohingya emergency is said to be the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. I found the child-headed families—children who have lost both their parents and have become primary caregivers to their younger sibling—the most heart breaking of all to see. But some children do hold on to their hope for a better life. I met three beautiful and surprisingly positive children who lost both their parents and had to flee on their own with a distant uncle and his family. They live in their own tent. The youngest is just three years old. How could I not condemn those who leave children in this horrible situation? They are in desperate need of basic necessities, but mostly they are children who need their mothers and fathers who can never return to them.

Three Refugee Kids Pose with Kahawaty

I could not call myself human if I didn’t do something to help. I condemn the exploitation and murder of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. I call for peace, tolerance and understanding among communities. I call for their rights as Rohingya people and as human beings. Right now, the best that we can do is help send aid to these vulnerable people. The UNHCR is working relentlessly to provide them with shelter, food, water, medicine, sanitation, and most importantly protection. Having seen their work first-hand, I can say that it is remarkable. And I look forward to the day when these families can return home with their basic rights intact.

To donate directly, visit Giving.unhcr.org/with-Rohingya (Arabic) or Giving.unhcr.org/en/with-Rohingya (English).

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