In a refugee camp where personal space is a luxury, her isolation only serves to highlight the traumatic reality of Rohingya refugees – loved ones, livelihoods, and futures are gone.
Even the clothes she wears are not her own, given to her when she arrived in Bangladesh.
“Everyone said we don’t belong. We have no place, no shelter, no identity…” — Jahira, 20
“I lost my parents, I lost my house… I have pain all over my body,” said Jahira, recounting her harrowing journey from Myanmar. So high was the adrenaline coursing through her, it wasn’t until reaching Kutupalong, a refugee camp, did Jahira realize some of her teeth were broken.
Now, Jahira wants someone to listen. Someone to hear her story, and understand this crisis is not new, nor are the effects purely physical. The true crisis goes much deeper, to the core of each Rohingya survivor.
The Rohingya are one of the world's few stateless people groups, viewed as outsiders by both Bangladesh and Myanmar. Until recently, Myanmar hosted the majority of the Rohingya population in Rhakine state, a territory in the country’s northeastern corner.
Following decades of increasing persecution, on August 25, 2017, extreme violence broke out, forcing Rohingya families to flee. Survivors report close friends and relatives brutally raped and killed while attempting to escape and entire villages burned to the ground.
The survivors of this initial wave of violence found themselves without food, water, or shelter as they fled in search of safety. For many, the journey lasted days—some even weeks—either running through thick mud and dense forests, or daring to cross unsafe waters in boats. Those who were not strong enough to keep up fell behind, left to the unfeeling brutality of their attackers. Some people narrowly escaped death in their homes only to drown within sight of freedom.
By the time Rohingya refugees arrived at the entrance of one of the numerous overcrowded refugee camps, it had been days since they'd slept or eaten. Hoping to find rest and security, the refugees are instead faced with the harsh reality that not only are they homeless, they have nothing to their name.
It was at this point that World Concern, a Christian global relief and development organization, first began to address the needs of newly-arrived refugees in Bangladesh.
Targeting people who had been left out of aid distributions, Chris Sheach, World Concern’s Director of Disaster Response, noted this situation is the worst he’s seen in his career. “We reached out to people who had not had a roof over their heads in six weeks since they left Myanmar.”
With a history of serving in Bangladesh for over 25 years, World Concern is uniquely equipped to meet the needs of Rohingya refugees.
“This is exactly the kind of crisis at the very heart of World Concern’s mission. We seek out the most vulnerable and meet them right where they are,” said World Concern President Jacinta Tegman.
Even to the most seasoned humanitarian, the current state of the Kutupalong refugee camp many Rohingya now call home is shocking. Mothers fetch water from streams contaminated by nearby latrines. Then, they pour the same water into cracked plastic cups to quench the thirst of their children.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), over 73% of Rohingya are now living in new, spontaneous settlements. The refugee camps in Bangladesh that served over 200,000 Rohingya prior to the influx were massively unprepared for the hundreds of thousands of refugees that poured over the border beginning in August 2017. Today, almost the entire Rohingya population resides in some sort of refugee camp.
Humanitarian aid agencies such as World Concern are preparing to meet the needs of over 1.2 million people in the greater Cox’s Bazar area of Bangladesh. Without a comprehensive response, the potential for massive loss of life is high. Deadly diseases are a constant threat – and soon the rainy season will begin, causing open sewage lines to overflow and spread throughout the camp.
It's difficult to process the sheer magnitude of this crisis. Not only in terms of the physical response to need, but the lasting emotional distress of a generation that must be reckoned with.
Life After Death
Nasima* plays leapfrog with her friends in the camp, laughing and smiling when it’s her turn to jump. In a place overshadowed by hopelessness, her vibrant personality stands out.
But as soon as she begins to recount her escape from Myanmar, Nasima’s smile disappears.
Watching her one would think she’s reciting a list of facts – not describing the death of her immediate family.
The night her family drowned, Nasima assumed she was going to die, too.
Having escaped the massacre in her village, Nasima, her father, mother and three siblings arrived on the banks of the Naf River. Along with seventy or so others, they crowded onto a fishing boat and set off.
But they never made it across.
“We were seven family members in the boat, but six drowned….” —Nasima, 8
Halfway through the journey, the boat capsized, drowning nearly all aboard. Nasima struggled to stay afloat, grasping at flimsy pieces of debris. Finally, she grabbed hold of something solid. It was only when she hoisted herself above the water did she realize her life raft was a dead body.
Two months later, she’s still scared.
“My mom is coming as a ghost to get me…she’s saying ‘Where is your sister?’”
Nasima had attempted to save her sister from drowning but didn’t have the strength. “I was trying, but how is it possible?”
Now, her mother haunts her dreams.
With little to do in the camp, Nasima thinks of her parents and siblings often, missing them with an intensity disguised by her outgoing nature.
Images of violence and horror are now permanently etched into Nasima’s mind, and many children living in the Kutupalong camp share pieces of her story. As a result, anxiety runs deep among youth in the camp.
For generations, the questions of where they will live and how long they can endure such marginalization have remained unanswered for Rohingya people.
Opportunities for education, the ability to go outside the refugee camps, and access to food have been severely limited. Without any degree of certainty in their day to day activities, Rohingya mothers, fathers, and children live in a continuous state of anxiety within the confines of the camp. This daily stress, now complicated with exposure to high levels of trauma, is creating a breeding ground for increased mental distress among Rohingya refugees.
“I wish I could die. I really worry, thinking about my future. When I remember what happened, I can’t eat. Even when I eat rice my chest burns,” said Jahira, comparing her life in Myanmar to her current situation in Kutupalong.
Children and young adults, much like Jahira and Nasima, are most at-risk for suffering from long-term effects of trauma.
“This population has been traumatized to a degree that I’ve never seen,” said Andrew Pendleton, Emergency Response Coordinator for World Concern, recounting his experience working among the Rohingya in Kutupalong. “I’ve been a refugee worker for the past 40 years globally, and this situation we find ourselves running with here is unprecedented.”
Not only are children witnesses to horrific violence, but many endured it themselves. From burning, physical abuse, to near-drownings - the stories are endless.
A Cry for Help
World Concern is answering the cries of Rohingya children and families in distress. During the initial wave of arrivals in Bangladesh, World Concern, coordinating with Integral Alliance partners, put together a rapid response to the crisis.
“My job here is to find our niche, to find the most vulnerable, and the most desperate,” explained Andrew.
After making the trek to the Kutupalong extension camp, much of it inaccessible by vehicle, the team went family by family to seek out the most vulnerable, hearing their stories and assessing their most critical needs. Emergency shelter materials and hygiene kits were soon distributed to these families.
Not only were the physical gaps observed, but, according to Andrew, the “gaps in their souls.” Recognizing the depths of emotional pain in many refugees, plans were set in motion to address this invisible crisis.
Children are most at-risk for the effects of trauma, but also violence and abuse. With over half the camp under the age of 18, the way forward was clear.
“We’ve started to find areas where we can work with girls and boys. They’re very idle, very bored, and need something to do. They need to fill their days with something productive. We want to work with the community in a holistic way,” said Andrew.
From soccer games to a safe place to play, the goal is to create as much of a “normal” environment as possible. Children need the chance to be children – to run, laugh, and play with their peers. Once a sense of routine and security is established, children are able to safely process the emotional trauma many have been struggling with, alone, for months. Here, true healing can begin.
Jacinta Tegman, president of World Concern, visited with Rohingya families on a recent trip to hear their stories first-hand.
“The trauma that these little children have experienced, no one should have to witness, but we have an entire generation in this camp that needs our help desperately. They need someone to hear their story,” she said about the needs she witnessed in the camp.
It was inside a black tarp and bamboo shelter, sitting cross-legged on a worn mat, where Jacinta first met Jahira. Sitting side by side, Jahira recounted the horrors she suffered.
Jacinta hopes that World Concern’s response will impact Jahira and others like her in a transformative way. World Concern wants to meet not only Jahira’s physical and emotional needs, but the needs of each refugee they have the opportunity to serve.
“My hope and prayer was for her in some small way, that even as I put my arms around her, she could feel the love of God.”
*All names have been changed for the protection of those whose stories are shared.