Not Forsaken

Answering the Silent Cries of Rohingya Refugees

15-year-old Sabika Begum sits with World Concern staff in Kutupolong refugee camp in Bangladesh where she has lived the last four months with her aunt and uncle.

Jahira* lives alone.

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.

In a matter of months the population near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, nearly quadrupled in size.
In a matter of months the population near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, nearly quadrupled in size.

Ever the outsider

A broader view of where Rohingya refugees fled to following a sharp rise in violence in Myanmar.
A broader view of where Rohingya refugees fled to following a sharp rise in violence in Myanmar.
A broader view of where Rohingya refugees fled to following a sharp rise in violence in Myanmar. ×

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.

Kutapalong Refugee Camp, January 27 2016 Kutupalong Refugee Camp, December 27, 2017

Satellite image ©2018 DigitalGlobe.

20-year-old Jahira walked four days from Myanmar with extended relatives to reach Kutupolong refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Mothers try to maintain a sense of normalcy for their children, which includes taking a bath when soap is available.
Mothers try to maintain a sense of normalcy for their children, which includes taking a bath when soap is available.
Rohingya refugees struggle to find adequate shelter materials to withstand the impending monsoon rains.
Rohingya refugees struggle to find adequate shelter materials to withstand the impending monsoon rains.
These two sisters were orphaned while fleeing Myanmar and have been living with their aunt for the past three months.
These two sisters were orphaned while fleeing Myanmar and have been living with their aunt for the past three months.
In some areas of Kutupalong, the refugee camp is encroaching on the local host community, making the two almost indistinguishable.
In some areas of Kutupalong, the refugee camp is encroaching on the local host community, making the two almost indistinguishable.
Despite the chaos of life in a refugee camp, daily prayer is a calming routine for many Rohingya.
Despite the chaos of life in a refugee camp, daily prayer is a calming routine for many Rohingya.
Rohingya refugees are not allowed to leave the designated area of the camp, and there is little work to be found inside.
Rohingya refugees are not allowed to leave the designated area of the camp, and there is little work to be found inside.
Entire forests have been cleared to make room for newly-arrived Rohingya families.
Entire forests have been cleared to make room for newly-arrived Rohingya families.
In many places inside the camp, wells and latrines were built too close to each other, causing contamination.
In many places inside the camp, wells and latrines were built too close to each other, causing contamination.
This mother carried one child on her hip, one on her back, and made her five-year-old walk for 10 days to reach Bangladesh.
This mother carried one child on her hip, one on her back, and made her five-year-old walk for 10 days to reach Bangladesh.
Even before the most recent wave of refugees, Kutupalong was home to Rohingya families like this man and his son.
Even before the most recent wave of refugees, Kutupalong was home to Rohingya families like this man and his son.

The Rohingya Today

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.

Rise in population Kutupalong Refugee Camp
Before violence erupted in August 2017, refugee camps in Bangladesh were home to about 200,000 Rohingya refugees. Now, the Rohingya refugee crisis is the fastest-growing in the world.

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.

10-year-old Hakim wants to be a teacher when he grows up so he can teach others how to be honest.
10-year-old Hakim wants to be a teacher when he grows up so he can teach others how to be honest.

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.

Not only is the camp teeming with filth and diseases like diphtheria and cholera, but behind the eyes of every Rohingya survivor is a depth of hopelessness hard to convey.

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.

Nasima wants to be either a doctor or teacher when she grows up and loves all subjects, especially math.
Nasima wants to be either a doctor or teacher when she grows up and loves all subjects, especially math.

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.

Children like this little boy are most at-risk for suffering from long-term effects of trauma.
Children like this little boy are most at-risk for suffering from long-term effects of trauma.

Invisible Wounds

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.

About 60% of all Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh are children, many on their own after losing their entire families to violence.
About 60% of all Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh are children, many on their own after losing their entire families to violence.

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.

Recreation areas and community engagement opportunities are a few ways World Concern plans to address this gap in response.

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.

“I’m thinking, how I can I live my whole life with this sadness? I don’t know which future is waiting for me.”
“I’m thinking, how I can I live my whole life with this sadness? I don’t know which future is waiting for me.”

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.

Growth of the camp figures from International Organization for Migration JRP for Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis, IOM Press Release January 2018.

Rohingya refugee figures from UNOCHA, UNICEF.

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