Learnings from Rohingya

Learnings from Rohingya

The Rohingya community has faced persecution decades after decades in their own homes, and as a result, they fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in order to seek asylum. As of 2023, there are about 1 million refugees and 33 camps in Bangladesh hosting the Rohingya community. I had a chance to visit one of the camps in order to see and understand what their daily lives looked like. Here's an account of what I learned.

When we hear the word ‘refugee’, what’s the first thing we think of? War victims? Camps? Charity drives? At its basic, refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.They often have had to flee with little more than the clothes on their back, leaving behind homes, possessions, jobs and loved ones (according to UNHCR).

Imagine losing who you are, what makes you you—your identity, your independence, your country—and being reduced to a generalizing 8-letter word- REFUGEE. Today, in Bangladesh there are 33 Rohingya camps consisting of roughly 1 million people. Have you ever imagined what life would be in a camp? In a small area, hundreds of thousands of families are forced to wait for a return to normal.

I went there for a visit and it was a whole different world, seemingly from a bygone era, with the elderly people gathered around tea shops or grocery stores, chatting away the troubles of their lives. Before arriving in the camp, the people were very diverse in their occupations and economic status. Now they are much more homogenous economically: the men involved in manual labor and the women taking care of household chores. You can often see children playing in groups after school.

I am sure this sounds peaceful, but unfortunately it is far from it. Due to the dilapidated and grim living situation with no end in sight, armed gangs have emerged in the camps and they terrorize both the host community surrounding the camp and the members of the community themselves. This contributes to growing tensions between and within the community, creating risks of conflict and chafing at political support for open-ended humanitarian assistance.

As a WASH consultant, I couldn’t stop myself from learning about the water, sanitation, and hygiene conditions. This is what I learned after talking to several people there:

Mr. Ahmed, a grocery store owner, when asked about the toilet blocks said, “There are 4-5 toilets to be shared between a number of families. These toilets are often either occupied or dirty, and that is why I don’t use them anymore. I am okay defecating in the open near the stream a few kilometers from here.”

Mrs. Fatemah, who runs a clinic in the back of her house, when asked about the state of the toilets said, “The number of women-friendly toilets is not proportionate to the number of females living around it. Which is why women tend to not go to the toilet block, especially during their menstrual cycles and do not properly dispose their sanitary pads, due to which there is often foul smell and germs breeding around their house.” She continued to tell me about the state of handwashing, “While people remember to wash their hands after using the toilet, they more often than not, either forget or don’t want to wash hands before cooking or eating their meal. Who can blame them, the only source of water available is the toilet blocks that are located very far. Why would someone walk for 10 mins just to wash their hands? Even I store water in the bucket inside my house to wash hands for my family and myself.”

Mrs. Fatemah’s younger sister Jasmin, a housewife, made some interesting observations as well, “Most of us have children, and while we understand that storing water is not the best solution, we are not left with any other options. The children take a bath in the river nearby but our infants need to be given a bath by us.  Which is why when we store water, we remember to keep a lid on it, knowing the risks of contamination. To fetch the water we have to walk almost 2-3 kms every day. Once we reach the spot, we need to wait in line for hours and sometimes it ends in really nasty fights due to the lack of water.”

Mr. Ahmed, who teaches after-school math to children, reported, “It’s really hard to make these children understand the importance of school when all they see around them is temporary and uncertain. I had often witnessed that children were missing classes because they are sick or have diarrhea. So I made a habit for these children that before they enter the classroom, they need to wash their hands with soap and water that I keep outside. But it is not enough.”

Children attending school in Kutupalong refugee camp at Ukhiya in Cox's Bazar.

Mr. Rahem gave me something to think about, “In my old life in Myanmar, I thought I was a nobody. But I’ve come to understand that we were all somebody in our old lives. And then one day everything we had was gone. But we are still human beings. Now I am well-respected because I help my fellow countrymen.”

He also commented on the humanitarian assistance provided, “We see many organizations come in and do awareness campaigns with us—sometimes for vaccines or for safe drinking water. However, the problem is not that we weren’t aware, or that we didn’t know how to wash our hands properly. The problem is that we do not have the right facilities. Because we don’t have sinks in our houses, washing hands is often the last thing we are concerned about.”

After my brief chance to witness life in the refugee camp, I’m left pondering a conundrum: while the Bangladeshi government and international donors are doing a commendable job providing relief to the Rohingya refugees, everything is temporary. Long term investments to improve quality of life are avoided, even though we cannot see how and when people will return to their normal lives.

As a result, people who perpetually hang in the balance are not targeted for permanent upgrades. In my WASH perspective—particularly thinking about hygiene—that means they do not have handwashing facilities in their home. But as the months in the camp turn to years, and the years turn to decades, will there be a point when we ought to admit that it’s no longer ‘temporary’ and say ‘it’s worth it for them to have sinks now’? I’m biased, but basically I would advocate that the time is now.

Children playing in the stream nearby in Kutupalong, Cox Bazar.

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