“We are who they call Rohingya. That is the name given to us” – Mohammad Rafiq.
Cox’s Bazar is a tourist resort, all white sand beaches and swaying palm trees. Rich Bangladeshi families hold their selfie sticks high and try and squeeze as many people into picture-postcard moments as possible. It often makes me smile that this one word, ‘selfie’, seems to have spread across the word always spoken in the same tongue, even when wrapped up in foreign language. Cox’s Bazar is tourist friendly smiles, bright green paddy fields and swaying sarees. Cox’s Bazar is a brochure. Cox’s Bazar is a coconut wrap and a mocktail as the sun sets. Cox’s Bazar hosts one of the largest refugee communities in the world.
Just a one-hour drive away from the bustle of the tourist markets of the beach resorts are refugee camps housing 900,000 Rohingya refugees. Since August 2017, nearly 700,000 people have fled violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and have gone in search of safety and sanctuary in Bangladesh. The chaotic and crowded space that is coined the ‘largest humanitarian crisis in the world today’ is a maze of bamboo poles and plastic sheeting. The Cox’s Bazar camps are close together, but each has a unique character and feel. I visited three. Each distinct and different.
The one thing the camps share in common is the sheer density of population. Bodies crowded into small spaces and rudimentary materials marking out where one home begins and another ends. Sleeping mats sometimes double as prayer mats. Dignity kit buckets carrying valuable soap and detergent hidden in the corner of living spaces. Children run about with kites made of carrier bags, the noise of young voices can be heard for miles around. In Jamtoli camp, a place I spent half my time, over 40% of the camp’s residents are children. They run and play, leaping over sewage streams, they dart around hot cooking pots and, wherever you go as a girl with a big camera, there are at least 40 watchful pairs of eyes peering out from bamboo sheeting.
Nevertheless, in amongst this mess, in the gaps and alleyways that form roads and pathways on the steep slopes – there are beautiful and generous people. People who have lived through such trauma but were still willing to open up their homes to me. Repeatedly, I heard stories of death, rape and drowning. Sometimes the stories were their own. Sometimes they retold stories they had carried with them for others. Tears flowed easily from women’s eyes. What a privilege it is to be a woman and to be allowed in those spaces only women can go. What a privilege to sit and hold the hands of a woman who has lost everything as she spills out words as if keeping them back would somehow be an impossibility. “We want to tell” is repeated again and again. And at this stage, at the beginning of this disaster, the vulnerability of people and their delicate stories is raw.
I did not cry in the camps. I am never much of a crier in the field. It is often when I listen back to interviews that my tears flow. However, twice I realised I had stopped breathing while listening to people’s stories. Breath caught in my throat as detailed descriptions of death, fear and flight fell out of quiet mouths shyly speaking the unspeakable. The people that we call Rohingya (who often call themselves Burmese) are some of the most gentle and generous souls I have ever met. They shared their stories freely, and in middle of all the horror there are stories of such poignant moments of kindness, humility and humanity. God willing, inshallah as the Muslim Rohingya often say, the stories for many might be a beginning and not an end.
We so often think about the refugee’s journey as starting at the point of persecution and ending at the camp (the ‘safe place’). For the Rohingya people, they just want “to feel happiness again” and that seems to be to them less about where and more about how they find it. Maybe that is what we all want.
Philosopher Martin Buber said, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them”. I may not be a crier in the field. However, I carry home with me the spark of electricity that has made this trip to Cox’s Bazar special. The people we call Rohingya have touched my heart in a way I will not forget.
In coming months, through All We Can we will share some of the stories I had the privilege of listening to, and I hope together we can keep these stories alive. There is so much yet to be done to support the people who offered me so much hospitality in Cox’s Bazar. The people we call Rohingya.
To support All We Can’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis Appeal click here.