Far from the idea of home: a visit to the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh

Nothing jars you from sleep like a clap of thunder. I gasp and I’m awake. The kind of awake where you feel your heart pounding in your chest and you know there’s no getting back to sleep tonight. Lightning fills every corner of the room. Takes only a second for me to remember where I am and what I’ve seen today in Cox’s Bazar. It sounds exotic, like a spice market, but it’s a region in Bangladesh that hosts the Rohingya refugee camps. I’m awake and again I’m trying to digest what I have witnessed here. The vision of a sick little girl in the arms of her mother is in my head. My thoughts immediately go towards home.

Home. It has to mean more than bricks and a roof. More than 2.3 kids and a picket fence. For me, home is my own profound sense of place and belonging in the world. A place where you know you are safe and loved. What happens when that is taken away? Violently, cruelly taken away? Yesterday I witnessed the aftermath of that.

Early yesterday morning, Chris Bonnell and I departed Dhaka by plane for Cox’s Bazar. The travel was long and we carried a measure of quiet anxiousness, not knowing exactly what we were getting into here. Arriving, we were met by the friendliest of crew from the SAJIDA Foundation as well as the Friendship Foundation, both doing work in the refugee camps. The flight was followed by a 2-hour bus ride through the winding mud streets and partially paved highways, along the longest beach in the world.

The long ride gave us a chance to discuss with our hosts about what was happening on the ground and to get more of a history of what we were about to witness. But no lesson could prepare us. A friend of mine had explained the situation to me over a coffee in St. John’s two years ago, before the massive migration. But at the time, we had just begun doing work in Bangladesh and I did not feel like we had the capacity to address his concerns. I know hindsight is 20/20 but I feel now that I should have done something.

The Rohingya people resided in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, but they were not recognized by the government or their Nobel Peace prize winning leader. Not recognized as people, any people. No nationality, no citizenship, thereby persecuting them bureaucratically and then physically. The UN recognized the Rohingyas as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world” in 2013. Our host explains the Rohingya people have been trying to seek refuge in Bangladesh since the 70’s. There has been back and forth with the two governments as to how to handle them, with Myanmar maintaining that they were not entitled to be in that country and are not their problem. They even banned the word Rohingya.

Since 2017, there has been a mass exodus of Rohingyas by foot and boat. Over 1.2 million people in total fearing prosecution and their safety. Our host tells stories of the early days, seeing the refugees arrive while you could see smoke from the border, evidence of the Myanmar military burning their homes. There were horror stories every day of men and young boys being brutally beaten and murdered. The UN eventually called it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

In my head, 1.2 million people became a single family. I had envisioned a series of tents, and a mother and child perhaps on the side of the road. But 1.2million people is, of course, more than that and cannot be easily comprehended. 1.2 million people would be the second largest Canadian city. Picture it like this: take the population of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland combined and force them to live in an area no bigger than Corner Brook with no sewers, no running water… 1.2 million people.

The area itself is rolling hills of pure green. The rain and foothills make it fertile, almost like a jungle, that is until we reach the camps. The hills suddenly and dramatically turn to tents, less than a mile ago it was dense green, now it is clear cut with tents and shanties hanging to the sides of cliffs for as far as the eye can see.

Arriving at the camp, we pass the security checkpoint and proceed through the gates. The camp itself is organized into blocks, and the blocks are organized into a grid by makeshift roads that have a feel of permeance to them. As we drive along, we noticed that by the side road, full commerce is happening. Thousands of people buying and selling everything and anything. I’m struck by how normal it all seems to be.

We pull to the side to visit the SAJIDA health clinic which is on a side street of the grid where cars cannot pass. As the van doors open, we are immediately hit by the wall of 35-degree heat and the harsh smell of the open sewer. It pierces my nostrils sharply and brings back the memories of Haiti after the earthquake. But this is worse, this is everywhere. We walk down the brick and dirt road being swarmed by kids screaming “hello!” in English, laughing and playing, holding our hands, and skipping in front of us. They are all in various states of dress and some are completely naked with no parents to be seen. There are at least 50 of them walking with us, just being kids.

The bustle of the main street ends as we move down. The children cheer with English phrases they’ve picked up from the previous set of foreigners. As the road turns you can see more vividly that the tents are built into the soil of the hills with a combination of tarps of different colour and bamboo. There is a series of very rough stairs in between the tents created by sandbags that serve as access and a division between the makeshift homes. Different than the streets of Haiti, it feels safe and there are no convoys of white armored UN vehicles on every corner. In fact, I see little evidence of the UN at all.

We are shown the medical tent that is yet another temporary structure that screams of permeance. It’s divided into three rooms and serves as a primary care facility for that block of the camp. We change our footwear in the waiting room that is lined with young women and children. In fact, it strikes me that there is a massive gender discrepancy in the streets. The majority of residents we have seen so far are women and children. I initially think that this is reflective of the global health burden affecting more women than men, but our host explains that it’s because during the migration families would often send women and children first. However, many of the young boys and men were murdered by the Myanmar army, leaving towns of widows and orphans.

We step into the clinic and I still cannot shake the smell from earlier. In the first room, there is a young physician with a surgical mask and a white coat. She is young and seems intimidated by the presence of a surgeon. The room is small with two windows serving as a viewing portal for the parade of kids that followed us. There’s no electricity and only a single table. At the other end of the table is a young mother dressed in traditional Niqab, holding one child in her arms and another child huddled at her side peeking shyly around her to see us. The Niqab is black and gold and seems remarkably clean given the environment she traveled through to get here. The child in her arms, on the other hand, is not well.

The 2-year-old girl is not moving and is lethargic. Even when the young doctor pokes at the child to take vitals there is little response. The young girl had a rash on her neck and back, she was motionless and febrile. Allison often says, in the pediatric ER you know when a child is sick by looking at them, it’s intuition. This child was not well. The mother said nothing and sat still during the entire encounter, yet you could see the concern and panic in her eyes. I tried to look a little closer and the child opened her eyes and cried. A good sign, I think to myself, but she is obviously very sick.

She’s given a script for antibiotics and a return appointment and then they are gone. In my gut, my medical intuition tells me that the child will need more than a few pills. It’s hard to watch. Harder still to forget. She becomes one of those many faces in my memory. From here. From Haiti and in Dhaka. Faces that haunt me. The distant yet concerned look of a mother’s eyes that cut through the niqab.

There is a line-up of twenty or more in the waiting room, all women and children. They will see 200 patients a day there. One sign lifts my spirit a bit. I see that the clinic was sponsored by SAJIDA, and in turn, Team Broken Earth. This is where our donations went, to frontline services. This is ALL of our efforts in action.

The clinic is in a valley and looking up you can see families in their tents, their homes, with curious children peeking their heads from behind the tarp. We decided to make our way up the makeshift stairs to see a view from the top. In the 40-degree heat, stepping from sandbag to sandbag, the path twists and turns like the trunk of a tree. Along the way, we get a glimpse into the tents, with families laying on the dirt of the mountainside, ten to twelve people per tent.  Peering inside the open flaps, you can see they have nothing, no possessions, not a bag in the corner, or chair, or a pile of clothing. It’s shockingly empty.

Ascending and wiping the sweat away, you need to concentrate on the unpredictability of the sandbags, so eyes are fixed down. I again notice the smell and there is a river of fluid running down alongside the stairs that are coming from the communal outhouse on the side of the hill.   Just before the peak, next to the outhouse, is a well and the kids are pumping it up and down showing it off like a new toy.

At the peak, the view is frightening. It is so dense. As far as the eye can see, hills beyond hills are covered in tents. Literally hundreds of thousands of people living on top of each other for as far as you can see. Is this temporary? Is this generational? Is this their new home?

It is so dense yet oddly it is organized and there seems to be the flow of society. You can see kids playing soccer, men hammering pieces of metal into blades, and women congregating as they talk and travel together. It feels like a city. A rudimentary one but still a city. The skyrises are replaced by the rolling hills covered with tents. The cars replaced by foot traffic. But the human spirit is here, you can feel it.

We continue back down the stairs to visit a school and what they refer to as a child-safe place.  Moving through the paths you can see the waste leaking from the orange and blue tarped shallow latrines down the hillsides. Twisting and turning, this path seems like an ancient river bed that was etched out over time. There is a naked three-year-old boy, alone, playing in a puddle of what I assume (hope) is just muddy water. He’s smiling from ear to ear. Two men are arguing over a live chicken being held firmly by one of them. A woman passes me holding a bag of rice. This is the day to day camp life. It just seems so normal, so far from temporary.

The school is a one-room tent with a wooden roof and screens. It’s filled with children, playing and learning and being taught by three teachers. They all smile and stand to greet us when we arrive. Again, there is no electricity, there are barely mats on the floor for them to sit. I think of the classrooms of my kids. I think of France banning cell phones in the classroom. I think of school hockey team photos and kids in jerseys offering to pack your groceries to raise money for their trips. These kids in front of me have none of that. Still, they smile and laugh and play and learn. Innocence knows nothing of what surrounds it.

As we are getting ready to leave, we walk past the market area again and despite the distraction of the bartering, I cannot help but think of the little girl I saw at the clinic. Keep running the diagnosis in my head. Was that rash meningitis? How long had she been that lethargic? What was the last thing she ate? Will she be ok? Will, she even make it to a new home or even live long enough to hope so? Behind my sunglasses, my eyes fill up. I’m sure the last thing these people need is more tears. But I can’t help it. Tears of guilt. Tears of rage. Tears.

No one speaks as we take the 2-hour drive back to Cox’s Bazar. Home crosses my mind again. It’s more than a sense of place, it is a basic human right. In the pursuit of a better life for our children, we all need a place we can call home. The world has seen genocide and witnessed ethnic cleansing before. But to paraphrase Einstein, if we remain silent we are guilty of complicity. This is a full generation of people displaced, unwanted, unrecognized, murdered, raped and forced to leave their homes. We have seen this movie before, it doesn’t end well unless we act.

Team Broken Earth and SAJIDA are trying hard to help but that kind of care is not the solution and doesn’t go a long way for 1.2 million people. We need more. More governments to witness what is happening here and vow to change it. To speak up for the Rohingya. To speak for the voiceless little girl. To give them all some sense that the dream of a home beyond these rolling hills of tarps and sewers can be real. It can be within reach.