Rohingya Crisis Q&A from Bangladesh: ‘Nobody comes here for a better life. They have to be desperate’

Friday, November 24, 2017

Canadian Foodgrains Bank board chairperson Ken Kim, who is also Director of Disaster Response and Rehabilitation for Foodgrains Bank member World Renew, recently returned from Bangladesh. While there, he visited a Foodgrains Bank project providing emergency food rations to Rohingya refugees in the Kutupalong refugee camp, home to almost 400,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled violence in Myanmar.

Grace Wiebe (left), Senior Project Manager at World Renew, and Ken Kim (far right) at a food distribution site in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Photo:World Renew)

What do you see when you look around you in Kutupalong refugee camp?

There is little greenery and space is a premium. On every foot of ground there are bamboo and tarp homes that fully cover the landscape. Everything needed to house, feed and support the refugees has to be brought into the camp, so there is a lot of movement and activity on the narrow roads. Every pathway and road has vehicles or people that cover the width of the road. What were once hills with trees are now populated with homes that are tightly packed together.

Makeshift homes made of tarps and bamboo cover almost all the available land in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Photo:World Renew)

Tell us about the Rohingya people you met who are receiving emergency food through the Foodgrains Bank.

I marvel at the fact that despite challenges, life flourishes.

I have been to numerous refugee camps and in each I marvel at the fact that despite challenges, life flourishes. I met with people in their bamboo/tarp homes who had received food through our distributions. Each family gets one room inside a long house that’s been subdivided.

One person I met whose story stands out is that of a young woman named Nur Bagum, 20. She has been living in the camp with her sister, age 17, and brother, age 15, since late August in a room that was barely 10 x 12 feet.

Back in Myanmar, the family worked as day labourers. But when they first arrived in Bangladesh, they had nothing.

After Nur Bagum’s parents were killed and her village was burned, she fled to Bangladesh with her brother and sister. (Photo:World Renew)

We asked if the army hurt her and about how she escaped the violence. There was a long conversation in the local language between her and our translator, but she answered, “no.” She said the military attacked suddenly after midnight.

The military was a big group. She heard the commotion and woke up. Outside, she found her sister and brother, and together, they fled to another village. The next day, she received news that her entire village had been burned.

She also shared that her parents were killed by the military. “They cut them,” she said. She did not elaborate on how she knew this.

Nur’s neighbours in the camp are people she trusts. They were close neighbours from her village. She says, “I will go back if they go back. I will stay if they stay.”

What are some of the challenges families face in the camp?

The smells are…well, very strong. The latrines are inadequate as they are filling up quickly and the drainage for wastewater is also limited. During my visit, it was dry and given that it had rained the previous weeks, the ground was reasonably solid.

When the rains come, the entire camp will be in terrible shape. The latrines are already a problem as they were hastily installed and they are located too close to the homes. Many of them are already nearing capacity. There have been reports already that women and girls are not eating and drinking in the evening to avoid having to use the facilities in the middle of the night.

There is limited space in the refugee camp for kids to be in a nurturing environment. (Photo:World Renew)

It was apparent that there are few spaces for kids to be in a nurturing environment. Schooling was limited for most Rohingya children even when they were in Myanmar and for now it is similarly limited, but for different reasons.

What is the mood like in the camp?

Everyone knows someone who was killed or did not make it out alive.

Everyone knows someone who was killed or did not make it out alive. Most fled with nothing, or very little. Most are willing to go back if it is safe for them to do so. The fear of disease and poor hygiene makes it urgent that the water and sanitation needs are dealt with sooner rather than later. The fact that so many arrived already malnourished and violently traumatized is another major challenge. It will take time for adequate support to be provided, but nothing will ultimately be adequate until the Rohingya can live in peace, children can attend school, and adults have opportunities to earn a decent livelihood.

As World Renew’s Director of Disaster Response and Rehabilitation, you have a wide range of experience in responding to global crises. How does the Rohingya crisis differ from other emergency responses you’ve been a part of?

Last year, as the South Sudanese were fleeing their country into Uganda, it was described as the fastest growing refugee crisis. Here we are, a year later, and the Rohingya refugee crisis is now being described as the fastest growing refugee crisis.

Bangladesh has made remarkable strides in development, but remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. And here they are now, having to host approximately 600,000 new arrivals within a few months. It is not easy for Bangladesh to be a host nation to so many new refugees. Bangladesh has its own people that it is challenged to provide for. As a colleague once commented, “they have to be desperate to flee to Bangladesh. Nobody comes here for a ‘better’ life.”

My concern is that the world is now seeing an entire generation of people who are dependent, not out of choice but by circumstance, to grow up in refugee camps like Kutupalong. An entire generation of young people will only know the refugee camps as their home. This is truly sad. Bidibidi in Uganda and now Kutupalong join the ranks of the Dadaab and Kakuma in Kenya, as well as Zaatari in Jordan, as de facto refugee cities.

Kim fears that Kutupalong will become a ‘refugee city’ because there is no immediate solution for the persecution of the Rohingya. (Photo:World Renew)

Are you able to get a sense of what people feel the future holds for them?

For now, I think people understand that they are safe from the violence that forced them to leave Myanmar. Most were extremely poor and had little opportunity other than work as day labourers or subsistence farmers. So what do they have in the camp? Nothing. They cannot work for wages outside the camp in Bangladesh and they do not have access to land. Boredom may cause more problems in the long term unless a different approach is provided for the residents of camps.

They are grateful for the items they have received, both food and other items. However, the need to feed everyone trumps dietary diversity in the food that is distributed. Many people are tired of rice and lentils every single day, and are asking for dried fish and vegetables.

There are no easy answers. Unlike responding to an earthquake or a hurricane for example, the path to rehabilitation isn’t straightforward. The persecution of the Rohingya people isn’t something that will end overnight.

Especially at this time of year, it’s important to recall that Jesus spent his early years as a refugee in a foreign land, along with his parents Mary and Joseph. The Bible is filled with accounts of landless people, wandering from place to place in search of a safe place to live.

I invite Canadians to remember the Rohingya people, and all refugees around the world in their prayers.

The Foodgrains Bank, through its members World Renew and Emergency Relief and Development Overseas and with the financial support of other Foodgrains Bank members, are responding to the needs in Bangladesh through two projects, together totaling $1 million.

Until November 28, all gifts from individual Canadians to the Rohingya crisis are matched by the Government of Canada on a 1:1 basis. This is in addition to also being eligible to receive a 4:1 match through our regular ongoing grant agreement with the Government of Canada. To find out more or to donate, click here.