When I read about the Rohingya crisis in September last year, I felt I had to do something.
Within weeks, 700,000 Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state saw their homes and farms go up in flames. According to news reports, parents were shot in front of their children, daughters were raped and brutalised in front of their parents. Survivors were forced to flee for their lives, some carrying elderly or infirm parents across mountainous terrain to seek shelter in makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
In late 2017, with the encouragement of Jesuit Fr Leslie Raj, the Jesuit Refugee Service, Singapore (JRS) organised an exhibition at the Church of St Ignatius, to create awareness of the Rohingya refugee crisis and to pray for a quick resolution. It was heartening that many parishioners came forward to write their prayers and messages of hope for the refugees on the prayer wall.
Children at the Rohingya refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar
However, with no end to the refugee situation in sight, we knew that further action was needed.
On May 5, four volunteers from JRS, including myself, and two filmmakers from the archdiocese’s ArchProductions team, visited the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar to better understand what the Catholic Church, through Caritas Bangladesh, is doing to help the Rohingya refugees and to find out how we can offer our support.
Despite having visited refugees in Thailand and Nepal, I was shocked at how huge the camp was and to see so many refugees, more than half of whom are children, living in miserable conditions.
My wife, Alison, recorded her impressions of the camp:
“The ‘homes’ of the Rohingya refugees are makeshift shelters of bamboo and tarpaulin set up on bare ground. Many shelters cling dangerously to the side of barren hill slopes, at risk of being washed away in the coming monsoon season.
“Water is pumped from a standpipe by hand and carried ‘home’ in large jugs by women and children. Food is a ration of rice, lentils, cooking oil, salt and sugar.
“Children walk for hours deep into the forest to chop firewood which they carry on their backs to be used for cooking their meals. Shared toilets are a hole in the ground lined with concrete…”
Aerial view showing the huge camp
Although we only had two days in the camp, we tried to speak with as many refugees as possible and accompany them in their struggles.
One 20-year-old woman shared how she walked here from Myanmar, carrying her two children. Her relatives gave her a sewing machine and she bought another one with the money her husband earned working for Caritas in the camp. She is now a tailor and does alteration of clothing for other camp residents.
She can also earn 2,000 taka (S$32) a month teaching sewing to other refugees. She said she does not want to return to Myanmar and hopes to build a new life in Bangladesh.
Fellow JRS volunteer Mary Lee met a young boy who walks on crutches because he has only one leg. She learnt that his family fled Myanmar after his sister was raped. Along the way, he stepped on a landmine which blew his leg off. His brother carried him the rest of the way and he received medical attention only after arriving in Cox’s Bazar.
A Rohingya woman works as a tailor in the camp
It was difficult to stay positive in the face of all this suffering, but one thing stood out for fellow volunteer Jeremy Lim – the generosity of the local Bangladeshi people who were hosting the refugees on their own farmlands and forests.
The Bangladesh government, together with the UNHCR, Caritas Bangladesh and more than 100 international NGOs, have done an amazing job of organising the camp with roads, wells, child and women protection centres, food distribution points, toilets and more.
We were also full of admiration for the thousands of aid workers from around the world who work long hours to help the refugees. It is the presence of these kind souls that assured Jeremy that God has not forgotten the Rohingya.
Food distribution by Caritas Bangladesh
As St John Paul wrote about the parable of the Good Samaritan, “suffering … is also present in order to unleash love in the human person”.
The parable of the widow’s two coins came alive for me when I was at the camp – Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, has opened its doors to welcome the refugees and support them with the little that they have. What can we, as Catholics, and from a richer, more developed nation, do to share their burden?
Caritas Bangladesh needs funds to build monsoon-resistant shelters, provide gas for cooking, build more wells, latrines, bathrooms and child protection centres for the refugees. JRS, together with Caritas Humanitarian Aid & Relief Initiatives, Singapore (CHARIS), is raising funds to support these needs in the camps.