It began with an email: ‘the UN team has contacted us and they are requesting your deployment as soon as possible, initially for six weeks…how quickly would you be able to travel and assume your responsibilities in Dhaka or Cox’s Bazar?’
This was on Saturday evening, 7 October, 2017. Just over one week later, I would swap my UN OCHA reports officer job in Islamabad for UN OCHA public information officer in Dhaka, supporting the response team in the humanitarian quagmire unfolding in Bangladesh.
The plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims is being well documented across news and social media channels: the well over half a million surge of Rohingya refugees spilled into Bangladesh since August 25 adds to the 300,000 already here in camps in Cox’s Bazar. Such desperation to get away – from what?
What triggered that exit was the heavy Myanmar crackdown in mainly Rohingya populated Rakhine State. This left up to 3,000 Rohingyas dead, women and children brutalised and raped, many others tortured, homes burnt. There are reports of children being thrown into burning houses. It’s difficult to get accurate verification of these accounts because of restricted access into the affected areas. What’s convincing the international community, however, is the consistency of stories being told by the exhausted refugees as they defy carefully place landmines, treacherous waters, hunger, trauma, injury and sheer fatigue to reach the safe beaches of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Here, they can stand and watch as smoke billows across the sky on the opposite shore: they are watching their homes being razed. The UN – ‘textbook ethnic cleansing’. The recent Sky news report adds weight to their accounts.
With these stories in mind, it was with a certain disquiet that I set off last week to an organisation called Obat Helpers in Cox’s Bazar, the office of which is located minutes from the large purpose built Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp. My morning at this office would be taken up leading a writing workshop for a group of around ten young Rohingyas aged between 19-25. I would be teaming up with a professional photographer on assignment with UNICEF, and who would take the photography part of the session.
This non-religious organisation was born out family and friendship ties that has morphed into something bigger. Its working team consists of committed young professionals who have a cadre of international experience. One of them gave up a World Bank job in DC to return to her home in Bangladesh and support Obat Helpers. The team is assisted by national and globetrotting volunteers, such as the young New Zealander with a strong Brit accent who is determined to stay out of the UK for a good while.
I don’t really know what I was expecting of the Rohingya students themselves. What I found was a group of initially shy and reserved young men and women, warmly eager to learn and engage, to improve their writing and translation skills, and to make something of their lives. Pretty normal. And a breath of fresh air in such a complex and disturbing environment.
Click here for more information about Obat Helpers