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HN 24 | Renewing Compassion

Cox’s Bazar is a refugee settlement roughly one third the size of Manhattan, bursting at the seams with 908,000 inhabitants. It’s the largest Rohingya refugee settlement in Bangladesh, and one of the densest concentrations of refugees in the world. These families fled their homes in Myanmar in 2016 to escape a wave of unbridled violence unleashed against the Rohingya people. They ran west to Bangladesh, seeking refuge from their persecution. Sadly, the UN reports that those who escaped—mostly women and children—”are traumatized, and some have arrived with injuries caused by gunshots, shrapnel, fire, and landmines.” 

Shawn Plummer, President of FH Canada, reflects on his recent visit to the settlement. His small crew had been warned ahead of time by our FH Bangladesh office that we might not be able to gain access to the camps. Thankfully the government approved their application, allowing them to visit refugee families in Cox’s Bazar for a day.

I’ve never been anywhere so densely populated - and that was just Bangladesh! Cox’s Bazar was that magnified a hundred times. The settlement is actually a swelling network of refugee camps. Yet I was impressed by how incredibly well organized everything was. There’s a well-built road system in place, accessible water distribution points, and growing health clinics.

Because FH was already registered in Bangladesh when the refugee crisis hit, we were able to bring Integral Alliance in under our umbrella. As part of the Alliance, Medical Teams International (MTI) has set up five health clinics that operate six days a week. They brought in medical experts who are now training and employing Rohingya refugees as community health and hygiene workers. Overall, FH is running many of the logistics.

So those things were encouraging to see—a bit of hope as people have access to healthcare. But the real human stories were very difficult to hear.

For years I’ve been walking into hard situations like this and assessing systems and issues, asking what the big picture looks like, how we can help, what logistics need to be lined up, what the gaps are, etc. But I wasn’t really connecting with the people.

This trip to Cox’s Bazar changed that. We met a Rohingya couple who had been married 40 years and have several children. The mother described their harrowing experience to a colleague of mine:

“The Burmese (Myanmars) people kicked us out of our home in the middle of the night. They burned our crops and our house. They threatened our lives with guns. We trekked 17 days through the country with nothing, except what we could carry on our backs, to get to safety. And here we are now.” (source: Daniel C White)
"I asked if they had ever had their picture token before and they said no. I said I'd like to take their photo, as I always carry a portable Polaroid printer with me. I took their photo and presented them with a gift of their very first printed portrait of them as a couple." -Daniel White

I mourned for this mother as she shared how she woke one night to her village burning down around her. She only had minutes to pack what belongings she could for her family and flee into the jungle. Their dangerous journey led to a makeshift refugee camp in a foreign country. What this mother and her children endured—the emotional rollercoaster, the horror of violence, the insecurity of being stateless with so many unknowns—I could not handle.

Listening to and feeling her emotions hit me like never before.

After we left that family, we visited one of the health clinics and a midwife who works in the camp. Her testimony is what made all of this real for me. She told us about how many of the Rohingya women were raped by their attackers as they struggled to escape the violence erupting around them. As they all began to come to term in the camps around the same time, they delivered their babies and then dumped them down latrines. Hearing this unspeakable pain is when the magnitude of their suffering really sunk in.

God broke my heart that day.

So I came back to Canada really motivated to do more for these people. There are so many issues in the settlement. There is drug trafficking and gang violence. There are monsoon floods and elephant stampedes. And everything is temporary. The Bangladesh government doesn’t want the Rohingya to permanently settle in Cox’s Bazar. So they live in makeshift houses of tarp and bamboo. They survive on monthly rations from aid organizations. They can’t get IDs or official paperwork of any kind. They’re not allowed to have jobs outside the camp. They’re not allowed to build any permanent structures. They’re not allowed to set up schools for their children. They’re all just waiting. Where is the hope in that? Where is the future? Bangladesh doesn’t want them to stay. Myanmar doesn't want them to come back.

Upon my return, I was challenged by an energetic FH supporter to be more creative in our solutions. As organizations bringing in aid, we can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over and hoping to get different results. Cox’s Bazar needs a different approach. We are still working on what that looks like yet, but we’re in conversation with FH US and Integral Alliance and our other partners to figure out how FH Canada can uniquely serve these people who have lost so much and are living in such a precarious situation.
"Some of the signs of hope I saw were small gardens, clean water access points, child safe zones, training centres, and sides of buildings decorated by colourful murals." -Shawn Plummer

This trip had a huge personal impact on me. It was like my empathy had been asleep for years. I don’t know why; maybe I didn’t want to feel the pain of the people I encountered in difficult situations, maybe I was suffering from compassion fatigue from having been exposed to so much suffering through my work prior to FH.

Whatever the case, my emotions were awakened on that visit to Cox’s Bazar. I feel it in every area of life now. I listen better, I’m more passionate, more alive. It’s vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable but I’m grateful.

And I’m grateful to work at FH at a time like this so I can be a part of doing something about the immense suffering in our world right now. The Rohingya and the millions of other people who have been displaced from their homes need our support. They’re our global neighbours and I think we in Canada can’t turn a blind eye just because their story has fallen out of the news cycle.

Written by Shawn Plummer and Erin Austin-Bergen

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Food for the Hungry: HN 24 | Renewing Compassion
HN 24 | Renewing Compassion
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Food for the Hungry
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