Rohingya refugees: Finding hope amongst the hopelessness

Rohingya refugees: Finding hope amongst the hopelessness

In 2018, I completed three weeks working for Oxfam's Rohingya crisis response team in Cox’s Bazar and can remember one moment, standing in the pouring rain in the confined camp.

Everywhere I looked, ramshackle shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulins stretched into the distance.

People old and young were trying to find shelter from the downpour, and large puddles were quickly forming across the narrow brick road, with water running down sandy hillside paths.

As I was trying to take photos of a deep tube well Oxfam was drilling to provide clean water, numerous Rohingya refugees offered to take me into their shelters to stay dry, or brought me umbrellas.

Such was the kindness of people who had endured unspeakable horrors that forced them from Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh.

Before monsoon season, the camps endured what they call the pre-monsoon rains, where every couple of days a ferocious storm will hit for an hour or so.

This rain was nothing like I’m used to.

The falling water had an almost physical quality, beating down on you, so heavy that you would struggle to see the other side of a road.

Trees were often blown over in the wind, and almost immediately, huge puddles formed everywhere, slowing cars and trucks on the sandy, brick roads and draining into refugees' flimsy shelters.

Almost one million people live in the Rohingya refugee mega camp. When I was there, what was at the forefront of aid workers' minds was how the full monsoon would impact such a huge population living in such desperate conditions.

Yet despite this, I was struck by the way in which Rohingya refugees could find hope in what appeared to be a hopeless situation.

Denied citizenship in their country, they felt they didn't belong anywhere and had nowhere to call home. They had no idea what their future would hold.

In the meantime, they were awaiting monsoon rains likely to bring floods, landslides and potentially deadly water-borne diseases. At the time, the United Nations (UN) estimated that up to 200,000 people were living in at-risk areas of the camps.

As much as 2.5 metres of rain could fall on the camps during the monsoon season.

But the refugees I met certainly weren't hopeless or despairing.

Parents were working hard to strengthen their shelters or volunteering for charities like Oxfam as community health trainers, or with the UN as camp labourers helping prepare the camps for the coming heavy rain.

This included a young woman I met called Ayesha*, who was 18 years old. She fled to Bangladesh with her mother and three siblings after their father was killed in the violence in Myanmar.

Ayesha (pictured left). Photo: Dylan Quinnell/Oxfam

It took them nearly 5 days to get to Bangladesh by boat and foot; others weren’t so lucky and drowned when their boats sank.

Life is tough in the camps without a father or husband - women can get missed or sidelined at aid distributions, and culturally, young women are not supposed to go out alone.

None of this had dampened Ayesha’s spirit. She had put up her hand to volunteer, and was running community health trainings with her neighbours and other women. 

She told me, "Now I work as an Oxfam volunteer, I teach people how to maintain good hygiene and I tell people what to do to have a good life. I feel good about it".

As for the children, they played football wherever they could find space, and ran through the camps in happy bunches and practised English phrases such as "goodbye, how are you, I am fine" with aid workers.

Oxfam is in Bangladesh, providing food and life-saving clean water to those who have fled Myanmar and the host communities that have opened their doors to them. But we desperately need your support as the deadly monsoon season approaches.

You can send monsoon preparation kits today: https://www.oxfamireland.org/monsoon

Dylan Quinnell was the Media Manager for Oxfam’s Rohingya Crisis Response for three weeks. He is currently the Senior Media Coordinator at Oxfam Australia.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Kutapalong Rohingya refugee camp: preparations for monsoon season