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COVID-19: Why we need your support now more than ever

We just launched an appeal to support Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar survive monsoon season – the day after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in that region of Bangladesh.

As appeal letters dropped through the letterboxes of our loyal supporters, some 900,000 people living in the biggest refugee settlement in the world began to panic about how they could practice social distancing and life-saving hygiene practises in a makeshift home without adequate sanitation and health infrastructure.

This is the news we dreaded – and it’s why we made the decision to still launch our appeal at a time of unprecedented challenge at home and abroad as COVID-19 threatens us all. For people living in cramped, flimsy shelters in over-crowded camps, the impact of an outbreak doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s our job to let our supporters know how they can help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, those facing poverty and disaster beyond our imagination.

We usually tell these stories and how you can be part of them face-to-face, through our fundraising activities and our network of shops in communities across the country. To protect us all, we can’t do that right now and we’re are urgently appealing for your help. 

We need your generous support now more than ever.

In addition to helping Rohingya refugees prepare for monsoon season, we’ll be helping them and communities all over the world to stay safe and healthy as COVID-19 threatens the poorest and most vulnerable.

Please donate what you can today:

Bangladesh: A treacherous journey for Rohingya people

From clean water and sanitation to advocacy, Oxfam is assisting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who fled the brutal attacks of 2017.

It's has been almost three years since over 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar became refugees. Targeted by the military with mass violence that the United Nations describes as ethnic cleansing, they left behind everything they owned. They carried with them a heavy burden: the memories of atrocities carried out against their loved ones, and of the harsh abuse that they themselves endured. The emotional wounds are still fresh; ask a refugee a question about the present day, and you will likely hear a haunting personal story of what happened in August 2017.

Khalida lives in a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Like hundreds of thousands of others, she was driven from her country by Myanmar's military. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

"We saw with our own eyes people tied up and thrown into police trucks," says a woman who lives in a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar. "Blood flowed from the trucks like water."

"They killed my brothers and raped my sisters and mother and killed them," says Abu Musa, another refugee. "We get up every morning and wonder how we can go on."

Yet, somehow the life of the community does go on. The camps bustle with activity, with roadside market vendors selling everything from vegetables to pots and pans to brightly coloured clothing. Trucks arrive with goods and make their way slowly along brick roads, crafted by hand to survive the monsoon rains. Children surround new visitors, eager to interact and play. Someone tells a joke, and someone laughs.

Protecting lives, rights and dignity

When refugees began their exodus in 2017, protecting lives was Oxfam's priority. The camps that formed to accommodate the refugees quickly became overcrowded, creating perfect conditions for the outreak and spread of deadly diseases. With your support, we helped prevent a public health emergency by constructing latrines, providing access to clean water and distributing hygiene materials, such as soap and sanitary pads. Over time, we constructed the largest sewage treatment plant in a refugee camp anywhere in the world.

"Before learning about hygiene from Oxfam, I didn't know how to use soap properly," says a young woman named Saitara. "I didn't know about washing hands before eating and cooking. Now, I'm cooking food safely."

"After Oxfam's work," says a mother of three named Hamida, "our children didn't get diarrhea so often.

Safety - particularly for vulnerable groups like women and girls - was also a key priority, so Oxfam installed solar-powered lights around the camp and provided families with solar torches and lanterns to help residents move around safely at night.

"We use the solar torches to get to the latrine at night or to find a lost child," says Saitara, "or to help people who are elderly or disabled."

To ensure people had access to food, clothing and other essentials, we distributed vouchers that families could use in local markets.

Thanks to your support, we're also helping to create safe spaces for women to gather and make their voices heard, and through women's groups and musical performances, we're working with local organisations and communities to raise awareness about wider issues, such as early marriage, gender-based violence and harmful traditional gender roles.

The influx of refugees has been hard on the host communities. Among other things, already-low wages have dropped, while the cost of living has risen. To help address local poverty and ease tensions between hosts and refugees, Oxfam has employed more than 1,800 Bangladeshis in construction projects, such as building roads, schools and water points.

Saitara signs her name. She had never touched a pen before Oxfam showed her how to sign her name. "I used to feel small, but after learning to sign my name, I felt bigger," she says. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

We also worked with partners to improve livelihoods of particularly vulnerable families in the host communities. For example, when pirates attacked the vessel of fisherman Nurul Hoque, they blinded him, and he was reduced to begging on the street. Oxfam partner Mukti stepped in, providing funds and business training that enabled his familiy to start up a roadside food stall.

"Now, we eat three times a day," says his wife, Mumtaz Begum, "and we have bought four goats."

In all, Oxfam and our partners have reached more than 360,000 people with aid.

Refugees experience fear and longing

But nothing we do will make the camps feel like home, and despite the violent past, the refugees' longing for their homeland is palpable.

They're deeply grateful to the government and host communities of Bangladesh for providing them with shelter and safety, but they don't want to live out their lives as refugees.

"We used to be farmers. We grew rice and chilies, and our sons fished. My husband had a snack stall," says Hamida. "We want that life back." Many others say the same, but always with a caveat.

"We can't leave until we have a promise. We need security and citizenship in our country," says Faruk, who has a young daughter. "Our people have been killed before, and we don't want to face that again."

Oxfam is committed to doing more than simply provide aid in the camps. With advocacy staff positioned in capital cities around the world, we're urging governments to put pressure on Myanmar to provide the Rohingya people with the rights and citizenship they've been denied for decades, and with a chance to return to their home country when the refugees themselves deem it safe.

In the meantime, the Rohingya people are doing their best to recover, and to hang onto their hopes and dreams.

"We're asking for our country back," says a woman named Azara. "And for a chance to lie there in peace."

Your help is urgently needed this monsoon season. Please send essential preparation kits to refugees like Azara, Saitara and Khalida today.

Fashion Relief: Lorraine Keane shines a light on the Rohingya crisis

A few weeks ago, the amazing community in Galway descended to The Galmont Hotel for Fashion Relief 2020Some were there for the day out, others to bag a bargain. Yet whatever their reason for attending, everyone was doing their bit for vulnerable people experiencing climate change, conflict and hunger.

More than 700,000 people fled Myanmar when violence broke out in 2017, pushing the number of refugees in Bangladesh to almost 1 million. They arrived in the country suffering from both physical and psychological injuries, traumatised by the atrocities they had witnessed as they fled.

Views of the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Lorraine Keane travelled to Bangladesh to see how the funds raised are helping those who need it most. Among those she met was Rohingya refugee and mother-of-four Naila, whose husband was shot as they fled their home in Myanmar.

Naila, who was pregnant with her fifth child at the time, also witnessed her 14-year-old son being killed before the family escaped across the border. Like countless others, Naila and her children ended up in Cox’s Bazar – the world’s largest refugee camp.

Naila at her shelter in Cox's Bazar. Photo: Jeannie O'Brien

Diseases spread quickly through the flimsy shelters in the overcrowded camps of Cox’s Bazar, where the population density is four times the UN’s recommended levels. Respiratory infections, diarrhoea and malaria are rife, with children particularly vulnerable.

Lorraine Keane at Kutupalong Camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Jeannie O'Brien

Meanwhile, more than a third of women say they don't feel safe going to collect water or using toilets and showers. As a result, they go to the toilet less or end up going to the toilet inside their tents, putting themselves at risk of disease.

Worryingly, there are also reports of women and girls being forced into sex to earn money to survive, and adolescent girls marrying due to their parents’ inability to feed them.

What Oxfam is doing to help the Rohingya people

We’re providing vital aid including clean water and food to Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. So far, we’ve helped 360,000 people in Bangladesh, while we’re also supporting 100,000 Rohingya in Myanmar with clean water and sanitation services.

In addition, we’re helping people stay healthy by installing water points, toilets and showers, and distributing soap and other essentials. We’ve recruited more than 600 Rohingya volunteers to help us reach other refugees with hygiene information, we’ve built the biggest-ever sewage plant in a refugee camp on site and our solar-powered water network provides safe water more effectively.

Meanwhile, we’ve provided 25,000 refugee households with vouchers that can be exchanged at local markets for fresh vegetables and ingredients. We’ve hired over 1,800 Bangladeshi locals to work on local construction projects including road repairs, schools and water sources and provided almost 400 local people with grants to start or expand their small businesses.

To help women feel safer after dark, we’ve installed more than 350 solar-powered streetlights around the camp and provided 20,000 torches and portable solar lanterns. We’ve also worked with women refugees to design more secure toilets and supplied them with fabric and vouchers so they can make or order clothes they feel more comfortable wearing in public.

Fashion Relief at Cox's Bazar | Oxfam Ireland

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

It’s five years since war broke out in Yemen. I will never forget the terror in the eyes of my children.

Written by Manal, a humanitarian worker with Oxfam in Yemen.

When war first escalated in 2015, I was living happily with my family in Taiz city. It saddens me how the city I loved, the city that holds all my memories since I was a child turned into a ghost town full of death and fear overnight.

It all started with a blue spark that lit up the sky and invaded our houses and the rooms in which we silently hid. Then we heard the crack. That was the first missile to hit a building near us. After that, bombs fell everywhere; we thought we’d be next. We tried not to panic but panic was all we could feel.

Ruined houses destroyed by aerial bombardment in the city of Aden. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

The next day myself and my children went to say goodbye to a friend who was taking a trip abroad. We could hear tanks in the streets nearby and the roads were blocked. We got trapped in her house, separated from our families who kept calling to check if we were okay. I will never forget the terror in the eyes of my children.

We were trapped inside the house for three days. I remember the heavy sounds of gun fire and tanks screeching just a few kilometres away. There was no one else with us so we managed to survive with the limited food we had.

“I still remember the fear, oppression and humiliation that day brought. I cried so hard, I cried and cried, all the way back. I was terrified.”

This day was sadly just a sign of what was to come – the feelings of fear, paralysis and vulnerability. Five years later, that feeling of being trapped is one that I and other Yemeni women constantly feel. But what I and others strive to do is fight that feeling and do all that we can to lead, to help others, and to feel hope that this conflict will end, and our lives can return to normal.

At one stage, everything calmed down and people started to feel safe. That was until six missiles hit a nearby mosque destroying it completely. Most of the injured were women and children. While a close relative of mine was helping to rescue the injured, another airstrike took his life. We didn’t even have time to mourn him properly.

We were just one family out of millions forced from our homes and all that home means – family, memories, security, history, love. As Yemenis, we have been forced to live in schools, tents, mosques or with other friends and relatives. The risk of experiencing violence, instability and illness has increased. We are all farther from our support networks and are forced to walk long distances for things like water, food or other resources. A life of displacement feels tenuous.

On the road to seek refuge, I would often close my eyes, allowing my memories to start play in my mind. I would be back with my family, as we gathered on Fridays at my grandfather’s house to eat lunch and then sing and dance with our neighbours until midnight.

I would remember how peaceful life was and how my friends and I had dreamed of the future. We loved adventure. We sometimes camped in nearby villages and mountains, enjoying nature together while sharing our hopes and memories.

All of that seems like a dream now. We still hope to go back home one day, where we belong and where our memories reside. It’s ironic how a single terrible memory of a blue glowing light can bring an end to warm memories.

Manal prepares cash transfers with her Oxfam colleagues. Photo: Oxfam

I now live with my mother, sister and two brothers. My father passed away over 15 years ago. I am the oldest and the only provider for my family. I love them and I try to take care of their needs the best I can. They are my only support in this world and to them I am the same.

As an Oxfam worker, it brings joy to my heart when I see how the aid that we provide helps people smile and brings them hope at a time of displacement and vulnerability.

I have seen a lot during these five years of war, particularly how hard it is for women to survive these circumstances. Many women have become the sole caregivers and breadwinners – a huge burden to bear.

Job opportunities are scarcer and prices have soared, while suffocating social restrictions on women remain. When you are a woman in a country like Yemen, war becomes more difficult with each passing day. The struggle to survive gets harder, especially for the many women who have been forced to depend on men all their lives without proper education or skills to fall back on.

I am sharing my story as one of countless women who deserve more than just recognition.  Women across Yemen are rising every day, doing all they can in difficult conditions to protect their families and their communities. With an education and a good job that fills me with pride, I am one of the lucky ones. Worst-case scenarios for women and girls in Yemen after five years of war includes surviving sexual violence, malnutrition, abuse, early marriage and sometimes death.

Women who fled the Tahiz region of Yemen are now living in a makeshift camp in the countryside. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

The women of Yemen had no hand in this war. All decisions were and are still taken by men. Violence is being perpetrated by men. Women have the strength to act together – to step out of the crowded rooms where we feel vulnerable and paralysed, to lead our families, communities and country. For the days ahead, I call on women to have an equal voice in ending this war and paving the way for a peaceful future for Yemen.

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2015, Oxfam teams have reached more than 3 million people with much-needed sanitation services, clean water, cash assistance and food vouchers. Even as COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, our staff continues to deliver aid, comfort and hope to the people of Yemen. But we need all the help we can get.

Please give what you can today.

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