BY Daniel Harkins | December 18 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

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The orphaned refugee children being helped by SCIAF

Reporting from Bangladesh, DANIEL HARKINS tells of the plight of the Rohingya refugees who were forced to flee from their home in Myanmar, and looks at the Scottish Catholic charity helping them survive

Noor Kalima is a beautiful, happy little boy. But a shy sadness comes over his face when I ask about his parents. “My mother died from crying for my father,” the seven-year-old said. “I miss her very much. I saw my father killed by a shot. He couldn’t talk when he was dying.”

Noor is one of tens of thousands of Rohingya children with similar stories. A persecuted people denied citizenship in their native Myanmar (Burma), the Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh in huge numbers. According to the International Organisation for Migrants, 646,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since August 25, 2017, joining 212,590 already in Bangladesh refugee camps. The Myanmar military and the government stand accused by the UN of trying to ethnically cleanse the country of the Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim, in a possible act of genocide, killing civilians and burning entire villages.

Through an emergency appeal, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF) raised £160,000 for refugees like Noor, and the charity is appealing for more help. With children making up 60 per cent of the Rohingya refugees, the funds are much-needed.

I spoke to Noor in a small, open-air enclosure in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region. This southern point of Bangladesh seems like a beautiful haven. A small strip of land stretching out into the water serves as a makeshift harbour for Bangladeshis who live nearby. As the sun shimmers on the water, a procession of smartly dressed families alight from boats and walk along the narrow dirt path to the shore, on their way to a wedding.

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But in the distance, across the water, the mountains of Myanmar loom ominously over the harbour and the Bangladeshi soldier who stands guard at its end. This is the arrival point for the Rohingya refugees.

A short drive from the harbour is the processing enclosure for those who have crossed the water seeking shelter. A small patch of dirt is fenced off with bamboo poles, and soldiers stand around aimlessly, guarding mostly women and children inside.

Majida, 50, and her sister Razia, 30, arrived in the processing centre the night before I spoke to them. They crossed by boat at 1.30am with their children—Shahida and Karima, 9 and 6, and Forwaz and Ayub, 4 and 2. The children had last eaten the night before, and the two sisters hadn’t eaten in 24 hours.

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“I was very scared when I saw the military come and burn people alive,” Majida said, explaining her reason for leaving her home. “Our uncle was burned alive.”

“We were about to die,” Razia said. “The army and Buddhist leaders killed children in front of me. I saw some little children who were killed by being burned by fire. We hid in a pond for one day under water.”

The sisters’ journey out of Myanmar was arduous. “We had little life left,” Razia said. “I can’t forget that moment—we didn’t eat for five to 10 days. There was some rice and ­vegetables for the children but we had an empty stomach.”

Majida and Razia will now try to find their relatives in the Kutupalong refugee camp.

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“I am sitting here in the mud but I am feeling very safe—in my country there is no safety, no peace at all. I am hungry but I am safe,” Razia said. “Now everything is in God’s hands. God brings us here, God will save us. We were almost dead but God gave us strength. That’s why we are still alive.”

My interview is interrupted as the children in the enclosure are taken for vaccinations. Amongst them is Noor. The seven-year-old is now being looked after by her adopted carer, Ajida. Her journey to safety took 10 days. Ajida does not know where her husband is—back in Myanmar he went to work one day and never returned.

“I saw the military cutting people,” she said. “I still remember the scene—I can’t forget. We just want peace. We just want to live safely.”

Ajida and Noor will soon be transferred to the Kutupalong refugee camp. The huge sprawling complex houses more than 500,000 people in claustrophobic, dark, tarpaulin-roofed huts. The smoke inside from cooking fires is suffocating and the dwellings feel crowded even with only two people inside. Some can house as many as nine people.

The conditions are harsh, but the people are grateful to be there. And things are improving, in part thanks to the donations from SCIAF.

A world away from the dire circumstances in Bangladesh, Scottish Catholics host parish quiz nights and school children organise cakes sales to raise money for SCIAF’s appeals. It’s easy to ignore stories in local newspapers and Facebook feeds about such fundraising activities, but the money raised is making a huge difference to the lives of the people mentioned above.

When you donate money to SCIAF, you provide blankets for children like Noor, cooking instruments for carers like Ajida.

Caritas Bangladesh—a sister agency of SCIAF—use these funds, £100,000 of which has already been sent from Scotland, to provide much-needed structural work in the camps.

They are working to improve sanitation, to prevent the outbreak of disease, to provide psychological services for mentally scarred children.

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More than 40,000 families have been helped by the charity, with 14,600 set to receive supplies to help them through winter. Alistair Dutton, the director of SCIAF, travelled to Kutupalong to witness the work firsthand.

“It’s still very early days in the camp but the conditions that [the refugees] are living in are dire and very precarious,” he said. “There could be a health catastrophe. If it rains in the conditions as they are now things would deteriorate very quickly. Sewage will be washed around. I would not be surprised if you have cholera epidemic and you already have standing water where mosquitoes can breed.

“In the scale of camps I have seen, that is not a good camp. I’ve seen the best of times and the worst of times and this is among the worst. The terrain is unsuitable. It is very overcrowded. A big risk is fire—it only needs someone to knock a stove over and the whole place will go up, and hundreds of people will be killed quickly.

“But the refugees are safe—they are not being shot or burned. They are infinitely better than they were in Burma.”

Another looming issue is the growing tensions with the local Bangladeshi population. There are now more refugees in the Cox’s Bazar region than locals. “There is no example where this hasn’t happened [with refugee camps],” Mr Dutton said. “It’s a common problem. Honestly, schooling and healthcare in the camps will become better than it is for people in the surrounding countryside. So people will eventually feel like second-class citizens in their own area. People are aware of this and will try to help host communities but you can’t do the job of the government.”

James Gomes of Caritas Bangladesh is aware of the problem, and is currently compiling a report to address the issues and provide services for the host communities. And he is very grateful for the support from Scotland. “We consider [the people of Scotland] as brothers and sisters and we ask for your support through Caritas Scotland,” he said.

In the camp, refugees are already benefiting from SCIAF’s fundraising. Ravia Khatum, 25, lives with her husband and eight-month-old son. They fled Myanmar after seeing people in their village killed and raped. “When we came first to Bangladesh we had no plates, no spoons, no tarpaulin for the roof,” she said. “If it was not for Caritas we would struggle to survive. I pray to God for the people in Scotland who helped us.”

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The people of Kutupalong certainly need it. On a precarious hill in the camp, I met two other beneficiaries of Caritas supplies: 14-year-old Hasina and her 15-year-old sister Monowara. They are orphans. Three months ago, they came home one day to find their mother and father had been shot by the Myanmar military.

The girls are understandably shy. They hide behind their hijabs, and are reluctant to leave their shelter. From the doorway—a small hole in the tent—I ask them about their parents.

“When I go to sleep, or I’m alone, I can feel my mother and father,” Monowara said. “It is very sad to remember. When I feel sad I pray to God for my parents.”

At the other side of the camp, I speak to a young man, a leader of a few families in his section of the camp.

Amal Hossain, 25, guides me to a cramped opening, next to the dirt road. Crouching low, I crawl into the dark tent that now serves as his sister’s home. There’s no room to stand so I sit cross-legged in the dark, struggling to see.

Inside, Noor Asha, 30, tidies up the one-room hut. Holding her crying baby in one hand, she puts a mat on the floor for me to sit on, and briskly tidies up the cramped quarters.

Noor has three small children—five, three and one—and she raises them alone. Three months ago, her husband was shot by the Burmese military. He survived for eight hours, talking, struggling to survive as his children watched their father die.

Leaving behind everything she owned, Noor fled her village, carrying only her husband’s body.

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“I remember he used to bring meat and vegetables for the children,” she said. “Now he is not here and I have to do everything—it is not possible for me. I am not able to give the children good food. I have plenty of rice, but nothing nutritious.”

Noor now suffers from bad dreams.

“One night my husband came to the market and talked to me. Then he was shot and I was trying save him, but when I awoke it was the present and he was gone.

“My children ask about their father now and I always tell them that God took him. Someday they will see him again.”

 

– To help the Rohingya refugees, donate to SCIAF’s emergency appeal at www.sciaf.org.uk or call 0141 354 5555.

 

– See next week’s Christmas double edition of the SCO for an exclusive interview with the Rohingya refugees who prayed with Pope Francis in Bangladesh.

 

– daniel@sconews.co.uk

Photos by Simon Murphy

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