Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams is an Emergency Response Coordinator with UNHCR. She was recently in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, responding to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Writing to colleagues, Joung-ah shares her impressions after visiting some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees seeking safety in Bangladesh.

Dear colleagues,

I wanted to send a quick email about my thoughts and observations from our first full day visiting Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. I write as we speed through the roads leaving the city centre of Cox’s Bazar on the way to Anjuman Para, where several thousand Rohingya refugees have arrived overnight with others reportedly close behind them.

Yesterday we walked over seven kilometres and climbed the equivalent of 16 flights of stairs up and down the hills around Kutupalong refugee camp. We started the day in the UNHCR transit centre, where the most vulnerable new arrivals can stay – some for a few hours, others up to three days – to rest and recuperate before being relocated to their settlement sites.

 

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams is Emergency Response Coordinator for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

These are the families needing special assistance before they can continue: the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women, new mothers, malnourished or sick children. We met several families who had survived a boat capsizing the day before. Their trauma was incredibly raw, their pain palpable. Of the 42 people on the boat, 22 required hospital treatment for their injuries and four others lost their lives – including two children.

Several women told me about witnessing young girls abducted, and fathers, sons and brothers arrested and never seen again.

I met many women trying the best they could to provide for their scared and clearly traumatised children, when they themselves were struggling to make sense of the last few months. I had to fight back tears as I held hands with one mother who had lost her daughter the day before. She was trying to be strong for her other children who survived, but were clearly shaken, their eyes haunted with faraway looks.

I could not bear to see this young mother and her stunningly beautiful children so distraught, bearing the additional grief of losing their beloved sister and daughter after what they described as years of persecution and violence. The children had been unable to attend school, the parents unable to work or move freely. They had lived for too long in fear – well before the violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state escalated on August 25 – constantly on edge, never knowing when they might be the next victims of the violence that had taken so many of their relatives and neighbours already.

I cannot imagine the terror of trying to survive, trying to feed your children and maintain some sense of security and comfort for your family when you are perpetually terrified of losing your loved ones, having your daughters and sons snatched from you, or watching your homes being burned.

It seemed particularly unfair that after surviving the plight of months and years of violence and persecution they had to survive a shipwreck just as they reached the shores of safety in Bangladesh.

UNHCR staff counsel separated children among the new arrivals in Nayapara camp. © UNHCR/Vivian Tan

I also met dedicated UNHCR colleagues who made me proud of the organisation that I still believe in after 20 years of working there. We may not be meeting every single need yet – the needs are simply overwhelming and the rate at which this refugee crisis is growing makes keeping up with arrivals and challenges nearly insurmountable at the moment – but our UNHCR teams are out in the field, in the camps and transit centres early in the morning and working way into the night.

I also met dedicated UNHCR colleagues who made me proud of the organisation that I still believe in after 20 years of working there. 

Although it is nothing compared with the treks the Rohingya families have had to make to reach safety here, UNHCR colleagues are walking, climbing, crossing many kilometres daily to reach the farthest outreaches of the camps and settlements where vehicles cannot go. One colleague told me about one day when he clocked more than 18 kilometres in a single day. He was tasked with identifying vulnerable families and ensuring that everyone with specific and special needs was accessing assistance. He interviewed almost 100 families that day.

I saw colleagues from many different countries and backgrounds – former bankers, teachers, engineers from all continents and religions – all working together tirelessly in the rain and, later in the day, in the brutal sun. They were planning new settlements to shelter newly arrived families, laying down roads in the transit centre, managing trauma counselling sessions for a dozen Rohingya women with terrifying stories of sexual and gender-based violence – women who are survivors and finally safe.

These Rohingya refugee families brought little more than the clothes on their back and the weight of the trauma, fear and loss that they had endured and memories of the violence that finally forced them to flee their homes. And yet, as the sun set over the Kutupalong extension site, I was surrounded by the sounds of hammering, sawing, chatter and laughter as families built their shelters with the bamboo, cord and plastic sheeting that we had provided.

There is so much work to be done, the needs are so great, but that simply means there is so much we can do.

I saw children flying kites they’d fashioned from used plastic bags and bits of twig, finding such joy when they finally soared high above them. I smelled the aroma of dinners being cooked for families to share together. And then the sun blushed crimson and pink above a sea of UNHCR-logoed tents and shelters as far as I could see. It felt hopeful and so did I.

There is so much work to be done, the needs are so great, but that simply means there is so much we can do, that there are so many people who can be helped. So I thank you for all your valiant and impressive efforts to raise both awareness and support for these Rohingya families and urge you to double these efforts.

The smiles on the children’s faces show this simple truth: every effort we make and every donation our donors make count. I hope the faces and vistas from these photos inspire you as much as they did
me.

Warmest regards,
Joung-ah

More than 603,000 Rohingya refugees have been forced to flee to Bangladesh since August 2017. Please give a gift to help families in need.
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Rohingya are travelling by boat or walking barefoot for days, wading through vast rice fields to reach safety. © UNHCR/Adam Dean

Rohingya refugees struggle to negotiate rising river water after heavy rain, carrying whatever they could with them. © UNHCR/Paula Bronstein

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