Enterprising refugees who fled violence in Myanmar have set up shop again, offering everything from haircuts to live chickens. By Tim Gaynor from Kutupalong refugee settlement.

With a snap of his towel, refugee barber Najimuddin ushers his next client into the chair at this sprawling settlement in Bangladesh and reaches for his scissors.

Smartly dressed student Firoz has studied pictures of soccer players and film stars in magazines and describes the style he wants: short on the sides but left longer at the back. Najimuddin nods, sprays water on his client’s hair, and starts cutting.

Before fleeing from his home, Najimuddin, 21, ran a madrasa, or religious school, in Myanmar. Seeing his students in exile in need of a trim, he started to cut hair in this huge pop-up city, which is now the world’s largest refugee settlement.

“A crowd of people gathered round and people started asking for haircuts,” he says. “I saw the demand and so I set up shop.”

He has since bought a barber’s chair, a washbowl and a mirror, which is propped up on a bamboo counter spread with hairbrushes, talc and baby lotion, as well as a facial scrub for men.

He cuts 20 to 25 heads of hair a day, charging 40 Bangladesh taka (US$0.48) a time. “It gives me mental peace and an income,” he says. “I’m very happy to serve them as we are all from the same area.”

Dressed in a stylish charcoal grey high-collared jacket, 23-year-old Firoz says that looking sharp takes on a particular importance when you have lost your home and live in a refugee camp.

Refugee barber Najimuddin, 21, trims a customer's hair at his barber shop in Kutupalong refugee settlement© UNHCR/Roger Arnold

Nineteen-year-old Ansarullah and his wife Formina, 18, have set up a small grocery store to support themselves and their two-year-old daughter, Jisma.  © UNHCR/Roger Arnold

“Looking good creates a good impression and wins people over,” he says. “It gives me confidence and dignity. It makes me feel good in this camp context. It helps me reduce stress and get over my losses.”

Since late August, approximately 671,000 refugees have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State and crossed into southeast Bangladesh, with reports of arson attacks, murder and rape.

Six months on, many are using their initiative and determination to start businesses in the dusty plot around Kutupalong, much of which was until recently scrub and forest.

Some, like Najimuddin, have set up barbers’ shops, others have opened kiosks repairing cell phones, grinding chillies or mending clothes. The greatest number run grocery stores, like 19-year-old Ansarullah and his wife Formina, 18.

The couple set up shop under a UNHCR tarpaulin, selling items including sugar, eggs, garlic, tomatoes, cookies, candy and fruit juice.

”People get their basic food rations of rice and lentils given to them, and they want a bit of variety, so that’s what I give them.” Ansarullah, grocery store owner.

After a gruelling 18-day trek from Myanmar, the couple sold Formina’s gold earrings for startup funds. They carried out some research to find out what would sell well and settled on “Mister Coconut” cookies, a favourite with children in the settlement.

“We started with the cookies and were back in business 10 days after we arrived,” says Ansarullah as Formina cares for their 10-month-old daughter.

Six months later, Ansarullah walked to a nearby town to buy a bigger range of stock, including practical items such as pens, lighters, string, thread and superglue.

“They are pleased to have the business,” he says of the Bangladeshi wholesalers. He added a small awning and two bamboo benches to encourage customers to stay a while.

“It gives me satisfaction that I don’t have to borrow money from anyone and can look after my family.”

A walk along dusty ridge paths and up and down steep steps reveals other businesses that have sprung up, among them firewood sellers, tearooms and diners, fishmongers – selling fresh and dried fish – and even poultry sellers, like displaced chicken farmer Mohammad Petan.

To supplement their diet, some refugees in the Kutupalong camp community, like Umme Habiba, have opened small farms to grow vegetables. ©UNHCR/Roger Arnold

Shop owner Mohammad Petan, 25, and his assistant Mohammad Sadeq, 20, sell chickens to fellow refugees in Kutupalong refugee settlement.  © UNHCR/Roger Arnold

The 25-year-old fled the town of Rathedaung in Rakhine State five months ago and has set up shop on a busy footpath beside a bamboo bridge, where he sells live hens that he raises in a bamboo pen. He sells them for 120 taka (US$1.44) a kilo, weighing them in a plastic crate on a set of scales.

He raises up to 140 chickens at a time and does a brisk trade, bringing in enough income to support his mother, wife and three children, he says.

“Most important, I have my dignity.”

“Most important, I have my dignity. It has given me a small income, and I am grateful that I have an occupation, unlike so many young men here.”

The shop also gives him the chance to help a friend, 20-year-old Mohammad Sadeq, who cares for his mother and sister since his father was murdered in Myanmar. Frequently left in charge of the store, the younger man says it is helping him see a way forward.

“It shows me that one day I could run my own shop,” he says. “You can’t carry on relying on aid for you whole life. You have to try and make your own way for the security of future generations. This future starts here.”

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