The Rohingya refugee crisis was the focus of the 2018 Act for Peace Christmas Bowl Appeal.
I travelled with Act for Peace CEO Janet Cousens to Jamtoli refugee camp in Bangladesh to document how their partner CAID were providing assistance to the more than 52,000 people who had sought shelter there.
Jamtoli is just one of many camps that now provide shelter for over 700,000 refugees who fled Myanmar following an upsurge in violence in August 2017 by the Myanmar army in the state of Rakhine.
Below are some of the images and an appeal film shot during our time there. It was the 65th anniversary of the Christmas Bowl this year so if you’d like to make a donation please click on Christmas Bowl 2018.
The full portfolio of images can be seen here. (Names have been changed to protect identities.)
Ayesha (23) and her family were one of the first families we met in the camp. Whilst cradling her youngest daughter Hasina (2), Ayesha told us how she had given birth to her son Sami 16 days before the Myanmar army attacked her village. She had to flee at night in the rain with her husband Zubai (26) and her two daughters Shafiqa (5) and Hasina (2), towards the Naf river, hoping to cross into Bangladesh.
With few possessions and no money, they had to pay a boatman with their remaining marital gold to cross the river, but the water levels were so low they had to jump into the river and cross the mud flats. Her children became wet and covered in mud but had no choice but to continue. When they eventually made it to the safety of Bangladesh there wasn’t any food, water or shelter. He son Sami died soon after from being exposed to the wet and cold.
They were eventually directed to Jamtoli where a new spontaneous settlement was growing daily during those first few chaotic weeks of the crisis and were allocated a shelter.
Eight months on and Ayesha now has access to water and food and the family have been provided with cooking and hygiene materials from aid agencies such as Act for Peace but life remains harsh in the cramped and unhealthy conditions of the camp and there is little hope of a safe return anytime soon.
On the two hour daily drive south from the city of Cox’s Bazar you pass the sprawling mega camp of Kutupalong and on first arriving at Jamtoli camp it can seem overwhelming and disorientating to the senses. Looking at the barren, denuded hills crammed with endless shelters constructed of plastic sheeting and bamboo, it’s hard to image that Jamtoli was once a small, thickly forested farming village of local-born ethnic Bangladeshis.
Inside every one of the shelters, a story of loss and tragedy can be found but also of survival and resilience. Mohammed (12) and his sister Noor (10) were at home the night their village was attacked and their family fled to the Naf river. As they hid on the banks, looking for a way to cross, they were fired upon. They saw their mother and father shot dead and then their youngest brother was also killed. They now live with their uncle and his extended family.
With very few psycho social services available in the camp, they go to a Women and Child Friendly Space each day to try and regain some sense of normality in their lives and be children again.
The centres provide a safe place to go and participate in activities such as drawing, telling stories, ABC’s and indoor games and is run by Act for Peace partner Gana Unnayan Kendra (GUK). Most of the teachers are volunteers from the local community. Noor said she liked to draw pictures of flowers and birds. At the time there was no formal education system set up in the camps and Mohammed said he was afraid of missing out on his education but enjoyed going to the centre anyway and wanted to become teacher.
The need for basics such as food, water and medical care remain critical. Malnutrition is a major concern and close to emergency levels in the camps.
Whilst interviewing Dr Hassan, one of the volunteer doctors from Dhaka working for Act for Peace partner DAM, Farida arrived at the clinic with her sons Min (7) and Yasin (11). They were diagnosed with a skin disorder related to malnutrition.
Farida told us her husband, who had been imprisoned and tortured, fled Burma after the army burnt down their home and three of their children died in the fire. It took them fifteen days to reach Jamtoli and they now live with their seven remaining children in the camp.
They were prescribed treatment for the skin disorder and referred to a specialist malnutrition clinic.
Having fled without any possessions, at least 80% of the new arrivals are entirely dependent on humanitarian aid for survival so distributions of food and non food items are carried out almost every day.
Over 58% of the refugees are women and children so the risk of gender based violence is high. One of the greatest risks to women and children are when they have to walk miles looking for firewood for cooking. Community Kitchens have been set up around the camp offering safe, clean, gas provided cooking spaces, but they also function as a place for women to meet and share their stories which helps with their psychosocial well-being.
Jamila (40) uses a kitchen next to her shelter where she lives with her husband, five sons and two daughters. Jamila suffers from depression after her eldest son, brother and nephew were shot by the Burmese Army. She says when she is in the Community Kitchen with her friends her depression is lifted but when she is alone it returns.
The kitchens also reduce environmental degradation caused by deforestation and without them, families have to cook in their tents creating smoke and fire hazards.
In the hot and humid conditions, access to fresh clean drinking water becomes a priority. Whilst there are water pumps installed in the camp, some families still face challengers in accessing them.
Sufaira (13) and her friend Razia (10) have to make the difficult, tiring and dangerous journey down and up a steep hill between three and ten times a day to collect water. Their families arrived later at the camp and the only space they could find to build a shelter was on the wind swept brow of a hill.
Sufaira (13) said, ‘It’s a very painful journey and we have fallen many times. My mother broken her arm collecting water. “ They are hoping a water pump can be installed nearer to their home.
The flow of refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh has slowed but violence and persecution in Rakhine state continues. In November 2018 there was an attempt to start repatriation of refugees back to Myanmar but few, if anyone, volunteered and the plans were halted.
The need to provide the basics for survival in the camps is essential. Below is a short appeal video that we shot and donations can be made here.