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A day in the Ukhiya camp, home of 625,000 Rohingya refugees

Supporting the Displaced Populations/Refugees
Bangladesh

We arrived at Cox's Bazar, a fishing port located along a 120-km stretch of beaches in southeast Bangladesh that draw the richest Bangladeshis. Paradoxically, this small seaside town is also a hub for expats working in nearby refugee camps. After 20 hours on planes flight, 10 hours of layovers, 4 airports, and a ride in a tum-tum (the Bangladeshi version of a tuk-tuk) I'm relieved to have finally arrived at my hotel and get a bit of rest. Tomorrow will be my first day in a refugee camp. The Ukhiya region is now crowded with 625,000 people, all waiting for a better future.

Ukhiya refugee camp

Ukhiya refugee camp | © Abir Abdullah/HI

The Ukhiya camp is about 30 kilometers from Cox's Bazar. It was small at first, but has expanded dramatically since the massive influx of Rohingya refugees in 2016. Jungle has given way to a bleak landscape where makeshift shelters and narrow paths dug into the reddish soil stretch for miles. The scenery is striking, but even more powerful is the sweltering heat. Colleagues in Bangladesh planned sessions for us to meet several beneficiaries, leaving us precious little time to acclimate as we went to one meeting after another.

First, we met Ali, an elderly man who had experienced a stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. Ali explained to us how difficult it is to live in a camp like Ukhiya. Nothing there is designed to meet the needs of elderly people, and life is even harder for people living with disabilities. We then visited Sokina, a young woman, just 22, and permanently bedridden due to cerebral palsy. Sokina cannot speak, but with her eyes fixed on me, I get a sense of her suffering. With each harrowing story, I struggle to end our conversations. We also feel the appreciation of the people we met, who recognized the commitment of HI staff to supporting them. I see now how vital humanitarian aid is to these people.

Sokina spends hers days at home © Abir Abdullah/HI

We're back at the main HI, site, which houses a rehabilitation clinic. Here, Hamas and his father are waiting to see us. Just six years old, Hamas also has cerebral palsy. The physical therapist begins some exercises with Hamas while his father, Saidunamin, watches closely. At home, Saidunamin is Hamas's primary caretaker. Four of Saidunamin's six children have some form of disability. This is a significant burden for the family in a refugee camp like Ukhiya, with its dirt roads and near complete lack of proper facilities. With tears in his eyes, Saidunhamin tells us how much he relies completely upon help from non-governmental organizations. The physical therapist tries to comfort him while I look on, unable to help.

 

Hamas follows a physiotherapy session © Abir Abdullah/HI

Once the session ends, Saidunamin stands up, takes his boy in his arms and gets ready to leave. After thanking the physical therapist, saying "shukria" in Rohingya, Saidunamin leaves the clinic and heads along one of the dirt tracks toward home. I then go back to the small Toyota truck, which takes us back to the hotel. At home, newspapers sometimes mention the Rohingyas' struggle, and our government emphasizes the urgency of this crisis. Nothing, however, could have prepared us for what we witnessed firsthand. It's hard to remain indifferent to the fate of these men, women and children. They are thousands of miles away from us, but their humanity shows us how alike we are.

Gabriel with HI team members in Bangladesh © Abir Abdullah/HI

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