“We just want to go home.”
That is the sentiment of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
For generations the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. In 1982 a nationality law, enforced by the ruling military junta, denied the Rohingya citizenship and many of the freedoms that went along with it. When violence against the Rohingya broke out in 2017, hundreds of thousands of them were forced to flee their homes and cross the border into neighboring Bangladesh.
Now over 1.2 million Rohingya reside in camps in Cox’s Bazar. Though forced to leave their homes because of violence and ethnic cleansing, they don’t have official refugee status, which would grant them specific rights and protections. In Bangladesh the Rohingya are officially designated as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.”
The Rohingya face a multitude of challenges in the camps. There are few livelihood opportunities, and education does not go beyond primary school. Health care is difficult to access, especially for women. Gender-based violence and child marriage are so common they’ve been normalized.
The Rohingya rely on dozens of nongovernmental organizations present in the camps to address humanitarian needs, including Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service (RDRS) Bangladesh, a longtime partner of the ELCA. Since 2019, RDRS has accompanied Rohingya refugees, addressing issues that range from income generation to tree planting. It prioritizes women, youth and people with disabilities.
“I have a dream there may be education for girls and everyone.”
RDRS implements some of its programs with support from community volunteers—including Bibi Jan, who arrived in the camps when she was 11 years old. Now 17, she decided to become a volunteer because a girl her age has little else to do in the camps.
As a volunteer, Bibi Jan trains participants in the various RDRS programs and pays follow-up visits to households. During house visits she advises people on poultry projects, encouraging vaccinations and proper feeding of the flocks. Bibi Jan also talks to people, especially with women and girls, about the importance of regular bathing, hand-washing with soap and other hygiene practices.
“I have gained a bad reputation in my block,” Bibi Jan said. “Some don’t want to talk with me, as I work with men. It still is unacceptable in our society.”
But Bibi Jan’s social standing doesn’t discourage her from doing the work. “I persevere because I learn new things for myself and I can teach others,” she said. Bibi Jan also feels a responsibility to support her community, as well as her family, with her small stipend.
“I have a dream there may be education for girls and everyone,” Bibi Jan said. “I want health for all. I do want us all to go back to Myanmar.”
RDRS also works in disaster response and disaster risk reduction. In 2021 a fire broke out in one of the camps and spread quickly through the Rohingya’s bamboo-and-tarp shelters. With support from Lutheran Disaster Response, RDRS offered immediate aid to people who had lost their homes.
Because the fire had destroyed small shops, gardens and other sources of income for many families, RDRS offered cash-for-work opportunities to those who had lost their livelihoods, helping them earn money while making community improvements. After the fire Rohingya participants cleaned up debris, rebuilt shelters and planted saplings in the affected area.
Similar stories, anxieties
RDRS maintains a strong presence in Rohingya communities because of the relationships it forms with people by listening to their concerns. Each refugee has their own story, but they share the same anxieties. Tilmahamed, who is blind, talked about lack of public accessibility for people with disabilities. Anwar wanted her two daughters to become more educated instead of marrying young. Abdulah, a camp block leader, reported that the camps don’t provide enough opportunities for young people.
The ELCA has a long history of accompanying refugees around the world through Lutheran Disaster Response, ELCA World Hunger and the church’s AMMPARO strategy (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities). Yet the Rohingya are afraid of being forgotten amid the numerous refugee crises. There may be 1.2 million Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, but according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees worldwide includes 8 million Ukrainians, 5.5 million Syrians and 7.3 million Venezuelans.
Like many refugees, the Rohingya want to return to their homes safely and with dignity. Though they faced discrimination in Myanmar, they also owned property and could make a living and send their children to school. But the government of Myanmar doesn’t want them, and they would face repercussions from the military junta if they returned.
“Our body is here, but our mind is there,” Tilmahamed said. “I want to go back.”