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November 09, 2017

From the field: Emergency Response Coordinator in Bangladesh

Joung-ah talks to a baby at a Rohingya refugee camp

The UN Refugee Agency’s PSP Emergency Response Coordinator Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams on assignment in Bangladesh, where an estimated 607,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Myanmar. This is her personal account of a day in the Kutupalong refugee camp and extension site in Cox’s Bazar. Learn more about the Rohingya refugee crisis and make an emergency donation.

Imagine the terror of trying to survive, trying to feed your children and maintain some sense of comfort when you’re losing your loved ones, or watching your home being burned to the ground. These are some of the people I’ve met here in Bangladesh. 

Many are women, trying the best they can to be mothers to their scared and distressed children, though they themselves are struggling to make sense of the last few months. One mother lost her daughter the day before. She was trying to be strong for her other children, but they were all clearly shaken. They had lived a long time in fear, never knowing when they might be the next victims of the violence that had taken so many of their relatives and neighbors. 

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

I’ve met many others at the UNHCR Transit Centre, where the most vulnerable new arrivals can stay for up to three days before being relocated. These are the families needing special assistance before they can continue: the elderly, those with disabilities, pregnant women, new mothers and malnourished or sick children. There are several families who survived a horrible boat capsize. Of the 42 people on board, four were killed. Twenty-two others were injured badly enough to require hospital treatment.

Rohingya refugees make their way to a camp

I also see tenacious, dedicated UNHCR colleagues who make me proud of the organization that I still believe in after 20 years of service. UNHCR teams are out in the field, at the borders, in the camps and transit centres, early in the morning until well into the night.

I know colleagues who left this morning at 4:30 to get to the border areas. Last night, I was on the phone getting information until almost midnight.

We’re trying our hardest to reach everyone who needs our assistance, even the farthest outreaches of the camps and settlements where vehicles cannot go. Today I’ve walked over seven kilometers and climbed the equivalent of 16 flights of stairs. One colleague told me about a day he clocked over 18 kilometers. He was tasked with identifying vulnerable families and ensuring that everyone with specific needs was accessing critical services. He interviewed almost a hundred families that day and had the sore feet and proud smile to show for his efforts.

Colleagues from many different countries and backgrounds – former bankers, teachers, engineers from numerous religions and countries – are all working together tirelessly to plan new settlements for newly arrived families. No matter the weather, whether it’s heavy rain or a brutal sun, they’re doing everything from laying down roads in the transit centre to managing a counselling session for a dozen Rohingya women. These women survived sexual violence and are strong enough to share their terrifying stories.

Tents set up in a Rohingya refugee camp

I’ve met so many brave Rohingya families who have little more than the clothes on their back and the weight of their trauma and loss. And the painful memories of the violence that forced them to flee their homes.

Yet as the sun sets over the latest development of the Kutupalong extension site, I’m surrounded by the sounds of hammering, sawing, animated chatter and laughter as families build new homes with bamboo, cord and plastic sheeting that we’ve given them. 

I see children flying kites they’d fashioned from plastic bags and bits of twig, finding joy when their toys finally soar high above them. I smell the aroma of dinners being cooked for families to share together, using the kitchen sets UNHCR provides. I know it can be hard to explain how important such simple utensils are in an emergency, but without them, how would people cook? How would people start to rebuild their lives?

I will make this clear: 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.

The smiles I see on the children’s faces show this simple truth: every effort, every donation counts.

Smiling children in a Rohingya refugee camp