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Beshi Beshi Gorom and Solidarity in Cox’s Bazar

by Eri Tayama
June 27, 2019

Eri Tayama is a humanitarian aid worker currently based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. She has previously worked for those affected by natural disasters and armed conflicts in Nepal, Ukraine,
Lebanon, Syria, and South Sudan.

Under the scorching sun, tarpaulin and bamboo shelters stretch as far as the eye can see. Compounded with the heat, the garbage that is littered all over, and the excreta from open defecation give off a distinctive smell. The children are frolicking around everywhere. The phrase “beshi beshi gorom,” or “very, very hot” is my favorite phrase that serves as the icebreaker to communicate with the people here who give a shy smile back.

Since May, I have been working in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh for the third time, to assist the Rohingya refugees. After violence between the Myanmar state and Rohingya broke out on August 25, 2017, an estimated 745,000 people 2019 Joint Response Plan for Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis January - December have fled from Rakhine State, Myanmar to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, making it “by far the largest and fastest refugee influx” ever recorded in the country’s history. However, this was not the Rohingya’s first massive, forced displacement.

The UN claims that the Rohingya people have faced decades of statelessness and violence which has repeatedly forced the group to seek refuge in neighboring countries, including Bangladesh.

Cox’s Bazar’s topography, or the shapes of the land, have played an important role in the humanitarian response here. In order to accommodate Rohingya arrivals of the past two years, the once-green hills of Cox’s Bazar, where elephants and other wild animals resided, were stripped bare to build makeshift shelters that were desperately needed. In the early months, people were constantly on the move – for example, seeking to reunite with family members lost along the way – making it extremely hard for humanitarian aid workers to grasp and address the needs of the people they are mandated to serve. Another major difficulty has been the insufficient number of quality roads, inhibiting vehicle access within the spontaneous camp sites – vehicle access being crucial for humanitarian aid organizations to provide adequate services where needed. The number of paved roads is increasing all the time, and this progress drastically improves access in many parts of the Rohingya settlements, although there remain many areas where access to hundreds of displaced Rohingya is still a challenge. Given these difficulties (as well as many other constraints), the lives of the affected population continue to be dire. In some camps, the density remains as high as 10m2 of land per person. Ibid.

Providing neither ventilation, privacy nor security, the shelters are made of tarpaulin and poor-quality bamboos that have been deteriorating due to beetle infestation in recent months.

The number of gender-sensitive and culturally appropriate latrines and bathing facilities is still insufficient by all standards of humanitarian practice. The unplanned nature of settlements poses continued risks of spread of communicable disease, such as acute watery diarrhea.

Limited space and the need to prioritize life-saving assistance have also hindered from allocating enough spaces for learning facilities for children and youth. Furthermore, several factors including, the lack of opportunity for own food production, movement constraints placed by the government, and limited financial access to food and cooking fuel, are contributing to the displaced population’s dependency on food aid.

The local Bangladeshi host community has also been impacted. Many Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar have lost both access to the government forest land where they previously farmed and work opportunities due to cheaper refugee labor. These contextual circumstances are conducive to tension and violence both within and between the displaced and host communities. In light of all of these challenges – and recognizing that the 1.2 million Rohingya and the Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar deserve better services and support, the UN is calling for $920.5 million in relief funding from member states and private donors in 2019. Ibid.

This is not to say that the camps in Cox’s Bazar are filled with hopelessness. When I first came in 2017, I was often touched by the generosity and kindness that I received, from the people I was meant to serve. It was often small gestures - when my Rohingya team members saw me sweat like crazy, they laughed and fanned me with cardboards or whatever they had handy, knowing I wasn’t used to the thankless heat and humidity. I was often invited to their home for tea or lunch after a busy morning, when these staples were rationed out to households at really minimal levels. Then was this one guy that I worked very closely with, and at the end of my mission, he gave me a bag of things like soaps, shampoo, toothpaste, a towel, and toothbrush, items I believe were some of the most expensive things you could get in these camps. Looking back, I think he chose these items because personal hygiene is such a challenge in Cox’s Bazar. I know it meant a lot for him to give such a gift to me, and it really meant the world to me to receive it.

Working in Bangladesh I am constantly moved by the Rohingya’s resilience and strength in the face of such hardship. Would I be so friendly, so kind, if it were me in their shoes? Since I returned this year, some of my colleagues have told me that the crisis has been fostering changes in the displaced population’s views and values. For example, traditionally, women stayed at home while husbands or male family members worked and socialized in the community. Due to the limited livelihood opportunities in Bangladesh, the displaced population is gradually becoming more open to women working outside home to support the family. The women themselves are also said to be inspired by the many female humanitarian aid workers working along men.

Taking in all of the Cox’s Bazar as I’ve described it, the massive needs of the people who live here and the continued risks to their health and well-being, sometimes makes me feel helpless and I cannot help but ask myself what one person can even do. Through working with Bangladeshi and Rohingya colleagues, I am learning what solidarity means in such an extreme situation. It’s not just the relief items, water or medical care that matter to the affected population, but it is the personal engagement and committed relationships that makes the difference.

Everywhere I have been as a humanitarian aid worker, this has been an essential but under- appreciated aspect of the response wherever we are, solidarity is the most important way to support the world’s over 70 million displaced population’s hopes of returning to safe and sustainable livelihood, something we can all agree is a shared aspiration for humanity.