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Among the Rohingya

Rohingya Family

A Rohingya family poses for the camera at the entrance of their makeshift home. This family fled Myanmar on foot and traveled for three days before finding assistance at NGO transit centers at the Bangladeshi border. They carried a few personal belongings with them when they fled their homeland, but most of what they have in their dwelling has been provided by various NGOs. With the help of partner donations, Christian Aid (CAID) provided the tarp covering their shelter, as well as sleeping mats, blankets and cooking utensils. CAID has one of the most efficient and organized resident processing procedures. This sort of attention from CAID and other NGOs is new for the Rohingya, who have never been recognized as citizens in Myanmar. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Jamtoli

Christian Aid (CAID) Bangladesh manages a section of the Jamtoli Rohingya Refugee Camp that houses approximately 60,000 residents. CAID camp management staff work closely with Bangladeshi government officials, the military, and numerous NGOs providing a variety of relief and community-building services in the camp. CAID helps organizations establish schools, clinics, mosques, community kitchens, sanitary facilities, and playgrounds. CAID also helps distribute blankets, floor mats, tents, and tarps for dwellings. CAID is well respected by its partners, and some of its relief operations have become models for other camp managers to follow. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Two Girls

Two girls trek back to their homes after purchasing some herbs in a local market within walking distance from the Jamtoli Refugee Camp. As is always my practice, I made eye contact with them and pointed to my camera as a way to ask permission to take their photo. They stopped half-way up the hill, faced me, and posed for the camera. The contrast between the blue sky, the color of the dirt, and the color of their clothes makes this one of my favorite captures. Other children quickly joined these two girls, and I spent some time taking additional photographs and showing them the pictures on my camera. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Nay

Nay takes a break on the main road in the middle of Jamtoli Rohingya Refugee Camp after carrying a bundle of tree branches he has harvested for firewood. More than likely, he traveled a great distance with this cargo because the camp has been mostly deforested in order to make room for additional dwellings for new arrivals. There is no telling how much further he had to walk before arriving at his living space. Getting around the camp can be difficult because of the numerous hills in the area. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Zaida

Zaida, a resident of Kutupalong Refugee Camp, rests in the shade on a warm November day. Daytime temperatures in November are in the 80s, and the camp has a lot of hills that residents have to negotiate in order to go to distribution sites, clinics or markets. These hills are challenging to traverse for younger people, yet one finds older residents of the camp also moving about freely. Older women and small children have to stop often to rest. I loved this woman’s skin color and eyes. She did not smile for the camera, but she has a look of confidence on her face. It is amazing that even in the middle of a dire situation the Rohingya continue to show pride and dignity when one asks to photograph them. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Neighbors

Jamtoli Rohingya Refugee Camp was a very busy place during the two days I visited. There was a constant movement of people, arrival of relief supplies, and building of new dwellings. On some older, better established residential blocks, there seemed to be tight-knit communities forming. For example, on this corner several families were outside of their homes enjoying each other’s company. Our guides pointed out to us that a lot of the communities in the camps are made up of family, friends and neighbors who lived near each other in Myanmar. In many cases, these families crossed the border together, fleeing violence and destruction back in Rakhine State. Many lost family members along the way. On a clear November day, this group of mothers and children enjoyed a light breeze blowing through their sector. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Walking Home

A mother and her children walk toward their home along the narrow maze of rice paddy walls that become trails for the community to travel. One child carries a younger sibling in her arms, while her older sister carries a long bamboo pole. I noticed that everyone helps with one chore or another. Children draw water from the well, watch over their younger siblings, carry wood or food for cooking, and, like this young girl, carry heavy construction materials for their homes. In this case, perhaps the girls offered to help their mother with the heavy cargo after she had already carried it a long distance. It was inspiring to see families help each other in significant ways. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Sadek

Sadek, a young resident of Jamtoli Refugee Camp, brings home a chicken for dinner. An outdoor market within walking distance of the refugee camp makes it possible for some Rohingya with limited funds to buy a few cooking ingredients and supplies. The World Food Program (WFP) gives micronutrient-fortified biscuits when people first arrive; then after registration, regular distributions of rice, vegetable oil, and lentils; hot meals through community kitchens; and nutritious porridge for pregnant women, breast-feeding mothers and children under 5 years old. According to the WFP, malnutrition rates in Kutupalong Refugee Camp are alarming. Preliminary findings from a health assessment of camp residents indicate that one in four Rohingya children are suffering from malnutrition, a higher rate than anticipated. This reality makes protein like chicken meat a valuable commodity. 

Three Generations

A mother, daughter, and grandchildren wait in line to see personnel at a UNHCR clinic and medication dispensary — three generations seeking to stay healthy while settling in the 3,000-acre Kutupalong Rohingya Refugee Camp. Close to 700,000 other residents will wait in similar lines at clinics spread throughout the sprawling camp. At the time of my visit, diphtheria was rampant at the camps. I personally witnessed mothers carrying their sick infants to clinics as they themselves heaved and coughed while drenched in sweat. Also evident were skin rashes and signs of malnutrition. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Soccer

A group of young men play in a makeshift soccer field in the middle of rice paddies in Jamtoli Rohingya Refugee Camp. It would be a big stretch to say that the Rohingya people are flourishing, as there is so much need yet to be met and so much trauma to be healed. However, I noticed in some residents that in spite of severe struggles many feel secure and at peace with their current situation. Many Rohingya are getting medical attention for the first time in their lives. Children attend schools that keep them learning and socializing. Men are involved in helping to build new dwellings for new arrivals, contributing to the well-being of the entire community. I believe that these activities have provided a sense of hope and optimism. When asked if they would like to return to Myanmar, some Rohingya say that they would only go back if Myanmar recognizes them as citizens and they can live in their communities without fear of violence and death. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Noyona

Noyona, a Rohingya refugee in the Jamtoli Refugee Camp, smiles big when the NGO partnering with Christian Aid (CAID) demonstrates new portable cooking stoves fueled by propane that will allow for faster cooking times in safe, designated cooking areas. Many of the refugees have been cooking in rudimentary wood stoves that are located inside their dwellings. This has been a concern for camp managers because of the harmful effects of inhaled smoke and the high potential for fire inside living spaces. It was wonderful to see Noyona and several of her friends learn how to use the new stoves. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Madrasa

This is a peek into a newly built madrasa where teachers lead Muslim Rohingya children in recitation classes of the holy Quran. I was eventually invited in, but I first took this picture from the outside looking through the bamboo exterior. My lens captured the side where the girls were learning. Once inside, I was greeted warmly by the teacher and students. This was one of many madrasas and schools I saw in Jamtoli and Kutupalong camps. It is wonderful to see a variety of NGOs motivating parents and their children to learn, socialize, and practice their faith. Other learning facilities included a women’s center where hygiene classes were given, as well as training facilities for women to learn how to cook on safer stoves. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Jamila

Meet Jamila, a 75-year-old resident of Kutupalong, Bangladesh’s largest Rohingya Refugee Camp near Cox’s Bazar. Out of all the faces I captured while in the refugee camps, this one melts my heart. Jamila did not hesitate to smile after I greeted her with “As-salāmu ʿalaykum,” and she responded with “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam.” I met her towards the end of our time in the refugee camp, so I wasn’t able to learn much about her story, but I think of her often. Women and children are most at risk in the camps, and a 75-year-old living in these conditions is greatly exposed to illness and even death. Jamila’s eyes are beautiful and very expressive. May Allah’s peace be upon her, and may she continue to find life-giving support from humanitarian aid services in the camp. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Kites

I captioned this photo “A light breeze, two boys, and a couple of kites.” As we walked through the refugee camps, it seemed like at every turn kids were either making kites, watching them fly, or running after them. Kites were made of pieces of discarded plastic bags and twigs harvested throughout the camp. Kite tails were decorated with colorful plastic and even some greens harvested from bushes. The whole process of making the kites out of discarded and fragile material, then eagerly looking for the best breeze, and happily launching them into the sky, was magical and surreal for me. The children flying the kites seemed to want to attach and launch all their troubles out into the gentle breeze that day. I will never forget this experience. (Copyright by Francisco Miguel Litardo. Used with permission.)

Last fall I received confirmation for a media assignment in Myanmar. By then, the first wave of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution from Myanmar’s military had arrived in southeast Bangladesh creating the latest humanitarian crisis in the region. 

Previous journeys to Myanmar as a digital storyteller had made me painfully aware of the plight of people groups in that region who are disenfranchised and in constant fear due to discrimination, religious persecution, and geo-political schemes — abuse of power maneuvers that seek to rob people of dignity, safety, and life itself. 

The Rohingya, who have now fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State into Bangladesh, have been described as the world’s most persecuted minority. U.S. and global media have reported on this significant humanitarian crisis, but interest in the plight of the long-suffering Rohingya people is lukewarm at best.

As I planned for my assignment in Myanmar, I began to dream about the possibility of travel to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh as an act of solidarity and presence. I also wished to raise further awareness of this crisis by donating my time and expertise as a media producer so that aid organizations could continue to fundraise, promote ongoing needs, and inspire additional volunteers. 

I began to share my dream with media colleagues and U.S.-based NGOs in an effort to grow connections in Bangladesh. In a matter of weeks, I connected with aid organizations working in the camps and was also pleased that a few additional friends and colleagues were interested in joining me on the journey to Bangladesh. Soon I would be walking beside courageous responders and host communities who seek to make life more bearable for the Rohingya.

In mid-November 2017, I traveled to Bangladesh where I met committed aid workers from Christian Aid (CAID) Bangladesh and The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Generous staff at these two agencies made it possible for us to witness the situation in the camps, do some needs assessment, and gather media. I am greatly encouraged by the important work these two organizations carry out on behalf of the Rohingya refugees. 

This photo essay provides a glimpse of my experience in the Rohingya refugee camps. These and hundreds of other photos and video footage clips have been donated to Christian Aid (CAID) and their partners to use for additional awareness-building campaigns and fundraising. 

I also hope to share my experience in the refugee camps through content providers like Senior Correspondent and grow additional connections and funding for a video documentary project about the Rohingya by the Rohingya and their host community, the people of Bangladesh. If you are interested in learning more about this future project, please contact me at onthewayproductions@mac.com.

Francisco Miguel Litardo

Francisco Miguel Litardo is an award-winning media producer and digital storyteller. 

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