Bangladesh: Humanity wins in the midst of hardship

Since October 2016, some 70,000 Muslim people fleeing insecurity in Myanmar have arrived in Bangladesh. Local people, like Cox's Bazar resident Shahina Begum, defy their own challenges to assist the refugees. The Bangladeshi Red Crescent and the ICRC help family members separated by the insecurity to restore family links. They improve access to health care by renovating and upgrading local health facilities.

It takes a bumpy ride to reach Shahina Begum's house, located about an hour's drive from the famous beach town, Cox's Bazar, in south-eastern Bangladesh. Shahina is 45 years old and teaches at a local school. She used to work with non-governmental organizations, implementing local development projects, before switching to teaching.

Shahina Begum at home in Naikhanchari village, Bandarban area, Bangladesh, in February 2017. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Rayhan Sultana Toma

Since October 2016, Shahina has been hosting and supporting 40 – 50 Muslims who fled their homes in Northern Rakhine State in Myanmar and sought refuge in Cox's Bazar, Bandarban and adjacent places in Bangladesh. Asked why she helps them, Shahina, commonly known as 'Madam' by her neighbours, out of respect, simply replies: "Why not? Where else will they go?"

In spite of the strain that helping the refugees has on her and her husband's limited resources, Shahina readily offers what she can to them. Most importantly, she offers them peace and tranquility after their difficult and emotionally draining journey.

"The refugees are not different from us – we are all humans with flesh and blood. They need shelter, food and warm clothes. I take them in and offer some help regardless of my limited capacity", she explains. Troubled and upset after listening to the refugees recount their ordeal, she decided to help them by sharing her small piece of land and providing them with a roof over their heads.

An ICRC team met Shahina in Cox's Bazar as it collected oral greetings and tracing requests from people who had fled Rakhine State, including those she was sheltering in her house.

A dreadful journey for survival

Mrs Shahjahar is one of the refugees hosted by Shahina. She left her home in Rakhine State to come to Bangladesh. Heavily pregnancy, she had walked for twelve days straight, along with her husband and two little daughters. She had boarded a boat that plied the Naaf River between the Bangladeshi and Myanmar border, and there she had given a birth to a baby girl. What was she going to do? She had absolutely no idea.

Upon arrival in Bangladesh, Mrs Shahjahar and her little baby girl (named Sumaida) met Shahina, who cared for her tenderly, like a mother, and offered the family shelter in her tiny house.

Shahina describes this as one of her fondest moments, noting: "When the baby came to my house she was only 8/9 days old, weighing as much as a tiny ball of fur. She trembled from cold. I took her in my arms and wrapped her in warm clothes. She is almost four months old now and growing up steadily and healthy".

Bandarban area, Bangladesh, February 2017: Baby Sumaida who was born on a boat while her mother, Shahjahar, was fleeing to Bangladesh from her home in Rakhine State in Myanmar. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Rayhan Sultana Toma

Mrs Shahjahar felt overwhelmed by the help she received from Shahina "She is like my mother. The generosity and care she extended to me reminded me of her", says Mrs Shahjahar.

A community mobilized to help

Shahina struggled to overcome criticism from the local community for hosting the refugees and offering them job opportunities. She led a campaign in her community to mobilize support and help for the newcomers. She managed to put in place latrines and sources of drinking water in some areas.

"Those people have suffered a lot already, so let's do something to help them", concludes Shahina. What possibly pushes a woman to share her limited resources and space with complete strangers? "It's my sense of humanity that I wish others would have too" replied Shahina without hesitation.

Emerging challenges in south-eastern Bangladesh

Large numbers of Muslim refugees fleeing insecurity in Myanmar's Rakhine State have arrived in south-eastern Bangladesh. The region has received 70,000 people since October 2016. While they have their own challenges, such as meagre resources, host communities have shown great hospitality and resilience that has enabled them to shelter so many arrivals.

The influx of refugees is adding pressure on overstretched local governments, which lack the capacity and resources to adequately respond to the crisis. Basic services, ranging from education and health care, to water, sanitation, and solid-waste management, are greatly strained. In an overpopulated and poor country like Bangladesh, the crisis also has a huge impact on the labour market, with more people competing for jobs and livelihoods. However, such an influx often leads to improvements in health and sanitation services in affected areas. Health services that international organizations provide in some refugee camps also serve local communities.

Shahina Begum with some of the refugees she is hosting in her house in Bandarban area, Bangladesh, in February 2017. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Rayhan Sultana Toma

The ICRC has been present and active in Cox's Bazar since 2014, offering help to thousands of Muslim communities who have fled to Bangladesh from Rakhine State. Together with the Bangladeshi Red Crescent Society, the ICRC is providing services that enable family members separated by insecurity to restore links. The two partners support two major health facilities by renovating and upgrading services and infrastructure. Additionally, the ICRC is working to increase the capacity of the local Red Crescent branch to respond to increasing humanitarian needs in the area.