An Eye-opening Experience
By Maisha Jahan Chowdhury
Discussed: violence, sexual assault
Maisha Jahan Chowdhury’s visit to Myanmar Refugee Camp.
Fear engulfed her. Her eyes reflected the pain she’d endured. She looked around helplessly, leaving no stone unturned to find someone that looked familiar or trustworthy to ask for help. At this moment, she could not trust anyone, as her own people had turned into inhuman predators attempting homicide. She was stranded in this refugee camp.
She caught my attention when I heard a voice shout, “One more Rohingya survivor has arrived.” The man behind the voice hurriedly rushed her to the Registration Center. She was reluctant to go. I could see she had no faith in the man. Although he wore an apron with the UNICEF logo, I figured she didn’t know how to read it and thus was hesitant.
Later, when she was registered, she tested pregnant. She confessed she had been raped by one of the Myanmar military officials. They had captured her for days atop a mountain and tortured her, killed her husband in front of her. She managed to escape the horrifying torture and land into Balukhali Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Stories like this woman’s echoed across these camps. Thousands had faced similar or even worse conditions, as victims of the ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar government.
I visited Bangladesh in January for my cousin’s wedding in Chittagong. Chittagong was about a four-hour drive from the refugee camps where the Rohingya were seeking shelter. I’d read about the Rohingya crisis in the news—being so close to Cox’s Bazar, my cousin and I wanted to visit the camps to provide assistance and show our support. At first, I mainly wanted to go merely for the sake of my love for photography, as the experience would give me more content for my album. Looking back, I was negligent; I had no idea of the severity of the conditions there. The news couldn’t have prepared me. But the stories that roared among these camps astounded me and forever changed my perspective.
Bangladesh is a poor country in general and I have been confronted with poverty on various occasions, but I had never seen anything like the horrifying conditions in the Balukhali Refugee Camp. More than 400,000 people lived under just bamboo shacks, with dirt as their floor, little food to rely on, and insufficient materials to survive the harsh weather. They had come to Bangladesh with next to nothing and had nowhere else to go.
I was struck by the number of children in these camps, and the number of women who were pregnant as a result of rape. They deserved so much more: a life filled with education and better health, but their fate had overturned them. I couldn’t imagine myself or my sisters in such circumstances. That was the moment I realized how materialistic the world has become. In America, we often complain about not getting the latest iPhone or the trendiest shoes, while these people had lost everything and were just trying to survive.
Another thing I found shocking is the main reason the Rohingya people were attacked and tortured in the first place: religion. Based on the mere stereotype that Muslims are terrorists, the Myanmar government committed genocide. What’s happening to the Rohingya is due to Islamophobia and the way society threatens Muslims today. Freedom of practicing one’s religion should not be a barrier. Our society should stop judging entire religions based on actions of specific extremist groups, and embrace equality—not just within race and gender, but religion too. Similarly, as we fight poverty, we should learn about other religions and not just base our ideas on the stereotypes that society has created in the past.
Once we entered the camp, we learned that teachers weren’t allowed to teach Bangla to the Rohingya children. I decided that it was important for the kids to remember where they came from and not consider themselves as refugees in a foreign land. Although they’re in Bangladesh, I thought it would be nice to still represent the flag of Myanmar. My cousin and I, along with the help of UNICEF members, painted the children’s hands with the colors of the Myanmar flag. Then they placed their hands on the blank white canvas, to recreate their flag. We took polaroids of them and pasted them on the walls to create a homelike environment. The reactions I received were overwhelming; I’d never seen someone so amazed watching a picture print from the camera. The children were so excited, and their smiles made everything we were doing worth it. One teacher told me that these children don’t have mirrors, much less cameras, to ever see themselves. My camera was like a magic trick. I also did a mini photoshoot with them and felt I better understood their emotions when I photographed them. By the end, a bond had flourished between us. My goal was to bring joy to these kids through arts and crafts and technology, the way photography brought joy to me.
People refer to skydiving, doing something adventurous, or visiting their dream place as their best experience in life. But for me, this was unexpectedly the best experience of mine. I got an insight into life outside my own bubble, and how the world looks at Muslims. Although this experience lasted only a day, I gained a lifetime of understanding that not everyone is blessed with everything, and those who are should look out for the less fortunate. I learned we should all appreciate what we have at the moment and not take it for granted. Fate can change within seconds.
My visit to the Myanmar Refugee Camp has allowed me to encounter the lives of many unfortunates. Witnessing their situation, a moment of realization took over me of horrifying the world that we dwell in actually is. It consists of various dreadful situations and how the bigger picture of life is to always be grateful for what we have.
Maisha Chowdhury is a 17-year-old teenager who has unending enthusiasm towards expressing herself in the form of writing. She is currently a junior in high school, and plans on taking every opportunity that comes her way. Maisha is an activist and has given back to the community by being an active leader in non-profit organizations such as Integrate NYC, Yvote and TAP NYC. She also takes great interest in the computer science field and is a part of Code Next by Google.