By Rosemarie North, IFRC
Nights are the worst. You lie awake thinking about the life you had in Rakhine state in Myanmar, and the violence and fear that sent you running. Living under plastic and bamboo in Bangladesh, you worry about food, water, shelter, rain, dry, hot, cold, wind, the future. When you finally get to sleep, the nightmares come.
Men face particular stress, says Hamid Hussein, the top community leader or head mazhi, in Hakimpara camp in Cox’s Bazar, just across the border from Myanmar.
“There are a lot of difficulties with life here,” he said. “Back home, I lived in a solid house that was beautifully decorated, but I left all my property behind. Men can’t sleep because of the situation here. There’s not enough space to live. We have to live in the dark without solar lamps. We’re afraid.”
Yet men are often overlooked in this crisis, in which 646,000 people fled to Bangladesh between 25 August and early December 2017.
Psychosocial delegate Rosaria Domenella runs a men’s group in a simple open-plan bamboo and tarpaulin structure a few metres away from a busy dirt road in Hakimpara camp. Men at the group say they are troubled because they couldn’t protect their families from violence at home or as they fled, and they can’t support them in Bangladesh, where they are not allowed to work.
“Can you imagine how your life would be if you left everything behind?” said Rosaria, an Italian Red Cross delegate who is part of the Japanese Red Cross team in Cox’s Bazar. “Two days ago, I met a pharmacist, a middle-class family, who left everything behind. They have to find some way to re-start. It’s not easy. If they can, they have to re-orient to the present, not look back on the past.
“For the men, continuing their traditional roles is more difficult than for children and for women because they can’t do their usual jobs. One man told me, ‘I’m a carpenter but now I have no tools. What can I do with my hands? I can’t provide for my family’. Their roles have been taken from them and they’re suffering.
“There’s a reason they come here to our men’s group. They want to tell their story. They cry. Now at least all the world knows how this community’s doing; before, nobody knew what was happening.”
The Italian is one of several Red Cross and Red Crescent team members running safe spaces and support groups to help newcomers to Bangladesh find strength together. She started a men’s group with the help of Sheik Ahmed, a Bangladesh Red Crescent Society community volunteer who himself was a secondary school teacher in Rakhine only a few months earlier. Twenty men came to their first session; 42 to the second; 65 to the third. All were recruited by word of mouth.
She told them, “You’ve been through something terrible. But you’re strong and resilient. You can start a new life. And you’re not alone. We are here for you.”
“In every bad story if you have a clear mind you can find a small light. So we have to look for the small light. They accepted my presence and allowed me to find some good words to give them. I am not young so they can trust I’m not there just joking and kidding but with real knowledge of their story.
“The men of the community have to stay together to strengthen their unity because most of them have arrived without anything. Some arrived naked because they had to swim. They have nothing but their identity, their culture, their tradition,” she said.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent operation to help people displaced from Rakhine runs a variety of groups for women, girls and boys, where – depending on the group – they play games, sew, paint, make jewelry, learn English from newspapers, and make new connections. The Japanese Red Cross groups reach 400 people a week, according to Kyoko Miyamoto, a psychosocial support delegate. By 12 December, Red Cross and Red Crescent teams had reached 17,000 children and 20,000 adults with psychosocial support.
Rosaria works to build hope by reminding the displaced people that fear and stress are natural reactions to their experiences.
“In most cases it is not pathology I see – it’s the situation that’s the pathology, not the people,” she said. “We don’t use the word traumatized. People’s responses are natural in an abnormal situation. It’s a natural response if you’re anxious, if you have nightmares or difficulty breathing.
“If the stress is pathological, I can do a referral. But if not, I can follow up and just listen and do psychological first aid.”
Another way for men to build hope is to find a new protective role in their communities. During her outreach work, Rosaria met a woman whose husband and children had been killed in Rakhine.
“I came back and told the men, ‘You have to protect the widows because they are vulnerable. It’s the men’s role to protect the widows. Without a man in their home they’re lost in this situation’.”
Mohammed Jamil, mazhi for block three of the settlement, said that the men are keen to take practical action.
“Before they came here the men were happy because they had jobs, they were free. I feel very bad for them because here they have nothing to do. They’re looking for work but they don’t have any opportunity,” he says.
Although for now they can’t work, during one session the men decided to use their skills to make kites from bamboo and plastic bags. After their constructions were finished, children rushed in to fly their new toys together.
Rosaria Domenella recalls the moment the kites took flight: “They built the kites using simple and easy-to-find materials but the men’s hands were so skilled. Before giving the kites to the children they tested them to assess if they performed well.
“For a few minutes those kites rose up from their hands and I saw a child’s smile on their faces, as if they were suddenly back in their usual life.”