Francis Markus, IFRC
Rashida hasn’t heard any news of her husband since the family’s house was set ablaze, he was taken away and she and her children fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine State to safety in Bangladesh. She says she is sure he must be dead, otherwise he too would have joined them.
“I had to tell the children the truth because otherwise they just kept asking and asking about their father,” she says.
Pain and uncertainty
Living with such pain and uncertainty takes a huge toll on her emotional state.
Yet she still finds the strength for and no doubt derives strength from the act of supporting her fellow displaced people as a volunteer under a psychosocial programme run by the Red Cross Red Crescent in the camps housing displaced people.
The part of the work she enjoys most is “gossiping with the women about their lives, their concerns, their families and the future,” she says.
Community volunteers from among the more than 655,000 people who have fled from Rakhine to Bangladesh “play a vital role in working with their fellow displaced because they can share their concerns and empathize with them and advise and comfort them in a way which no-one else can,” says Aslaug Braende, a Psychosocial Delegate from the Norwegian Red Cross.
The group of volunteers, who work out of the tented field hospital, set up by the Norwegian and Finnish Red Cross Societies, represent a diverse range of experience.
Kulsuma, 40, recently fled to Bangladesh for the third time in her life. The first time, in 1978, she stayed for two years, the next time in 1994 for four years.
“Only God knows,” she says when asked how long she thinks she might have to stay this time.
As a mother of one son and five daughters, “one of my biggest concerns is getting my daughters married,” she says.
With only her 12-year-old son’s income as a day labourer and her own allowance for working as a volunteer, the need for dowries for the five girls is a huge preoccupation.
Preserving the traditions of family life can be challenging for the community uprooted to Bangladesh.
“Many men want to take a second wife, which is not allowed in Myanmar but is possible here in Bangladesh,” says another volunteer Mahabuba. “So we try to persuade them not to do that because it will have a bad effect on family life.”
One of her biggest concerns it that her elderly father has refused to join her and her sister in Bangladesh, saying he prefers to die at home.
“Every day, we speak to them on the phone and try to persuade him to leave,” she says.
Trying to counsel community members in dealing with the huge anxieties they face is a common theme among the volunteers.
For herself, things like applying beautiful henna designs to her hands “makes me very happy,” she says.
Life Is far from joyful, though, after her brother gave her the news that her husband was killed in Myanmar.
But the volunteers, in keeping with many people’s approach in the community to dealing with their experiences, resolutely try to persuade people not to dwell on the sadness and anxiety.
“If people worry too much, they will become sick and then who will take care of the family, says Morzina, another psychosocial volunteer.
She has lived in the massive Kutupalong camp – which lies across the road from the neat, tented field hospital – for the last 12 years and married and had her two children, 9 and 7, in Bangladesh.
“It took me about one year to get used to life here,”
Now, she says that although Myanmar is her country, she would only think of going back if she and her fellow displaced people can get proper identity papers.
Until then, she still feels she is better off living in Bangladesh, even though her home is a makeshift shelter under a tarpaulin. So she and her fellow community volunteers will continue to share their experiences and counsel those who need their support.