“How is life at the refugee camp? Do you want to go back home?”
Jan 21, 2019, First Day Visit of the Rohingya Refugee Camp Near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
Today, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim arrived at the Rohingya refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. After meeting with World Food Programme (WFP) officials, he visited one of the Rohingya refugee camps and looked around to assess the refugees’ situation.
The plane which departed Dhaka Airport at 10:15 AM arrived at Cox’s Bazar Airport at 11:15 AM. On the flight to Cox’s Bazar, I asked Ven. Pomnyun Sunim about the numerous refugee camps he had visited in the past.
“I carried out relief activities in the Afghanistan Kandahar refugee camps, and I visited a refugee camp that had formed during a racial civil war in Myanmar when the Karen people crossed over to Thailand, and I helped North Korean refugees who had crossed the border into China.
When you go to a refugee camp, you can see that these people have no hope. Like birds that are given food, they eat to survive, but because they are forced to live in a refugee camp, they have no hope whatsoever. It’s heartbreaking.”
I felt very sad when I heard that the refugees eat the food they are provided like birds that are given feed and lived without any hope.
At Cox’s Bazar Airport, Peter Guest, the WFP Chief of Cox Bazar Rohingya refugee camp, welcomed Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and JTS personnel. Peter first talked to them about the safety issues.
“The Cox Bazar refugee camp is much safer now. However, please refrain from moving around after 10 PM at Cox Bazar.”
When Ven. Pomnyun Sunim asked, “You must be very busy. Are you sure our visit isn’t adding onto your workload?” Chief Peter shook his head and expressed his sincere welcome.
“It is very important to see the situation in person, and I sincerely welcome you since you’ve come all the way from Korea.”
Then they had time to introduce each other.
“This is JTS Chairman Ven. Pomnyun Sunim.”
“This is JTS President Gena Park.”
“This is screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung.”
“This is actor Jo In-sung from South Korea.”
Screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung and actor Jo In-sung have always had a lot of interest in helping the Rohingya refugees, so they were able to take this opportunity to visit the refugee camp with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. After hearing that a famous actor from Korea had arrived with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, WFP staff were very excited to see him.
“Maybe there are some refugees who might recognize Jo In-sung. Hahaha.”
After a brief welcome, they immediately went to the WFP Cox Bazar office.
When the JTS visitors arrived at the WFP office, they mentioned that JTS initially had many concerns about the safety of the gas stoves, but Chief Peter assured them that they did not have to worry about any safety issues.
“Of course, it is natural to have such concerns about safety. We also took safety measures into consideration by training and educating the local fire department. Actually, there was a similar safety problem when charcoal and wood were used to cook meals, but we came to the conclusion that gas was much safer. When there is any kind of danger, it is possible to shut off the gas supply by closing the valve.
In fact, once there was a fire in the refugee camp. A lot of furniture was burned, but two gas tanks survived the fire. A gas tank has a special valve that releases and burns all the gas inside the canister in case of a fire. So, while everything else was burned, the two gas tanks remained intact.”
After listening to JTS’s concerns, we have tried to make the gas stoves as safe as possible. Therefore I can confidently say that we do not have to worry about the safety of the gas stoves.”
Then, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim explained why he decided to provide the gas stoves despite safety concerns.
“In India, when children go to the forest alone to gather wood, they are at greater risk of being sexually harassed, especially the young girls. After I became aware that the children here were exposed to the same danger, I immediately agreed to provide the gas stoves.”
After listening to Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, Chief Peter explained the four benefits of providing the refugees with gas stoves.
“There are four major benefits to this project, including what you have just mentioned. First of all, gas stoves make it possible to safely supply efficient fuel. Secondly, we will be able to protect the people from the dangers that go with gathering wood. Thirdly, we can protect the surrounding environment. And fourthly, the gas produces less pollution compared to burning wood so the air quality inside the tents is improved. I’m glad that these benefits have been compelling enough for JTS to proceed with the project.”
After the explanation of the benefits of gas stoves, everyone moved to a spacious meeting room to continue the conversation. Chief Peter briefed the JTS visitors on WFP’s activities in the refugee camp and the current situation of the Rohingya refugees.
“WFP has been working in Cox Bazar for quite a long time and helped 34,000 refugees in the process. It is estimated there are about 150,000 unregistered Burmese refugees in this area. I do not know exactly how many are unregistered, but until now they have assimilated into the local area.
However, on August 25th, 2017, the Burmese army operation against the Rohingya rebels led to a sudden flood of more than 700,000 refugees into Bangladesh. When the number of refugees soared, the Bangladeshi government provided a great deal of assistance for food and housing, and the local Bangladeshis helped by hosting refugees in their homes.
Today, we are going to visit Mega Camp, the one you see on the map. There are 630,000 people there and several small camps as well. The map shows the population per camp. There is a big road in the middle of the camp, which we use to transport all the goods. WFP is currently helping 880,000 people.
Among them, 670,000 people are provided with three kinds of food: rice, dal (for making bean soup), and cooking oil. The remaining 210,000 people are able to buy 18 different kinds of food at a food store called the E-voucher Shop. Each family is given one card that looks like a debit card, and every month, $9 (10,000 won) is added to the card balance for each person in the family. If a family goes to the store with this card, they can choose what they want from 18 different foods.”
“What distinguishes the people receiving 3 food items from those receiving a card?”
“We are not distinguishing them. We are in the process of transitioning to the new system. All of the 630,000 people who have been receiving only 3 food items will receive this card by the middle of this year. The important issue is that there needs to be enough E-Voucher Shops, so we plan to increase the number of these stores by February. Most of the refugees will be able to buy food with this card by the middle of this year. This card system was first launched in August 2018 with 34,000 people. Now, 210,000 people are using it, and most of the refugees will be able to use this card by the middle of 2019.
This card system has a lot of benefits. First, the refugees will be able to consume more nutritious foods. It also gives people more options. Additionally, going to a store rather than standing in line for food enables the refugees to maintain their dignity.”
“So, will the refugees have to buy the new gas stoves with their card?”
“No. We will just distribute the gas stoves to everyone. This card is called a multipurpose wallet. One wallet contains money to buy food while another wallet contains money to buy items like laundry soap and sanitary soap from UNICEF. The money to buy LPG gas will be funded by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO ), and UNHCR. However, WFP will ultimately be in charge of supplying the LPG gas. The amount of money provided to each family to purchase LPG gas will depend on the number of family members, so a larger family will receive more gas money.
In addition to providing food for the refugees, WFP provides special nutritional packets for infants between the age of 6 months and 5 years, pregnant women, and lactating women. These groups are especially in need of nutrition because malnutrition from fetus to 2 years of age leads to stunted development of the brain as well as damaging the children’s growth potential. Therefore, pregnant women, lactating women, and infants and toddlers up to age 2 are provided with a special formula mixed with flour, soybeans, and nutrient-fortified foods.
However, the food provided by WFP needs to be cooked to be consumed, so without gas stoves, the refugees are unable to obtain nutrition. Therefore, the gas stoves that JTS provided are very important as they are essential for the health of the refugees.
Disaster prevention is also one of WFP’s activities. We need to build infrastructure such as roads to ensure easy access to the food distribution centers and stores. If the roads are not built well before monsoon (rainy) season, a lot of problems are likely to occur, so completing such work is important for the stable operation of the camps.
WFP is also in charge of school meals. There are two schools: one is located in the refugee camp while the other is located in the surrounding resident community. However, the school located inside the refugee camp is called the “learning center,” because using the word “school” is forbidden.
When emergency relief is needed, WFP coordinates relief activities in three areas: transport, food security, and emergency communication. Other agencies are also involved, but WFP plays a central role in coordinating and cooperating to carry out these activities.”
After Chief Peter’s explanation, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim asked a question.
“Is it UNICEF or WFP that operates the learning center?”
“The learning center is operated by multiple cooperating organizations. WFP provides high-calorie biscuits. There is a very large international NGO in Bangladesh named Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC) which operates the learning center with the help of other partners. WFP provides 60% of the required daily nutrition of the infants and young children. In particular, these infants and young children are able to obtain the micronutrients needed for development through WFP biscuits. BRAC creates an educational environment for the children and constructs the school buildings.”
“Are the classes conducted in Bengali, English, or Burmese?”
“Actually, the students are taught in Rohingya. However, they also use Burmese in class because the Rohingya language has no alphabet letters. Bengali is not taught at the learning center. The Bangladeshi government prohibits teaching Bengali to the Rohingya refugees for the fear that they will settle in Bangladesh after learning Bengali.”
Before he arrived, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim had been worried about the education of the children living in the Rohingya refugee camp. He was glad that there was an NGO that was already providing education to the children.
After having lunch with the WFP staff, the JTS group decided to visit one of the refugee camps. They headed to the Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Ukhia.
Kutupalong refugee camp, which is the biggest in size, is inhabited by 630,000 of the total of 880,000 Rohingya refugees. The Ukhia area, where the JTS group arrived, is called Camp 4 by WFP and has about 7,000 families or about 30,000 people.
They traveled across a rugged dirt road for about an hour and half, and they arrived at Camp 4 around 4:00 PM.
“This is Camp 4. There are many hills here, so we built the camp on some of the lower hills to avoid flooding due to rain.”
“Is this an old camp or a new one?”
“This is a new camp that was built just four months ago.”
After looking at the landscape of the entire refugee camp, the group headed to a learning center. One of the staff in charge of the learning centers explained how they were being run.
“There are 2000 learning centers here. Every day, 200,000 students attend classes in the learning centers. Each learning center has 105 students. There are 3 classes of 35 students, and each class is held at different times during the day. The learning center provides Vitamin A and nutrients to meet 50% of students’ daily nutritional requirement. When the children come to the learning center in the morning, they come on an empty stomach. They eat a meal of about 225 kcal before returning home. This nutritional nourishment that the learning center provides is the biggest motivation for parents to send their children to school. The student enrollment rate used to be below 50%, but now it has increased to over 90%.”
After listening to the explanation, the group went into the classroom of 4 to 6 year-old students. The students were learning poetry during Burmese class. They were also drawing pictures and copying down the alphabet. The textbooks were in Burmese.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim asked the students some questions.
“Do you know how to add and subtract?”
“Then, can you solve this problem? What is 7 + 5?”
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim wrote the question on the chalkboard, but the child could not solve the problem. The child most likely had not learned addition yet since she was still in kindergarten. Instead the child recited poetry with a wonderful dance routine. When she began reciting poetry with dance movements, the other students recited the poetry along with her in a loud voice. They looked very lively and bright.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, actor Jo In-sung and screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung watched the children recite poetry and encouraged the children with a big round of applause. Then, they distributed biscuits to all the children.
All of the children who had received biscuits could not stop smiling. Without the refugee camps and relief organizations here, the children would not have been able to survive. However, thanks to the help of the relief organizations, they are able to grow up healthy and bright.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim approached the smiling children who were eating biscuits and asked them about their dreams.
“How old are you?”
“6 years old.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a teacher.”
“How about you? What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a doctor.”
The children had many different dreams. The dreams of these children can only be realized by the continuous interest and support of many people.
Even though the refugee children looked happy, the adults who had suffered from oppression and the pain of losing their families didn’t look so happy. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and the JTS group visited one refugee family and had a brief conversation about a member of the family.
“How long have you been living in this camp?”
“It’s been about a year since I crossed the border, and I’ve been living here for eight months.”
“What did you do when you lived in Myanmar?”
“In my hometown, I farmed and planted vegetables, but I can’t do that now because we don’t have any land for farming in the refugee camps.”
“Then, how do you get food?”
We depend on the supply of food provided by relief organizations.”
“Do you miss your hometown? Do you want to go back?”
“I want to go back, because my family is still in my hometown and I left my livestock and house behind. However, The government of Myanmar will not guarantee my rights as a citizen. I want to go back if my rights as a citizen of Myanmar are guaranteed. Otherwise, it’s better to stay here at the refugee camp.”
They had to finish the conversation at this point and leave the house. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim tried to ask more specific questions, but WFP staff prevented the conversation from progressing further. Perhaps they were worried that refugees could misinterpret and react sensitively to certain questions.
On the way out of the refugee camp, the JTS group continued their conversation with the WFP Chief Peter.
“Are there still refugees crossing the border?”
“It has slowed down, but there are still some coming in.”
“What is the reason that the refugees are still crossing over?”
“There is no special reason. Everyone has a different reason for crossing the border.”
“Is there anyone who wants to go back to Myanmar?”
“There are some people who want to go back, but they are very few.”
“Why do they want to return?”
“There is no specific reason. Maybe it’s because they want to see their family. Every person has a different reason.”
“Do you have electricity at the camp?”
“There is no electricity at the camp. Solar cells have been installed in several locations such as public toilets and streets. We plan to install street lights in the future. We are in the process of constructing a drainage system to prevent houses from collapsing when in rains. We are building an expansion of the camp on leveled surface to use the space more efficiently and to prevent houses from collapsing.”
They left the refugee camp and looked around the camp again from a relatively high hill. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim looked at the refugee camp and said,
“This camp seems to be quite organized. The situation here is pretty good.”
Since he had seen so many inadequate refugee camps, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim considered this refugee camp to be in pretty good shape.
I asked actor Jo In-sung how he felt after visiting the refugee camp.
“This refugee camp seemed to managed well. I was happy to see that the children’s expressions were very bright and hopeful. I was worried that they would be sad or gloomy, but I was relieved that they looked much happier than I expected. I feel that continuous support is necessary for these children to maintain their bright smiles.”
The children’s bright expressions filled the hearts of those in the JTS group with hope, and their visit to the refugee camp did not make them feel too bad.
I also asked screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung about her thoughts after visiting the refugee camp.
“I was able to see for myself how important relief activities are. Seeing how schools are available and that the residents have access to education, I wondered what would have happened if the relief agencies had not built the facilities and systems in the refugee camps. I think it would have been a disaster. Fortunately, various relief organizations have come in, so there is a well-organized system. I was very concerned before I came here because I thought that people would be very depressed after losing their families, crossing the border, and facing oppression. I’m glad that they are doing better than I expected. I understand how important continuous support and awareness are.”
Those that have been able to settle in refugee camps here may be very fortunate. While being oppressed in Myanmar and attempting to cross the border, countless refugees most likely lost their lives or lost their families.
At 7 pm, members of WFP, UNICEF, IOM, and JTS all met for dinner. In particular, Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan joined in and greeted all of them. Princess Sarah is a world health advocate focused on maternal and newborn health. She works for UN peacekeeping operations and is actively involved in global relief efforts.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim exchanged greetings with Princess Sarah and talked about the visit to the refugee camp.
“I was worried about the education of the children when it became clear the refugees’ situation was going to take longer than expected to improve. Fortunately, I was relieved when I visited the camp and discovered that the children are receiving education.”
“I was also deeply impressed by the fact that WFP is educating almost 200,000 children daily and handing out biscuits. 200,000 people.The number was too big to believe at first.”
“I thought they had meant 20,000 when I heard 200,000 people, so I double checked the number three times.”
“It is hard to believe that so many people have crossed the border and have become refugees in 2017 and 2018.”
“When I went to the Kandahar refugee camp in Afghanistan, I was heartbroken to see that there weren’t any schools for the children. I’m very thankful that relief organizations prepared a basic education system here so quickly.”
Princess Sarah also nodded in agreement. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim shook hands with WFP Chief Peter, expressing his gratitude.
During dinner, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim had deep conversations about the refugee crisis with WFP Bangladesh General Manager Richard Ragan and Princess Sarah, among others.
Tomorrow, JTS will participate in the handover ceremony to deliver 100,000 gas stoves to the Rohingya refugee camp. JTS ordered 100,000 gas stoves in the second half of 2018, and the distribution of the gas stoves will finally begin tomorrow. We will keep you updated.