For Sadia Zafar Chowdhury, this summer was unlike any other. Chowdhury, a second-year psychology student at UTM, spent a portion of her vacation this year volunteering at a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. In an interview with The Medium, Chowdhury recounts her experiences.
“There are a lot of people in the world [that are] suffering. Since we don’t see them [and] their condition, we can’t really understand it,” says Chowdhury.
Chowdhury explains how the Rohingya, an ethnic group who have lived in Myanmar for generations, have been forced to leave their homes due to their faith. The Myanmar government, which is primarily Buddhist, does not consider the Muslim Rohingyas citizens. The Myanmar army is torturing the Rohingya, leaving them with no choice but to flee to the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. Chowdhury explains that “[the Rohingya] were tortured. I talked to a couple of people. Their houses had been burned. Their daughters were raped in front of them.”
In Bangladesh, the Rohingya reside in an overpopulated and hilly area in “shelters” which have been built by Bangladeshi soldiers. These shelters are at constant risk of damage from the monsoons and cyclones which frequently plague the South Asian region from July to October. Makeshift medical clinics have been formed by NGOs—non-governmental organizations—to meet the medical needs of the large refugee population. Chowdhury’s aunt works as a surgeon at one of these clinics called the Friendship Comprehensive Maternity Centre.
As soon as Chowdhury learned about her aunt’s experiences, she instantly wanted to help. “I contacted the [clinic] directly and told them that I am certified in CPR and Standard First Aid. They informed me that they are willing to hire me as a volunteer.”
Worried for her safety, Chowdhury’s mother, Shamsad Jahan Chowdhury, accompanied her to the camp. Upon arrival, they noticed the large number of patients and realized that the refugees “need[ed] as much help as [they could] provide.” Chowdhury’s mother decided to aid her daughter and together, they spent the next five days assisting the doctors in their attempt to provide basic healthcare to the persecuted Rohingyas.
“I managed the patients. It was a 24/7 clinic so there were a lot of patients and [it was] difficult to manage. We gave the patients a serial number just to follow how many patients came in and how many were left,” Chowdhury recalls. “My mother helped me in doing that. One of the other things I did is assist in surgeries. The doctors were really nice, supportive, and caring with the patients. There used to be 40 to 50 patients at a time and only four doctors so it was very stressful.”
Two moments from the experience remain clear in Chowdhury’s memory, including the horrifying image of a man who limped into the clinic with his leg split in half.
“There was a guy and his leg was literally divided into two pieces. We tried to help him but we [didn’t] have the equipment. It was shocking.”
The second memory involves Chowdhury’s assistance with a Caesarean section, “[The women] were happy because they are safe from [the Myanmar soldiers]. The thing I was really happy about was that these surgeries are completely free for them.”
When asked how one can help, Chowdhury urges everyone to donate to societies such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme as she has observed firsthand how the Rohingya depend on the resources provided by these organizations for survival.
To her fellow students, Chowdhury finishes with a gentle but passionate reminder: “It’s important to help others [who are] not as happy in their life. Just because we’re happy, doesn’t mean that we can ignore those people [who do] not even have the basic [amenities]. We have to help them, it’s our responsibility as human beings.”