December 11, 2019

Judaism in Action in Bangladesh: A Field Log From the Rohingya Refugee Camps

A view of the Kutulalong camp in Cox’s Bazar. Photos by Rares Michael Ghilezan

The Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar is one of the most persecuted populations in the world.

After enduring decades of rights deprivations and abuses, more than 700,000 Rohingya in August 2017 fled full-blown genocide at the hands of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military and security apparatus. This mass exodus joined previous waves of Rohingya refugees already living in neighboring Bangladesh, and together nearly 1 million remain today in sprawling, squalid camps.

In my position at Jewish World Watch (JWW), one of my first priorities was to classify the Tatmadaw’s persistent persecution of the Rohingya as an ongoing genocide, and to push elected officials and the U.S. State Department to do the same. 

Last August, I wrote an essay posted on the JWW website that explained why the attacks on the Rohingya by the Tatmadaw should by called a “genocide,” a term used sparingly by governments and legal entities. Multiple other entities have since followed suit in labeling this a genocide — and not just a mass atrocity — including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the United Nations’ fact-finding mission tasked with assessing the atrocities, and the Public International Law & Policy Group, contracted by the State Department to do the same. In December, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution designating the situation as genocide.

JWW was founded in 2004 on the belief that Jews cannot stand idly by in the face of genocides worldwide. Just as righteous gentiles saved Jews during the Holocaust, we stand united with people of all faiths to speak out on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people — the survivors of today’s genocides and mass atrocities.

In early March, I traveled on behalf of JWW to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh to learn how we, the Jewish community and beyond, can make a difference.

At JWW, we encourage our community to advocate, but beyond the loftier goals of international recognition of the Rohingya’s plight, we recognize that they need increased aid and — perhaps most importantly — accountability for what has happened. JWW has a history of supporting survivors of the Darfuri genocide and mass atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others, with educational and vocational programming — particularly for women, and it was our belief that those avenues, along with community-building initiatives, could emerge as the most necessary and strategic means for us to engage with the Rohingya.

“For cultural and religious reasons, Rohingya women primarily are confined to their homes. Their children, by virtue of their statelessness, are barred from attending host community schools.”

What follows is a collection of my observations from a weeklong journey into the camps of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh — a journey that recalibrated my perspective, exposed me to bottomless need, and reminded me why all of us at JWW — including our many supporters in schools, synagogues and beyond — do this work: because we believe in the awe-inspiring resilience of the human spirit. 

Day 1: A prison with no walls

“The host community is on the left, the camps on the right,” my guide, Haythem, said after an hour of traveling bumpy roads, taking in the tableau of everyday Bangladesh. The activity of the host community’s bustling marketplace slowly dwindled as we approached the refugee camps that, although huge, appeared surprisingly still.

In Camp 6 we crossed paths with very few adult women. The most noise came from babies sitting in the dirt, calling out until older siblings scooped them up. I kept hungering to see programmed activities for the refugees, especially the children, who followed us with curiosity. It wasn’t just the conditions of the camp, with its fragile structures extending seemingly forever into the distance, that left me concerned. It was the lack of anything for the people to do.

For cultural and religious reasons, Rohingya women primarily are confined to their homes. Their children, by virtue of their statelessness, are barred from attending host community schools. An “informal” curriculum developed for use inside the camps may be taught only in English or Burmese, not Bangla — the language most similar to the one the Rohingya speak and the official language of Bangladesh.

Because Rohingya have no legal status, they cannot legally work for aid organizations or outside the camps. These limitations create an invisible barrier between them and the host community, preventing assimilation and diminishing the option to stay.

In this newer section of the camps I saw just one informal learning center, where a teacher led a class in English — a language she herself did not understand.

On this first day in the camps — despite seeing the 50 impressive monsoon-resistant dwellings JWW had commissioned last year as part of a pilot program to provide shelter for families — I felt flattened by the scene before me: All those listless eyes of children with untapped potential; the women confined to their homes with nothing to do and no way to heal from their trauma.

I witnessed the survivors’ need for purpose, to truly make lives for themselves and their families, even in the camps. 

A student writes on the white board in a school in a camp.

Day 2: Little things, big differences

I had hoped my second day would offer me opportunities to explore how JWW’s support of locally run programs might be of help, but I woke to learn that the government had shut down the roads to the camps because of street protests by the local residents. 

With the camps closed off, I pivoted to visit schools in the slums of Cox’s Bazar that educate many Rohingya from previous waves of persecution-triggered flight. The conditions in the slums were even worse than what I had seen in Camp 6.

John Littleton, regional director of an organization operating the slum schools in partnership with a Bangladeshi nongovernmental organization (NGO), announced our arrival at the first school. As I entered through a gate, I was spellbound by a lush garden with tidy bushes, blooming flowers, planters fashioned from repurposed plastic water bottles, and a set of swings! Old and rusty as those swings were, seeing them in this tiny, verdant oasis — such a stark contrast to the bleakness outside — filled my soul with hope.

We visited four schools across three slum areas. All had uplifting gardens and classrooms decorated with the children’s vibrant artwork — brightly colored paper streamers crisscrossing the ceilings, and mobiles made of shells, pompoms, straws and bottle caps. 

The benefits of these decorative touches could be seen in the smiling faces of the kids, who seemed genuinely engaged and grateful to be there. They got me thinking about how we might go about replicating such healthy learning environments within the Rohingya refugee camps.

There is a palpable difference in the response of beneficiaries whose unique circumstances are considered in the crafting of a project. Such recognition gives the refugees a sense of agency and joy, offering the message: “I believe in you, and you matter.”

Rohingya children in a learning center in a camp in Cox’s Bazar.

Day 3: True leaders rise

Today, with the camps reopened,  I was lucky enough to befriend several young people who, against all odds, have managed to pierce the malaise of being marooned indefinitely in a country that doesn’t want them.

I met a young Rohingya woman who worked with a communications organization that produced radio programs for the camps. Groups of refugees would huddle in listening groups around the few people with phones that picked up the programs.

The woman, who would not give her name out of concern for her safety, interviewed Rohingya on topics ranging from early marriage and sex trafficking to water sanitation and chickenpox. She also helped dispel rumors, like the one about vaccinations being a tool for religious conversion.

“We hear the words ‘human rights,’ and we are human, but where are our rights?” she asked me. “I would rather die in Myanmar than waste away my days here.”

If just one remark could capture the Rohingya predicament, that would be it.

She continued, talking about the desperate need to combat boredom.

“The men, they sit idle because there is nothing for them to do. It’s dangerous. They’re like in prison.”

The women, she said, also need help. “Many women here were raped or had their husbands killed in front of them. But because they have nothing else to do, they sit around reliving the horrors that happened to them. Their minds get stuck. …  There should be sewing centers for women everywhere!”

I then met a remarkable young man (who also would not give his name). He was born in one of the camps that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees established to deal with a large influx of fleeing Rohingya in 1992. When the mass influx from the Myanmar genocide began in August 2017, he started to work as a day laborer for an NGO to assist the refugees. Under the mentorship of the NGO’s director, he has risen to become a program coordinator, managing multiple projects across several camps.

“I’m not educated at all, but I’m resourceful and work hard,” he told me. “I don’t know where I’d be if [my boss] hadn’t taken me under his wing.”

These two brilliant young people both dream of one day earning a college degree. They demonstrate that incomprehensible resilience that pushes even survivors of atrocities to rise. They are the future leaders of their people, the sort JWW strives to seek out and help to empower.

“We hear the words ‘human rights,’ and we are human, but where are our rights?” — a Rohingya woman 

Day 4: Community is power

I sat upon many floors during my days in the camps, mostly in dark huts, surrounded by women. On this day I sat with one such group, huddled together to listen to a radio program much like the one produced by the young woman I met the day before. With them, I felt as though I was among girlfriends, sharing concerns and talking lovingly about our children.

Many Rohingya women have formed informal support groups in their communities. Among us was a young woman whose husband was beheaded before her eyes, and whose daughter bears deep white scars on her chest and neck. These women rely on one another. Any opportunity to bring them together, particularly to learn, has a multiplier effect. They hold each other up so that they may hold up their respective families in the wake of the unfathomable loss and unconscionable violations. 

In these sprawling camps of nearly 1 million people, I saw the power of human connection in teaching, learning, healing and rebuilding. The women,

in particular, have charted a way forward by building communities, such as a democratically elected women’s association that oversees operations in a school-uniform sewing center, as well as that radio-listening group and a communal garden.

The power of such groups is what helps the Rohingya to persevere.

They gave me hope and confidence that our interventions to help bring together and organize these survivors are crucial to making life in the camps sustainable for whatever time they remain there.

What’s next?

I am now compelled to share these and more stories with anyone who will listen to how we can support the Rohingya. I and others from JWW will be making ourselves available to speak at synagogues and events throughout Los Angeles to increase awareness and to ask you to join us in this fight. Over the next two weeks, I will also be at JWW’s annual Walks to End Genocide, where you also can learn how to get involved.

Please come walk with us and stop by to talk. With your help, we can provide hope and healing.

For more information on how you can advocate for the Rohingya, visit

On March 31, the Walk to End Genocide will be held at Pan Pacific Park, 7600 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. On April 7, a Conejo Valley walk will be held at Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks, from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Sign up to participate online.

Ann Strimov Durbin is a human rights attorney and Jewish World Watch’s director of advocacy and grantmaking.