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One doctor’s experience in the world’s largest refugee camp


Since December 2018, New Market Goods has been raising funds by selling our enamel “Cha Pin” for OBAT Helpers, a Bangladeshi humanitarian organization working with the thousands of Rohingya refugees who’ve fled persecution in Myanmar since 2016. While the refugee camp where they live is now one of the largest in the world, life in the camp is likely something few of us are familiar with here in the US. We sat down with Dr. Meggie Woods, a Bay Area-based medical doctor, to learn more about their experience on two medical trips to the refugee camp. They answered questions by email, edited here for clarity.

Stephen Kennedy: How and why did you volunteer as a medical doctor in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh?

Dr. Meggie Woods: I first heard about the Rohingya refugee crisis in August 2017, when 700,000 people fled Myanmar due to attacks against their people. Many villages were burned, thousands were killed including women and children, and many women were brutally raped. Like when so many other horrible events that happen in the world, I felt powerless to help. Then my friend, Dr. Naz Uddin, went to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh to volunteer as a doctor. After she came back and told me about her experience, I decided to go.

In March 2018 I spent a week at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. I went with a group called MedGlobal that provides medical care and international medical volunteers to the Rohingya refugees. That trip changed my life. I had never been to a refugee camp before, and didn’t really know what to expect. I was amazed at the vast expanse of bamboo and plastic tents as far as the eye could see. There were people everywhere. The level of poverty was like nothing I had seen before. Most children were naked, without shoes and clearly malnourished.

But children were shouting and playing all around us as we walked to the clinic every day. They greeted us with, “Hi, how are you? I am fine!”

In just a week, I felt like I had been able to provide access to medical care that many would have never received before—it reminded me of why I became a doctor. I decided to return for a three-week visit in October 2018 with OBAT Helpers, which was one of the first non-governmental organizations to work in the camp. They operate a large medical clinic and also work on infrastructure development, education and community empowerment. Their model impressed me because of their deep commitment to sustainable community development and empowerment. They work with the Rohingya to develop their skills and build capacity within the community.

What are the biggest health needs of the people there? What are the biggest non-health needs to address?

As a doctor in the Kutupalong refugee clinic, I provided basic healthcare to men, women and children. Most of the diseases I treated are diseases of poverty: malnutrition, gastrointestinal worms, diarrhea, skin infections and respiratory illnesses. Some of the diseases, like mumps and diphtheria, I had never seen before because there are vaccines to prevent these devastating conditions. Unfortunately, the Rohingya were denied access to these vaccines in Myanmar.

Many of the illnesses are caused by contaminated water and inadequate hygiene. The camp was not planned — it grew quickly and spontaneously. So now there are wells for drinking water next to latrines that have no sewage system.

The Rohingya refugees need more permanent structures to live in and infrastructure to prevent diseases. They need a pathway to a future because right now they are stuck in a kind of limbo in the camp. It’s not safe to go back to Myanmar and they are not allowed to leave the camp. There are now 1 million people in the camp — the largest in the world.

How do you describe the attitudes of people living there? What are their biggest fears or hopes for the future?

Most people ran for their lives through the forest between Myanmar and Bangladesh. It took people anywhere from a few days to two weeks. There are many elderly Rohingya who walked or were carried by family members to the camp. Many women were pregnant when at that time. Almost no one had proper shoes. They fled at a moment’s notice when angry mobs came to their villages.

It can be hard to ask people about their experiences in Myanmar because it brings up their trauma and can re-traumatize them. I usually try not to ask about it unless it’s clinically relevant. However, I have seen a number of patients with suicidal ideation because of their experiences, and then it can be therapeutic for them to talk about what happened. Once we have identified the issue, we can refer them to mental health resources.

Many of the people I met are depressed and traumatized by their experiences in Myanmar. Many saw family members killed or raped. They lost everything they had. Their biggest fear is that they are going to be forced to return to Myanmar where they do not have citizenship nor basic rights. Many would like to return but only if they can be safe and have citizenship.

Others want to stay in Bangladesh and integrate into society which is, unfortunately, not possible right now due to Bangladesh’s government policies. Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, so they don’t have the same resources as developed countries to assist refugees. Many refugees want to go elsewhere, to Europe or the US, and make new lives for themselves.

Meggie's translator

People are just trying to live their lives. There is a guy who has a TV and for 1 taka [about a US penny] he lets people watch whatever soccer game is on. My translator, Yasein, stays up late watching soccer most nights. He says it makes him happy to do normal things that he used to do in Myanmar.

What surprised you most about life at the camp?

The best way to describe the camp is “humanity.” It is humans stripped down to their barest essentials: food, shelter, water, sanitation. Clothing, medicine, soap and books are all luxuries. All of their resources are brought in by NGOs. The Rohingya are not allowed to leave the camp. They are not allowed to have a job or a cellphone.

One of the things that struck me the most was how resilient the children are. They laugh and play just like children everywhere else in the world. Their toys might be different, but the joy is the same. They are the future of the Rohingya people, so it’s important that they grow up knowing their history and get an education.

Meggie at the camp

To learn more about the work of OBAT Helpers and the various programs they run in Bangladesh, visit obathelpers.org. You can join our fundraiser at newmarketgoods.com/products/cha-pin or through our collaboration with the Good Pin Club, a non-profit that partners with illustrators to create pins for meaningful causes.