“This commentary does not represent the thoughts, intentions, plans or strategies of my employer or any other organization. It is solely my opinion.”- Manik Willver D’Costa, Author
Had a long desire in the heart to visit the Rohingya refugee camp in Kutupalong, Ukhia but always missing to line up the bat and ball! After all, I have been always updated the situation with reports, photos and videos by kind generosity of Caritas Chattogram Regional Director Mr. James Gomes.
Cartias Bangladesh is operational in the Kutupalong area with enormous effort since the outbreak of Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state, Myanmar. The opportunity came for me on 19 June to express solidarity with them. God always has a plan. I found it better late than never!
Archbishop of Chittagong Most Rev. Moses M. Costa CSC and Bishop of Barisal Most Rev. Lawrence S. Howlader CSC were invited by Mr. James Gomes in a solidarity lunch with the refugee children on 19 June at UU Zone, Camp 4. On 1st June I was in Caritas Chittagong office as a speaker in ‘Training on Teaching Learning Method’ organized for village-based education centers in Chittagong Hill Tracts. In leisure with the regional director Mr. James, on a cup of tea, it is decided that I also accompany the Bishops! Good for me, so that I can also cover the tour for our news service- CANS. Both of us later decided to include Chittagong Hill Tracts Pastoral Service Team Secretary Mr. Khunthairoy Francis Tripura in the visiting team. He is also the Caritas Governing and Executive Bodies’ member.
As planned left Chittagong at 5.45 am on 19 June by a hired micro-bus, the archbishop’s driver was sick. Soon after crossing the new Karnaphuli Bridge we realized that it will be a bumpy ride! We never knew that continuous rain has worsened the road condition so quickly! The micro was making extreme noise due to bumping; the conversation was too difficult! The only option was to silently enjoy bumper car experience!
Reached at 9.15 am in Caritas Cox’s Bazar office addressed at Manha Bhaban, 1st Floor, Badar Mokam Residential Area, Thana Road obviously with a warm welcome from the staff. We had some time for chit-chat with the staff, look around the office with a warm cup of coffee before we start for the camp in Kutupalong, Ukhia. It is a hired temporary office of Caritas Bangladesh to accommodate the ‘Provision of Site & Shelter Support for Refugees from the Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar in Bangladesh Project’. The 1st floor is being used as the office and 2nd and 3rd as the residence for the staff and visitors. Transport coordinator of the project Mr. John presented us nice t-shirts and caps with monograms of Caritas and UNHCR. I liked the sky-blue colored t-shirt, my wife also appreciated commenting on my FB photo. I decided to wear the same before leaving for the camp because Caritas is so well known among the refugees.
Disaster Management of Caritas Chattogram Program Officer Mr. Mazharul Islam is presently responsible for the project as ‘Head of Program’. He is strongly supported and assisted by Ms. Sarah Marie Miano from CRS and Ms. Christin Mothscge from Caritas Germany. Marie has been working in Cox’s Bazar for quite a long time and Christin just came into work for next two years. Leaving the family and friends behind, coping with the hot and rainy weather in Bangladesh, working in an office heavily congested and no air-conditioning! They pay a frequent visit to Kutupalong camp in Ukhia which is about 2 hours ride from Cox’s Bazar and then again long walk on under construction muddy roads under scorching sun! What a sacrifice they are doing to share the journey with one million refugees from Myanmar!
We found some of the guests already arrived and some are landing soon from Dhaka aiming to join ‘Share a meal, meet a migrant’ campaign launched by Caritas Internationalis! (for the detailed report of the program, click here). We were driven to Cox’s Bazar airport to pick up the remaining guests especially President and CEO of CRS Mr. Sean Callahan. The team is organized in 4 cars. I was privileged to journey with Archbishop Moses Costa CSC, Mr. Sean Callahan, Caritas Executive Director Mr. Francis Atul Sarkar, Ms. Sarah Marie Miano and Mr. James Gomes.
Our journey began towards Kutupalong, Ukhia. The Eid Vacation was not ended then. The tourist city of Cox’s Bazar was overcrowded. We had to slowly proceed towards the Marine Drive Road due to heavy traffic. It was a nice drive through the marine drive road watching the largest sea beach in the world very closely. It is certain that I won’t have time to visit the beach.
As it was my first visit, Mr. James was introducing me the spots during the ride, e.g. military check post, relief coordination center, refugee registration center, previous settlements, and the entrance of the new camp area. From the car I was observing that refugees entered in Bangladesh before the 25 August 2017 violence are now more or less settled. They are doing small businesses of grocery shops, barber’s shop, tea stall, etc. Their households are also not in that miserable condition. But an opposite reality from the starting of the new camp area, very congested and temporary houses, overcrowded, dirt, smells, clothless children, etc!
Archbishop Moses was telling these are the developed situations! A lot of developments were done since his last visit to the camp. Previously refugees had to stay under the trees or open sky here and there without planning. It was difficult to proceed with the car or on a walk as countless refugees used to beg to the visitors. After proceeding further, I realized that the government is developing the road communications; establishing hospitals, police camps; mapping and distribution of the camp in 20 blocks. I heard from Mr. James that 20 Deputy Secretaries are appointed as Camp in Charge of these 20 blocks! Deputy Secretaries are high officials of Bangladesh Government but now coping with the situation of refugee camps as they are gradually taking their residence inside the camp area, though they were supposed to be stationed in the capital city Dhaka! Another good example of solidarity set by the government.
Our cars reached a spot where the herringboned road ended and under construction muddy road starts. It was a sunny and hot day. I decided to leave my umbrella in the car. There were a lot of plastic boots but none of us felt the necessity of wearing them as there was no sign of rain. We started walking and I photo shooting as well. Now I found the camps are very organized with temporary households, latrines, tubewell, and walkway. It is almost one year since the violence outbreak and government is now steady to think of developing the humanitarian conditions in the camp. There we have received by some development workers of Caritas. Among them, I know Mr. Ambrose Gomes who has just retired from his service with Caritas Bangladesh but again contractually appointed to serve in the camp. I also found Mr. Abu Taher who is very hardworking and committed worker. I cannot recall many of others’ names. I have started sweating and feeling uncomfortable due to excessive heat. By now I am realizing how difficult and hardworking jobs they are committed to. This is how God works through the people to stand at the side of oppressed and vulnerable children of Him! May God bless all the staff of humanitarian organizations especially of Caritas serving for Rohingya refugees.
671,500 arrivals since August 2017 are reported as of 15 March, according to the IOM Needs and Population Monitoring (NPM) Round 8 site assessment. As of 18 March 2018, the RRRC Family Counting Exercise, supported by UNHCR, has counted 836,210 refugees in total in camps and settlements – including arrivals both before and after August 2017.
Along with Bangladesh government, several international, national and local NGOs have been serving in the area to address the basic needs of the refugees. Caritas is one of these national NGOs. They have been providing Education, Food, Nutrition, Protection, Non-Food Items (NFI), Shelter, Site Management, Water-Sanitation-Hygiene (WASH), etc.
Anyway, at last, we reached to UU Zone, Camp-4, the venue selected for the day’s event. Caritas organizations across the world invited all men and women of goodwill to ‘share a meal, meet a migrant!’ In response to that Caritas Bangladesh organized a shared lunch with 1800 Rohingya refugee children from 6 Children Friendly Spaces (CFS) operational in UU zone by Caritas Bangladesh. By now I am able to meet all the distinguished guests. The long list of the guests I want to share: Archbishop of Chittagong Most Rev. Moses M. Costa CSC, Bishop of Barisal Most Rev. Lawrence Subrato Howlader CSC, President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CEO) Sean Callahan, Caritas Executive Director Francis Atul Sarkar, Country Manager of CRS Pankaj Kumar, South Asia Representative of CRS Tony Castleman, Communication Officer of Caritas Canada Khoudia Ndiaye, Humanitarian Program Officer of Caritas Canada Dominique Godbout, Country Representative of Caritas Switzerland Amrita Rozario, Communications Officer of CRS Caroline Brennan, Member of Governing and Executive Body of Caritas Bangladesh Khunthairoy Francis Tripura, Assistant Executive Director (Finance & Admin) Sebastian Rozario, Regional Director of Chattogram James Gomes, Senior Manager of Disaster Management Department Pintu William Gomes. It is really a good reason for being thankful for meeting all the distinguished guests.
Two pandals are made at the venue, for a formal ceremony and distribution of food to the children. Protection manager of the project Ferdinand Pereira moderated the program. So spontaneous he is in presentation, really appraising! I found Ambrose Gomes very busy with the children, that is his lifetime service during the tenure with Caritas Bangladesh. Some of the guests greeted the audience, mainly the Rohingya leaders locally known as majhi. They were so happy and honored to meet all the guests from the country and abroad! At the end of the ceremony, we went to see the distribution of food to children. Guests were there to distribute as well. We assumed that the children will take lunch there with us. But they were rather interested to carry the food package to home and share with the family! Keeping that in mind Caritas arranged heavy package sufficient for 2-3 persons. I realized sharing matters in the time of distress and persecution! I still remember and photographed some smiling and thankful faces of the refugee children.
Distribution of food to children ended and we went back to the main pandal to have lunch with the majhis. We found them sitting together keeping one table reserved for the guests. The archbishop and Mr. James insisted them to mix with the guests and have the lunch together. It is quickly done, happy sharing, no reservation! I found the archbishop very open to the refugees- giving time, hearing their stories. The refugee majhis were very inspired to talk to him knowing he is a superior religious leader of Catholics! I found Archbishop Moses giving more time to the children. He always has a compassionate heart for them! Bishop Lawrence talked with several workers of humanitarian partners, especially of Caritas. He is keenly interested to know about their struggles, challenges, strength, and joy in serving the most vulnerable refugees. Anyway, the Rohingya refugees never dreamt that they will share a meal in one table with such kind of distinguished guests! It was clearly understandable reading their face.
As we were nearly finished the lunch, heavy rain with stormy wind started. In few minutes the total scenario changed, roads became dangerously muddy! We were supposed to visit PP zone but due to the changed situation, canceled. The next destination is BB zone. I started walking with a bamboo stick for support to walk with my camera bag on shoulder. Hah… we are struggling here and our umbrellas and boots are peacefully lying in the cars! Majhis were so kind to accompany us providing their own umbrella. It was an experience for me walking about 40 minutes to walk on that muddy road till to our car. On reaching, I was telling Mr. James that we wanted to visit the refugees, but God wanted us to experience the everyday reality of refugees and humanitarian workers! God made us experience how it feels under the scorching sun and during rain and storm. Praise the Lord! A majhi was helping me during my walk. I told him how miserable it is for them to live in such a condition with very temporary houses, congested place, limitation of food and other basic needs. But his answer was fully opposite. As per him, it is far better here than going back to Myanmar! In the country, they did not have any right of going to a mosque, send children to schools or freely move! At least they are being counted as the human in Bangladesh!
While I was walking carefully with fear of slipping, I saw Mr. Sean Callahan crossing me without the help of any person or bamboo stick! Seemed he is an everyday traveler here! When I reached to the car, I found him relaxing inside reaching at least 15 minutes earlier to me. Bravo, the President, and CEO of CRS! This is the real strength of a humanitarian worker. I was a bit worried for the archbishop because he is aged. But he also managed to come few minutes after my arrival. God really helps and protects his servants!
During visiting families in BB zone, Mr. James introduced a majhi to Mr. Sean. The majhi was giving witness on how they were empowered by Caritas. He was telling, “Caritas did not provide us vendor supplied low-cost houses. Instead, they have trained us on how to construct those. We were trained and later built our own houses. Now we are skilled and often being hired by some other humanitarian partners as professionals to build houses in other zones or areas.”
Mr. Abu Taher led us to a Rohingya family. The husband was not at the home. But we met the wife named Mariam Khatun (35) with 6 boys and 4 girls! She gave birth of her last child during crossing the Myanmar border with life risk! She thinks it will really not be possible to go back to Myanmar. There they always had to pass sleepless nights with fear of being attacked by the army and Buddhist terrorists. Men in the families had to hide in fear. Young girls and wives used to often being captured and raped in public!
From BB zone we again set for Cox’s Bazar and reached by 6.15 pm. Mr. Khunthairoy and I took a chance to go to our hotel ‘Vista Bay’. A nice shower was really boosting after having a cup of coffee and hot paratha from the nearby restaurant. Our next program was scheduled at 8.00 pm at the Cox’s Bazar office of Caritas. We were there on time and enjoyed the detailed and summary report of Caritas interventions and responses for the refugees from Myanmar. It was a great experience having dinner together with the distinguished guests from the country and abroad.
Around at 11.45 pm I was back to my hotel room and had some time to reflect on the day. I believe God worked through the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh (CBCB) to inspire Caritas Bangladesh for responding to this massive humanitarian crisis. Caritas Bangladesh is playing a trust-worthy charitable role there with the refugees out of the divine love. I found Mr. Francis Atul Sarkar so compassionate for the refugees, Mr. James Gomes so hard working for upbringing the humanitarian conditions of them! For almost one year I saw Mr. James is extremely busy with extra-hours office loads, sleepless nights, 24/7 communications, frequent visitations in the sites! Many more I surely do not know. I do not know details about all the humanitarian workers’ effort of Caritas but from the massive development scenario, their sincere and outstanding hard work, effort and team spirit are clearly understandable. I congratulate and pray for all of them for the good works they are doing! God bless them all!
Jesus, when asked which of the commandments is the greatest, responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt. 22: 37). Jesus also explains that this love for God must inspire us to love our neighbor, making the commandment of love twofold. This twofold command to love is not only the source of the whole law (see Mt. 22: 40) but also its fulfillment: “[H]e who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law…. Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13: 8-10). One of the great theologians and early bishops of the Church, St. Augustine, wrote, “as charity comprises the two commandments to which the Lord related the whole Law and the prophets … so the Ten Commandments were themselves given on two tablets. Three were written on one tablet and seven on the other” (see St. Augustine, Sermo 33, 2, 2 from J.P. Migne, ed., Patrologia Latina 38, 208 (Parish: 1841-1855).
Men do charity out of love and God is the ultimate source of love. So it is very much important for the humanitarian workers to keep communicated and connected with the God through personal relationship and encounter in prayer. I urge all the development workers of Caritas especially those who are serving for the refugees to encounter God more often, to take time to pray and silence. There are mosques or temples in Ukhia, even in Kutupalong. Hopefully, Muslim, Hindu and, Buddhist workers are having the opportunity to exercise religious prayers occasionally. If not, please, start today! God is the Only person who can guide and lead you in service for the vulnerable out of love! Being the smallest religious minority, having no arrangement at large, I doubt Catholic workers are having mass regularly. As the Church, as the organization, we just need to rethink to develop the situation.
Click here for the complete album of the tour.