Last month, a massive fire swept through the largest refugee camp in the world in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where nearly one million Rohingya refugees live. The fire took 15 lives and burned down thousands of shelters and health facilities, leaving more than 45,0000 people displaced.
Our teams met Ismael, 35, in the middle of the crowds and confusion. Ashes and burned debris are all we could see. His eyes fixed on the horizon, Ismael told one of Action Against Hunger’s psychosocial workers: "I was in the tea shop when I heard a fire broke out. How many more times I may witness my shelter being burnt down to ashes..."
For Ismael and his neighbors, the fire brings painful memories of their flight to Bangladesh in 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya saw their homes burned and communities razed, forcing them to flee Rakhine State nearly four years ago. "They burned my house and all that I had in it,” recalls Ismael.
Today, living in overcrowded camps, the plight of the displaced Rohingya remains extremely fragile. “In the light of raging fires, my future is still obscure,” says Ismael.
FIRE LEAVES THOUSANDS TRAUMATIZED
The fire destroyed homes, belongings, and important documents, including identification and data cards, that allow Rohingya refugees to work and access food and essential services in Cox’s Bazar. Many people, particularly children, were separated from their families as they ran to find safety amidst extreme chaos and confusion.
Repeated shocks and stresses have caused a spike in mental health needs. Action Against Hunger teams are on the ground, working tirelessly to provide psychological first aid, in addition to serving meals, rehabilitating facilities and water points, and reconnecting families.
When they fled Myanmar, Ismael stepped up to serve as a community leader known as a Majhi. "Helping people gives me hope,” he says. “It keeps me going."
As Majhi, he feels a great responsibility to care for his community. In the wake of the fire, he has not been able to stop thinking about the victims trapped in the blaze – and what more he could have done to help them: "I could have acted promptly…I was sure that the fire would not reach our block."
Action Against Hunger’s teams of psychosocial workers have been deployed to offer counseling and support to hundreds of people like Ismael, who are dealing with feelings of guilt, anger, fear, and more as a result of this new trauma. During his counselling session, Ismael began to understand how normal his feelings were. As he spoke and our psychosocial worker listened, he started to feel a little lighter.
Violent and deadly shocks continue to hit the Rohingya community, leaving deep marks on the entire society, especially on children. Refugee camps are the last resort for persecuted communities, who have nowhere else to go. The humanitarian community, along with other key stakeholders, must seek sustainable and dignified solutions for the displaced Rohingya, and until then, refugee camps should be rebuilt in a safer way to prevent future fires and other hazards.