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Medical Teams President Meets Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

by Martha Holley Newsome, President and CEO | Feb 26, 2018

The Kutupalong settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, is home to more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

I’ve just spent a week walking among Rohingya refugees living in the densely populated Kutupalong settlement in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. As one of the two major camps here, the total number of resettled refugees since August is estimated at over 700,000 with around 15,000 to 17,000 arriving per month. That’s a staggering number--making the camp roughly the size of Austin, Texas--and it’s difficult to understand the scale of it unless you witness it first-hand. Makeshift tents are stacked nearly on top of one another on muddy hillsides. Steep sanded steps lead to labyrinths of narrow paths. Tied bamboo bridges create treacherous movement over the stagnant swamps of discarded pump water.

The conditions are harsh; the heavy dust makes it hard to breathe and there is little protection from the intense sun. This area, once an elephant migration route, has been completely deforested to make space for the refugee population. Now void of any vegetation, the land creates “perfect storm” conditions for the impending mudslides and flooding. Elephants have already come back to rampage the camps and more attacks are intensely feared. Sanitation problems are also impossible to avoid due to how closely tents are placed near latrines. A recent report by the World Health Organization showed that more than 86 percent of water samples tested positive for contamination.  

According to UNICEF, 60 percent of new arrivals are children and women. Many are vulnerable and at great risk of disease. All are traumatized.

As refugees poured over the border into Bangladesh, Medical Teams began sending teams of medical professionals to care for their immediate and ongoing health needs. We now serve as a vital link between the critically ill and emergency care. In addition to our clinics, we train refugees as Community Health Workers (CHWs), to seek out the sick among their neighbors, as well as teach about water, sanitation, and disease prevention. Today, over 60 CHWs have been trained and are playing a crucial role in preventing the spread of diseases like diphtheria and measles throughout the camp. 

I had the privilege of witnessing the work of our Medical Teams staff and volunteers to treat and prevent sickness in our primary health clinics. Here, national doctors are working alongside our volunteer doctors and nurses to care for over 150 men, women, and children each day. They are treating everything from lower and upper respiratory issues, to urinary tract and skin infections, to communicable diseases like measles and diphtheria. Many Rohingya were denied any sort of medical care in their homeland of Myanmar, and often, our clinics and staff are their first encounter with medical treatment. This treatment offers a profound opportunity to provide dignified, loving care to those who have suffered so deeply. I can attest that our volunteers and staff see it as a great privilege to serve these broken yet beautifully resilient people.

fatima first visit (1)
Fatima and her baby Esa receive treatment at a Medical Teams International health post.

At our clinic I met a young Rohingya woman named Fatima. Her face was covered with a heavy black niqab, revealing only her eyes. I watched intently as she spoke of her painful exodus from Myanmar nearly six months ago. She was eight months pregnant during the arduous journey.  

“We walked for many days. I was so pregnant and I was very afraid I would have the baby while we were walking. It took many days. I don’t remember how many because it felt so long. I had to walk very slowly. The hills were so high.” She paused as deep sadness filled her eyes. “I feared with every step that I would be killed.”

She arrived barely in time, just a few days before having her son, Esa, in the camp. The week before I met her, he had developed a rash and a fever.

“I was very afraid for him. I had never seen this kind of rash before and I didn’t know what was happening,” she shared with me.

Our doctors confirmed that he had contracted measles. At the fragile young age of 5 months old, he hadn’t yet received the measles vaccination, making him dangerously susceptible in a setting like this where disease spreads like wildfire.  Our team worked swiftly to diagnose and treat, giving him Vitamin A drops to boost his immune system and making sure Fatima brought him back for a two-day follow up visit. This is when I met her, and saw that Esa was healing and acting like a typical baby.

martha and Fatima
Fatima, a patient at Medical Teams' health post in Kutupalong, meets with President and CEO Martha Holley Newsome, who's holding Fatima's 6-month-old son Esa.

The conditions, resources, and acuity of sickness in an ever-changing environment like a refugee camp all present unique challenges for our team. Yet at the same time, they create the perfect setting to dare to love like Jesus and boldly break barriers to health. This is what we are called to do, and why we are here.

Thank you for your continued support of our work caring for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and for your prayers. They are coveted and deeply appreciated.