In light of celebrating the strength and resilience of women around the world this month--and every day at Medical Teams International--I would like to share the story of two women I recently met in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh.
Areafa (left) and her grandmother Sonomaher.
Their names are Areafa and Sonomaher--a grandmother and granddaughter, tied together by a common strength.
Areafa grew up in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, where most Rohingya lived. She has two small children and a husband, and lived on a green pasture with cows and water buffaloes. Just six months ago, during a morning she will never forget, a militia came storming into her village with machetes, fire, and rifles. “Everyone leave! Now!” they screamed, as they lit anything within reach on fire, and began firing off rounds and wielding machetes to chop limbs. Ash and blood covered the ground.
“I grabbed my children and ran. There were so many gunshots. I was so afraid… my husband ran next to me." She pauses with tears filling her eyes. “So many were hit. It was torture.”
She scooped up her grandmother as they fled and began the arduous journey to the border of Myanmar. Areafa's mother joined the group. Three generations of women ran for the border. “I just remember being chased. And running and running,” Areafa said.
They walked for days. Their feet bloodied and sore. And then, they waited for 16 days at the border.
After an exhaustive and painful journey, with open wounds and broken spirits, they finally arrived at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
I met Areafa and Sonomaher inside their hut. It was on the corner of a small terrace, accessible by four narrow and steep steps, up the dirt path from the clinic. Tattered, fraying rope tied to bamboo slats held their home together. A draped, dusty black tarp was wrapped around the exterior. A strung pale blue mosquito net sagged in the middle of floor, clumsily offering some small semblance of privacy.
As we approached, we heard intense wailing, an agonizing mourning that grew with each step. We quietly knocked. Areafa’s eyes peeked out through the narrow slat under the roof of her hut, barely wide enough to let the hot, stale air flow through. The almost translucent, gold-lined fabric of her hijab revealed little, yet her gaze told a story of a thousand words. Her eyes, laden with tears. Their pain, bottomless.
She begins sharing rapidly with our translator, pointing her long finger up the hill as she peered through the small opening. She stops and looks away, sobbing.
Our translator runs his hands through his hair as he shook his head. “No. No.” Almost simultaneously, Areafa’s head hangs down, heavy from the weight of her grief.
“Her mother died two nights ago.”
I felt my heart plummet. My eyes stung with hot tears as they found Areafa’s, extending an imperfect offering of sympathy. I stood sweating under the blazing noonday sun, feeling equally awkward and useless, sensing her pain from the other side of her hut wall but not being able to access it.
“Please ask if we can pray with her.” Our translator hesitated. “I’m not sure she will say yes.” “Please, just ask.” Areafa listened and nodded, opening her door to us.
She swiftly rolled out a mat as her tears still fell. I sat, patting the ground next to me to summon her.
And then, we offered her the only thing we could. Our presence.
If you have ever sat with someone in a time of active grief, before the shock and numbness set in, it feels like trying to frivolously cap a gushing geyser. Spilling forth, unbridled, wild, raw. We nodded and prayed, over and over again, our quiet prayers filling the space.
Though she lost her daughter, Sonomaher finds the strength to smile.
Soon, the door creeps open. Sonomaher peers in and walks in slowly. Areafa’s grandmother. Nearly 100 years old. The mother of the one who passed away. Frail, yet impossibly strong. Her face softens at the sight of us laying, weeping with her granddaughter.
She sits down and gazes at me. Her face was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen.
With her head in my lap, she reached her hand into mine, fragile and soft and warm, like a grandmother’s hand should be. My eyes brimmed with tears over the tenderness she was offering me, a total stranger. She then closed her tired eyes and rested the full weight of her head.
My mind was ushered to this verse: “You keep track of all my sorrows…. You have collected each one of my tears in your bottle…”
Just then, I had an overwhelming visual of our Savior, gently moving to capture each precious tear that fell in that hut so that not one would go unaccounted.
The act of remembering. The fierce and precise love of God... to which no tear is futile or forgotten. I closed my eyes and thanked Him for this stirring reminder that He is near in our deepest moments of pain. Impossibly near.
We hugged and said goodbye, that we’d be back, that we would not forget. I left, knowing very little about them but feeling so connected after entering this holy, sacred space.
I went by the next day, and they ran to me and wrapped their arms around my waist. Areafa buried her face into my neck. Her eyes danced with recognition. Sonomaher slipped her hand into mine again and looked at me intently with that same tender gaze.
We sat. I listened to their story. They are fighting for life after loss here in the camp. They are holding out for a future for their children and grandchildren, one that is filled with education and promise. They are longing for a land full of vegetation and freedom, not of dust and devastation. They are aching for justice. Yet they will keep hoping. Because as women, this is what we do. We hope relentlessly for our children, for our communities, for our future.
The author, middle, shares a special moment with Areafa and Sonomaher.
Before I left Bangladesh, I captured these photos to portray the strength of these two women who have been through hell and back. I wanted to share their story as a reminder of the power of presence, of the pursuing love of Jesus, of the power you wield to bring love and healing to people half a world away.
You can make a difference in the lives of strong, resilient people caught in the crossfire of war and persecution. In Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees need love and care in equal measure. By using volunteer health workers alongside international and Bangladeshi medical staff, Medical Teams is expanding its reach to serve more people in the refugee camps. You are the engine that powers this work. Please donate today.