*Salima is a widow and a refugee. She’s 25 years old.
Salima is one of the 700,000 refugees who have fled horrific violence in Myanmar since late August last year. Most are Rohingya, an ethnic minority, and they have sought protection at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – now home to the world’s largest, most densely populated refugee camp.
Many women in the camp have harrowing memories of their families being slaughtered, their villages burned to the ground. Some women were so brutally raped that they didn’t survive. Thousands of marginalised girls and women, including female-headed households, are among the most vulnerable in the camp. Many worry about being sexually assaulted or trafficked, so they don’t leave their shelters after nightfall.
Not legally permitted to work, women struggle to find ways to support their families. Lacking official refugee status in Bangladesh, their chances are limited for resettlement in countries like Australia. On World Refugee Day, we step into the daily life of Salima, a single mother who is doing everything she possibly can to protect her one surviving child.
Morning comes very early here. Jannatul is still sleeping. I’m thankful that she doesn’t have nightmares after all she has seen. She doesn’t talk about it, but I know she remembers.
It happened last September. They arrived at night and started shooting. They set fire to our homes and burned our community to the ground. People were running everywhere. Jannatul was with me, but I didn’t know what had happened to my husband, Mohamed, and my other two children. Later I saw them dead. Mohamed was shot. My son, Hafej, was just two years old. My baby, Kalima, was one. They were stabbed to death.
That night, we hid by a riverbank. We walked for a week in the rain, and for three days we didn’t eat. Jannatul was about to die when another family shared some rice with us. We were thankful. We saw so many people dying or dead on the roadside.
We finally crossed the Naf River into Bangladesh. We collapsed on the road. After a few days, we found a space to put a tent that we got from an NGO. We have been here almost nine months. They say this is the largest refugee camp in the world now. It feels like it. It is so crowded.
I [sometimes] work in a small food stall in the market in the camp. We refugees are not allowed to work, it is illegal. But I earn a little money at the food stall—about 100 taka a day [AUD$1.68). I grind spices all day long—onion, ginger, chili, turmeric, garlic, and mustard seeds for making curry. I can buy firewood and a few vegetables with this money. I have no income when the food stall is closed.
We eat a bit of rice from the night before. We go to fetch more water for drinking and cooking at a pump near our shelter.
I drop Jannatul at the centre. She loves playing there. There are no real schools operating in the camp. They are not allowed. I just want a stable place for Jannatul to be. Sometimes I am afraid to let her out of my sight. She is my only hope for the future.
It is very hot and humid. We’ve eaten the same thing every day for nine months now. Every three months, we line up for sugar and milk powder that NGOs give out.
In the morning, sometimes my sisters come over. We fled from Myanmar together - my four sisters and our elderly parents. My father is blind. We took turns carrying him on the road. I carry the things we get from the NGOs for my parents because they are old. I also take them to health centers run by aid organizations when they are sick.
I try to buy firewood. This is my biggest difficulty. I do not have anyone who can collect firewood for me from forests. It is too dangerous to send Jannatul there. She could be assaulted or bitten by snakes.
Jannatul comes home from the learning centre, and I make some food for her. [Sometimes] I don’t have any dry firewood because of incessant monsoon rains, so I can’t prepare any food.
It’s so very hot in the shelter, and it is raining outside. Jannatul and I take a nap. In Myanmar, we had a garden and some cattle. I spent my days caring for them. Here I have nothing to do except cook for my daughter and queue up for supplies. We would happily go home back if we could be sure there would be peace… It’s like the world has fallen in on my head. I feel helpless. I pass the days with my grief.
Jannatul and I go to the vegetable market sometimes in the afternoon, if it is not raining. I buy spinach, cucumbers, okra and bitter gourd that we like to cook. I spend one day of my pay to buy these vegetables. Then I begin to prepare some food to eat. We will eat rice. We have not had meat in months.
As the sun goes down, we pray the magrib prayer. I try to teach Jannatul the bit of Arabic that I know.
We prepare to sleep. There is no electricity in the shelter and we don’t have a flashlight. The floor is hard. The monsoons arrived last week. Our shelter was shaking in the wind. Rain water flowed down the hill behind us and flooded part of the floor.
We were so afraid that we couldn’t sleep. Jannatul was holding me tightly. We cannot lock the shelter’s door. I have no one to protect us so I cannot let myself feel afraid.
World Vision helped strengthen our shelter before the rains started. Our house was in very bad shape before. I cannot rebuild my shelter if it falls down or is destroyed. This place is our home, where at least I can dream about living and surviving with my daughter.
*Name has been changed
This story is supplied by World Vision.