Chapter 5: Rohingya Refugee Camp: You Have My Soul

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UNFPA Women Friendly Space, women safe to do what women do, grouped up, equal amongst equals. 

Her eyelashes brushed against my cheek.  Our mouths were open and when she exhaled, I inhaled.  I could smell her, deeply, her outsides, her insides, a sweet stench. If there is such a thing as refugeeness in odor, this is it.

They have their hands on my knees, their foreheads take turns leaning into mine. Sometimes three were speaking at once.  I am gently pawed at.

I starved for seven days. My husband was murdered. Babies were cut into pieces. I have nothing but I have my soul. They give us rice but we have no meat or spices or masala. We need burkas so we can go outside. It is so hot indoors. It is unbearable. It is all one room and with the sun it is so hot. Can you arrange for us to have a fan? My daughter could sew and earn a little money if we had a sewing machine.  My 12-year-old son was hit in the head with a bullet and I left him for dead but when I got here other people told me he had survived, and he is here now. I saw the village burn, then I ran. We are so thankful for the Bangladeshi people. They have given us a place to stay when we had nothing. The Burmese people. We cannot trust them.  Can you give us our country?  Can you take us with you? I am so thankful you came from so far to see us. We cannot go outside.  Our movement is so limited. They demanded, “Are you Bengali? Are you Bengali?” and I said, “No, I am Rohingya,”  and that’s when the torture began. So many women were being raped. As much brutality, the Burmese showed us, the same level of love and affection you (UNFPA) are showing. If vegetables are available we can’t go outside to get some. We don’t have the money or the burka to go outside.  Mobility is restricted outside the camp. I need an umbrella,  my husband says I am supposed to be covered. Freedom is nowhere. I am safe but I am controlled by my own shelter.  I am a woman alone. I cannot cook because I cannot go get firewood in the jungle on my own.  In Burma, I had three wooden houses.  I miss my cattle.

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In a pile of limbs, I offer to share some of my stress management, and we organize the forty women in a circle.  We close our eyes – and I remember that for some trauma victims even closing the eyes is too haunting.  I find my bones and breathe into the base of my spine and pray, “Please help me be clear and simple, guide me, help me do something helpful, something that is sustainable, practical and useful.”  We put one hand on our hearts, one on our bellies, and practice deep breathing, exhaling out our mouths, making the sound as we do.  I talk about picturing our troubles leaving our bodies on the stream of breath and sound.

I teach them the Grace Sequence. Hands on heart, one imagines a troubling event, holds a disturbing thought.  Inhale. Exhale.  Then one places one’s hands on top of one another out in front of the body, and pictures having externalized the event or thought, and sees it as if resting on the palms, now an object that one can hold.  Inhale. Exhale. Then one separates the palms, and rapidly, repeatedly looks from the right to left, self-administered EMDR, inhaling and exhaling.  To my quiet amazement, the room settles, everyone is quiet, a newly soothed and soothing spirit emerged.

Then, I am rubbed to pieces I have about fourteen hairs left, having lost much of my hair taking a migraine medication, but I am happy to have what’s left of it massaged out by Rohingya refugees.

One massages me like have rarely been massaged before, with devotion. She peppers me with kisses, all over my face, and eventually, on my mouth, to the great laughter of all around us. When I ask her how I could be o lucky to have her affection, she tells me that I have her soul.

And another.

She cradles me in her lap and strokes my hair.

And another.

I am stretched out on my side, a pillow under my head, while she presses her palms all over my head, gently rocking both of us, as we watch a drama about the perils of child marriage on adolescent reproductive health.  My friend who has been kissing me is in the play, and she periodically stops the action to wave at me.

And another.

Her aged hands flutter on my head and she lets them drift down the sides of my face as she mutters blessings.

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There was more coughing today.  It will be a miracle if I stay healthy.  Emotionally, I am strong.  Clearly, even broken down, the Rohingya are strong, too. I was wondering how we would transition from their unbelievable, collective, full-throated trauma processing to anything else – if we would transition –  the emotion is so consuming, the tears so wet. But when hours yawn in the timelessness of a refugee camp, there is time for the sharing to have his crescendo and culmination, for a subtle pivot to whatever non-eventful event is next.   That’s the ongoing paradox of this place where there is catastrophic upheaval, disorientation, and limitless amounts of time in which chronic disturbance swirls. There is so much time.

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We need to be able to give.  In our great need, we can’t only need, it’s too one dimensional and soul destroying.  It seems the human spirit in order to survive needs to be able to give of itself even in the most oppressive circumstances.

What other explanation is there for my walking into a UNFPA Women Friendly Space and being the one to whom so very much is given?  It is part and parcel of human dignity, to be able to give, and dignity is what UNFPA specializes in.