Chapter 6: Rohingya Refugee Camp: Carefree Timelessness

Every now and then it hits me, abruptly, that I am looking into the eyes of a Rohingya, that I am living the news with them, survivors of an active ethnic cleansing.  It’s stunning to realize I am beholding the eyes of one of the world’s most complex humanitarian crisis, an old story of ghastly prejudice and control, a probable and likely genocide.  It is genocide. I think we all know it.  It just hasn’t been “declared yet,” even though legal analysis from Yale has because when the world acknowledges the genocide, we all have to do something about it.

Every now and then it washes over me that every single person in the room walked here.  Yesterday, in a UNFPA Women Friendly Space, I needed to do this reality check out loud:  “You really walked here.  Everyone one of you.”

Every one of them nodded.  Yes.  I walked here.

Every now and then, as I am holding and rubbing their small feet, it occurs to me that the children with whom I am snuggling and cuddling walked here from Myanmar. It’s….not right.  Children aren’t supposed to be on a forced migration.  They are supposed to be in school or being bathed by attentive caregivers, or daydreaming about play dates.  They are supposed to be children, not refugees.

The more than forty children and I sit in a tightly huddled circle.  They want to engage, to be connected, and it seems anything is fun for them, anything is play.  I remind myself to keep it simple and to trust the energy in the room. It can seem like a lot of responsibility, coming up with something nurturing, safe, meaningful for a crowd of traumatized faces straining to see what I will lead them next.

I stretch my legs out in front of me.  They do the same, all our feet pointing like a compass to some lovely center of sameness, of belonging. 

I reach my hands up high, and they do the same.

I inhale, and exhale through my mouth, making an “ahhhhh” sound.  They do, too. 

And so it goes.  We Stretch, and we breathe.  We lean forward and hold each others’ hands and toes as skin kisses.  We come back up and when we re-fold, we drift off the the right, laying out chests down on the legs next to us.  Giggles murmur and I am reminded of butterflies that lilt over the shiny clear creeks in the Great Smoky Mountains.  We reach back up, and let out bodies softly tumble down the the left, and more laughter gurgles like oxygenated water that caresses mossy stones.

Because I am bigger, lots of hands can touch me.  They hold the seam of my pants (which reminds me of my Farm Friend in Thailand, a woman who was sex trafficked and with whom I bonded in a horrible brothel, who clung to the seam of my pants and she described her son’s and her hunger that drove her back to paid rape as her choiceless choice).  Their little hands rest on my lower back, fingers wind their way through my toes.  I make my ribs as wide as I can, with my breath, to give them as much of me as I have ever been in my life.

They are so content.  They are so easy going.  We flow into a massage circle, and in a way I can’t believe how easy to please they are, how delighted each one is to be a part of something that I happen to know on that adult level is releasing oxytocin and settling and soothing the parasympathetic nervous system, that is helping reduce cortisol and allowing the adrenals, the amygdala, to  stand down from its toxic stress and hyper vigilance.  I massage the very small shoulders of the girl in  front of me, and she deftly rubs the back of the girl in front of her.  A divine pair of little hands are on my back, and sometimes the child behind her reaches around because apparently she wants to be touching me, too.  I massage  the precious (and greasy) head in front of me for a while, and I am so proud to notice that one girl down turns around and explains what feels best to her, and asks for her partner to do that particular rub.  Right on, kid.  Ask for what you need. 

We play telephone.  A girl starts, whispering her phrase into the ear of the child on her right.  I notice how exciting the game is, everyone giddily waiting for her to be whispered to, and have her turn to whisper.  When the phrase gets to me, I am confident this is where the original words will be lost, that I’ll mix them up and say who knows what gibberish.  I ask for the phrase four of five times, do my best to pass it on accurately, and watch the delight circle around.  Surprisingly, when the last girl has the phrase, and says it out loud, voila, it is the original! Over forty of us passed _______ in tact! 

When I ask what the phrase means, deep sweetness comes over my whole chest. The girl has said, “Our big sister is so beautiful,” and so many little souls with their sweet little lips passed along this gem.  I am doubly touched because I hadn’t yet interacted with the girl who generated my beautiful compliment.  She was, frankly, just one of the many, and that she saw me that way could literally make this entire two week trip worth while. I got on the plane for you. For you to have something sweet and belonging and safe to happen inside of you that makes you see me and say that I am your  beautiful big sister. I crawl to her, place my hands on her legs, and thank her, saying this is probably the nicest, kindest thing that has ever happened to me. I mean it.


This goes on for some three hours, our love flow.  The only intrusion is the thought that maybe I’ll catch lice or how strong my immune system is not to catch a bug from the coughs and sneezes. 

This is a time apart, what a priest I’ve heard of calls “Carefree Timelessness.”  It is gentle, organic, intuitive, tender.

It is everything that the life of a Rohingya refugee is not.