Chapter 7: Rohingya Refugee Camp: Enough?

I am sitting in the car, the window rolled down, and hundreds of people have gathered around.  After taking a walk, which itself cuts through throngs while attracting fellow walkers, I taped a video diary for Sky News, that mesmerized people.  They were so quiet, watching, it was quietest I ever heard the camp.  I wonder if that is the sort of quiet there is at night, after dark, when there is no electricity, and dozens of people huddle together for safety in their 8 feet by 10 feet homes, alongside 1.2 million others doing the same.

As I sit in the car, waiting for a colleague, I am looking deeply into the eyes of all who are looking back at me. I am very comfortable doing this, and I guess it comes from having a spiritual teacher who has been “seeing me” for a solid twelve years now.  I am in a comfortable presence. I am comfortable with the uncomfortable. I am okay with long, long silences. 

Eventually,  an old woman begins to gesture to me.  I lean forward and she blesses me.  She places bent hands on my head, on my cheeks.  An equally, or older, man next to her does the same.  I feel awe.  I think about how the Rohingya are not bitter, in spite of such trauma.  Cut through with knives, they are shot through with a tenderness that defies their horrific circumstances. Their capacity for gentleness is a  lesson in humanity with which I cannot even begin to grapple.

The old women floats her hands from my body and begins to tell her story of slaughter back home, raking a finger across throat as if it has been slit, then letting her hands float up uselessly while she rolls her head to one side with eyes closed, signifying death.  She touches her heart repeatedly, her belly, alternating indications of grief with those of murder. 

The old man holds his hands forward and “shoots” them in a small arc, showing how many were shot, mowed down,  at once. He demonstrates, perfectly, death, over and over.  I nod, I say I understand, I speak in English what they are gesturing. I say I am so sorry for your suffering. Others around them also begin to murmur, telling their sorrowful stories. 

In a video of this that I later I see, I see my hands are in prayer as I listen.  Even when I set them down in my lap, my palms are flat and pressed together.  I am glad.  I know that this is all I can do, listen prayerfully, with my own heart as open as the arteries that gushed Rohingya blood.  Our hearts all pump alike, circulating blood, story, sameness, difference.  This is all I can do, and it is enough.

Later, I shake. Lying in bed, my body involuntary trembles.  Sometimes I kick, only aware I have afterwards.  I trust this, I know it’s vicarious trauma exorcising itself.  Eventually, I fall asleep and sleep twelve hours. 

Grief is exhausting, but I wake up ready for more.


But the day doesn’t hold more Rohingya refugees for me. My time in the camp has concluded and as the morning wears on I feel more and more lethargic, more tired. Leaving is intellectually okay, I understand I can’t stay, that that is neither my role (to be here full time) nor how I am most useful (although even as I write that I debate with myself if that is so, the bargaining stage of grief that grapples with leaving the friends I have made behind).  It’s my body that is feeling the departure, as if every minute of the day that passes, every kilometer further from my 1.2 million Rohingya refugee brothers and sisters, tears me down. I am flagging, seemingly inexplicably, because logically I have rested plenty, deeply, well.

I am straddling the non-binary, non-dualistic paradox, the coincidence of opposites, of Father Richard Rohr, causes it, that I have done enough, and that it could never be enough.  It is enough — because I was present. 

Yet it could never be enough, when people are passing out small styrofoam containers to hungry children who accidentally push each other down as they struggle to secure their ration; when a newborn lies in a bed of bricks;  when mothers are given choices between food for the rest of the family in exchange for taking a daughter away to be raped in a nearby motel; when latrines are full of excrement and monsoons are coming; when marrying a girl to an adult mean is the only “hope” for her future; when men let themselves be dangerously be turned into drug mules to have a tiny bit of cash; when a woman squatting to poop or attempting to bathe will be assaulted merely for being as God made her. When there isn’t enough shelter, food, water, security, dignity, and there is no end in sight, and there is no hope, how can it listening and witnessing ever be enough?

I don’t understand how I have been placed in this position. I do accept it.  I don’t know why it can be helpful and even transformative, by the mercy of empathy, mirror neurons, and oxytocin, to be listened to. I am grateful for it.  In fact, my own life depends on believing that being fully present is enough.

It has been enough for me, a survivor of child maltreatment and assault. Extending the practice and belief to others, even Rohingya refugees who have fled ethnic cleansing and genocide is all that is available. While it isn’t enough, it has to be, or I would lose my mind with sweeping, grim, interminable reality of the Rohingya’s plight both at home in Myanmar and here in the camp, and the too much, and not enough, of their lives.