Chapter 2: Rohingya Refugee Camps | Women Friendly Spaces


I don’t cry, and I sleep well.  I can attribute that only to experience and meditation.

He was smiling, and playing with three plastic figurines, a lion, a giraffe, and a tiger.  I roared and nestled the lion toward him and he smiled more broadly.  She, on the other hand, was blank.  She had two little plastic dolls, smaller than my hand, one with a leg popped out.  She was smaller than the boy, unrelated by blood, but both ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar squatting inside the orange colored and cooler entrance of UNFPA’s Women Friendly Space.  Seeing how very little she is, and how sweet his smile, one struggles to put together that they somehow walked 14 days through rain, waist-high mud, and waded through scary canals of water, to arrive at this refugee camp.


A gaggle of girls was in the courtyard. They had yellow and orange tubes of plastic, tied in knots that stuck out of handle ends.  In the direct sun, we jumped rope,

just like girls eight and nine-year-olds all over the world jump rope.  We were in a circle facing each other.  Their dresses were filthy and their was hair slick with grease so that their hair was one cohesive piece and stayed in place, not moving as their bodies did.  They were earnest and one was particularly determined, her too large dress showing a deep v of her small body underneath.  I suggested we take two pieces of plastic to make one long rope, which with some doing it was accomplished. We began to jump together, holding hands, my exclaiming “yes” every time we were able to synch of our feet and leap over the rope successfully.  We got up to eight. Girls would jump, and I would run in the front door, back door, and I tried to x my feet to hop around in a 180. A few times my knees bumped the bum of the girl in front of me when we had four of us trying to jump together.


The light in the plastic corridor is color saturated from the shades of plastic that comprise the building, orange and yellow.  Posters on the wall shout WOMEN FIRST and END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN and SIXTEEN DAYS OF ACTIVISM, and DREAMS.  A pink square of construction paper has the session checklist by day.  The topics are gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health, child marriage, sex trafficking, drug addiction, and natural disasters. (I am finding myself increasingly anxious about the coming monsoon and know I need to regulate my fear because it could lead to hopeless panic). There is an Adolescent Art wall, with beautiful,  colorful drawings of papaya and rural scenes of home, of Myanmar, peaceful, with no carnage or terror.


Over forty women stand with their backs to the three walls, in a single row, calm, solemn.  I go to each one. We find our individual way to greet one another, hands in prayer, a few words, a hug, or cheeks pressed on the left, then the right.  Many speak to me, saying I have come from far away, that they have waited for me, that they are so glad I am there, and God brought me.


In three groups, women circle up and raise their hands at varying heights, making human flowers.  The effect is convincing, the apex of the open flower in the middle, with some palms curled like the leaves that surround a bloom. It’s art they make for me, and processing they do for themselves, to talk about being able to make something beautiful in this world of stress and dirt, how cooperation and collaboration and discussing things together feels better than isolation and loneliness.  I would pinch anyone really, really hard who laughed or scoffed at it.  It may not seem like much, but really it’s everything, and women’s presence for hours and hours every day in the Women-Friendly Space proves it.


Before long, there is music, and a woman with lovely round hips is up, smoothly hitching them to one side as her hands’ twirl to the beat.  Then I am up, too, casting off my UNFPA jacket, sweating again, doing my best south Asian moves.  A few adolescent girls join us, and the dancing becomes wilder and freer.  It delights everyone, the mirror neurons of those seated firing and laughter sparking in the orange-lit room.  Once I sit, listening takes over, stories of home pouring forth like the sweat on my face, and someone positions a fan to cool me.  The woman speaking, she lost her father and her son in a slaughter.   The woman speaking, she lost her husband and had a newborn. She used clothes to wrap up her postpartum belly and carried her newborn.  She paid someone to carry her one year old and her three old.


The sessions teach so much, and each woman who scoots over next to me to process her learning reveals the depth of uptake and careful comprehension.  Men may seek to take a child in marriage, saying it’s safer than being an unwed girl in this precarious environment.  But girls bodies aren’t ready for that kind of sex, for pregnancy and childbirth.  And people who sidle up to a woman or family with rations, with food, with slick talk, may only want to take the girls to a local hotel to rape them, as has happened with people they know.  Voluntary family planning methods are available to help prevent having another baby right now, in the camp where 60,000 woman re pregnant, where 300,000 women are of reproductive age.  It’s safer to give birth in the facility than to do so in the tent, home alone.  Information shines forth, like clear creek water gurgling over smooth stones.


Dreams are limited.  To have a sewing machine is really all that is said, and yes, a boom box, for the music they love to listen to. Having further health service integrated into this space would be helpful, one offers, because it’s so unsafe and hard to move around the camp and getting to the centers, well, they’d rather just have to come to Women Friendly Space. Notably, no one mentions going home, education, or a profession, with one touching exception: to be like the case managers.  One says that she wants to be kind and tender like the staff.

Rohingya dreams are limited.  The world has taught them to be, that their choices are close to zero.  When you can’t be a citizen, can’t move around your own village, conceptualizing something different is beyond the imaginations’ reach.


There is a small staff room, where I take my tea, and a psychosocial one on one counseling room, with pillows if it’s easier for a woman to lie down as she shares horrors of what has happened to her. The only other room is for the midwife. There is a table for examinations and a poster on the wall. But The Women Friendly Space doesn’t have to be much, to be everything, to the Rohingya who come here from 9 am to 4:30 pm every day.


Our time is unstructured. A few women have stretched out to sleep, unperturbed by husbands, needy children, household demands.  Teenage girls are clustered against a wall, seemingly a little apart, but their necks crane when any conversation anywhere in the room begins.   Sharing about home bubbles up again, and all ages, even the littlest, listen, as a pair of sisters describe violence.

Myanmar men came in, taking the young, pretty girls away, raping them.  They hog-tied the men, hands, and feet looped up behind their backs, and decapitated them, blood spilling from their spinal columns. They locked the older women in some room, out of which they were able to break by finding something which to batter down a door.  They fled, these two sisters, to the jungle, where they stayed, until from the jungle they saw their village lit by the fire.  Then, directly from the jungle, with nothing, they turned heel and began to run for Bangladesh. 

The walking took fourteen days.  The mud at times was waist high, and they slept wherever they lied down, in fields and on roadsides.  At the border, they tried to wave something white to beg for crossing.


In the Women-Friendly Space, women and children who are related find each other, after having been separated by the chaotic mayhem of murder and pan at home.  Mothers, sisters, mothers, and sisters in law, they leap at each other and weep with relief of reunion, weep with the painful revelations of who has been lost, back in the village, on the way. They listen with empathy to stories of the journey, of giving birth en route, to leaving children and elderly behind out of the most primal need for self-preservation.

I always remember that line in the Joy Luck Club in which the mother reveals to daughter, “You are not my first child,” that she had carried a baby on a forced migration as far as she could, until she could no further, until she set the baby day and carried on without her.  That was a book, some historical fiction.

This is real.


My eye reluctantly sees that four and half hours have gone by, and to be obedient to the security rules laid out for me, I have to go.  I have to leave this Rohingya family with whom I have been reunited.  I begin to cry.

A child takes a silver ring with etchings off her finger and slips it onto mine.  It fits on my wedding finger, which I love. I explain this to her and say this now means we are responsible for each other. She beams.

Another girl takes her the edge of her headscarf and wipes the tears on my face.

I had my scarf to another teen, and bow my head, asking her to wrap it for me.  She does so slowly, confidently, and I am in communion, a holy and sacred place. This is what I wait for, long for, this feeling of ecumenical faith, I, a Christian, having a Muslim wrap my head for me in her tradition.  I know Jesus love this.  I can tell by how I feel.


My time closes as it began, deep, sustained eye contact with which Rohingya women, gentle pressing of our cheeks up against one another, whispered words of “I love you.”  An elder woman stays seated, and when I kneel to her, she places her hands on my head and says, “Don’t weep, Daughter. It will be okay.”


Outside, a teen boy has green chili, those flat fronds, and little round fruits covered with flies, and eggs, resting on the dirt.  His wares are tidy, well organized, appealing.  I sit with him, and we take a picture.  A skirmish erupts on the streets and a man who is being hauled by the arm takes blows of feet and fists.  We drive away, leaving my family in the Women-Friendly Space behind.