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Refugee stories: Myanmar

Stories from Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, where almost a million refugees have sought shelter from violence in Myanmar.

Written by Tarryn Pegna | 19 Jun 2023

Two young girls in bright clothes play in the dusty path outside tents that form part of the world's largest refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Children play in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: Tearfund

Trigger warning

This story describes situations that some readers may find upsetting.

What would compel you to leave your home? What would it take for you to run, leaving your belongings, your friends, your neighbours, your job, your country, maybe even your language… everything you’ve known so far?

World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day falls on 20 June each year. It’s a day dedicated to honouring the people who have had to do just that – people who have fled their places of comfort when they, sometimes in a matter of minutes, have lost every trace of what was once comforting.

The UN defines a refugee as someone who, ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is… unwilling to return to it.’ 

27.1 million refugees, 82 million stories 

At the end of 2021, there were 27.1 million refugees around the world. Half of them were under the age of 18. 

In many countries, Tearfund works – often through the local church – to help improve the lives of people who are refugees or who are displaced within their own countries. Conflict, economic hardship and natural disasters (often caused by climate change) have forced more than 82 million people around the world from their homes. The massive numbers can seem overwhelming, but each of those statistics is a unique person, with a name and a story. Each person represented by the numbers is loved by God. Each person deserves the opportunity to thrive.

These refugee stories come from people who have found support through Tearfund partners working in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Cox’s Bazar is home to the world’s largest refugee settlement. Almost a million people live there – most of whom are Rohingya refugees who fled violence in neighbouring Myanmar.

‘Aalia says she can still recall the sound of rattling gun fire that destroyed the tranquillity of her village.’

Aalia’s* story

Aalia lived with her brother and father in what she describes as a beautiful village in Myanmar, in peace and contentment with a happy household.

Sadly, her mother had passed away when Aalia was just three years old but, even so, the family were happy together. They were financially stable and their large mango orchard and herd of goats and cattle ensured that they always had enough money to provide for their needs.

Aalia’s father understood the importance of a good education for Aalia and her brother, and they both attended school.

Then, one afternoon, without warning, everything changed. Aalia says she can still recall the sound of rattling gun fire that destroyed the tranquillity of her village.

The violent acts carried out by the armed militia that came that day meant that Aalia and her family had to flee their home to find safety. They ran, leaving behind everything that had made up their peaceful, happy lives – knowing they would not be able to return.  

Aalia and her family hid out of sight in a forest for two weeks. There, they found other groups of Rohingya people, like them, who had also had to run to escape the attacks. 

All of them were making their way towards the banks of the Sitalakhya River, hoping to find safe refuge in Cambodia or Bangladesh on the other side.

Hope away from home

After weeks of difficult walking, Aalia and her family reached the river banks and paid to cross in a boat. As they stepped ashore on the other side and found help from kind local people and government representatives in Bangladesh, they finally felt safe and free.

Sadly, Aalia’s happiness didn’t last long. Her father became terribly ill as a result of everything they had been through and he was admitted to hospital. Just two months after reaching Bangladesh, Aalia’s father died. 

Without her father, when some security offered itself to Aaliya in the form of a marriage proposal, she accepted even though she had only known the man for four months. After two years of marriage, her husband left her and moved with his parents to settle into another marriage. At the time, they already had a baby daughter and Aalia was pregnant with their second child.

Now, Aalia is on her own with two children in a country that is not her own. 

Staying strong

‘I have to stay strong for my children,’ she says. ‘I will try my best to provide a good environment for them. I have to be self-sufficient.’

Thanks to the generosity of Tearfund supporters, World Concern, our local partner operating in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, has been able to offer some help to Aalia in the form of a sewing course. She says, ‘I am lucky that I have been selected for the training. I will complete the training properly and I will try to be self-sufficient.’

Aalia says she is dreaming of days where she can stand on her own feet in life, prosper and smile again. 

More than anything, she says, she is really grateful and thankful to World Concern, as it brought some light to her life after a time that she describes as ‘sad and terrifying years of doom’.

‘Aalia is dreaming of when she can stand on her own feet, prosper, and smile again.’
Aalia, a refugee from Myanmar, sits sewing at her sewing machine in Cox's Bazar refugee camp. She received sewing training from Tearfund's local partner.

Aalia sits at her sewing machine in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Cox's Bazar is home to the world's largest refugee camp. Tearfund's local partners have helped provide Aalia with sewing training and she hopes to be able use these skills to provide for her children. Credit: Tearfund

Basic needs and dignity

Fifty-year-old Ali* and his family of ten are among the close to a million Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar after they fled violence in their home country of Myanmar.

For people like Ali, who have been forced to leave everything behind and are now living in a refugee camp, providing for family is extremely difficult. Ali has no income and the family have relied on humanitarian aid to get food. 

The area in the refugee camp where they live now is very densely populated. People have very little space or privacy and often there are no toilets. This makes life even more difficult, unpleasant and unsafe for everyone – particularly for those who are most vulnerable, such as children and the elderly.

After facing the loss and often very traumatic experiences involved in becoming a refugee, situations like these further strip people of their dignity.

Thanks to the kindness of Tearfund supporters, our local partner has been able to carry out water and sanitation work within the camp. As part of this, work has been done to construct latrines – including one right near where Ali and his family live. This latrine now provides for 15 families and as the latrine is also next to a hospital, the people working in the hospital are now able to make use of the toilet too.

Ali says it has helped to make some of the problems they were facing before better. 

Read another story from Cox’s Bazar here about how child-friendly spaces in the camp are helping to improve life for many of the young people.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Pray for refugees

    • Lift up every person around the world who has had to flee their homes and all that they have known in order to find safety. Ask God to provide for their needs.
    • Pray for emotional healing and for comfort for the many who have experienced or witnessed scenes and situations of an extremely traumatic nature. 
    • Bring before God the situations around the world that result in people having to flee. Pray that there will be peace and restoration, and for the Church to be actively involved in every level of this restoration.

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Written by  Tarryn Pegna

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