Refugees the world over dream of rebuilding their shattered lives

Today is World Refugee Day, and with it comes a new world record: a global rise for the seventh year in a row in the total number of refugees, asylum seekers and forcibly displaced people.

Refugees the world over dream of rebuilding their shattered lives. Like us, they have experiences to share and ideas they dare to hope might one day turn into reality. Darren Brunk, a humanitarian specialist with Oxfam New Zealand, reflects on time spent in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

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Both my grandmothers were expert quilters. My mother plays her sewing machine like Glenn Gould could a piano. I know a perfect stitch when I see one. But if you promise not to tell my mum, I’ll let you in on a secret; Sara beats them all, hands down.

I met Sara*, and others like her, at a women’s group in Teknaf; a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Sara and the fifteen other women sitting with me on the woven mat floor of a woven-walled shelter have fled vicious armed violence across the border in Myanmar.

The women laid out the most strikingly beautiful and intricate embroidery I have ever seen, making me think how much my mother and grandmothers would feel at home in this company. Proud women across many ages have shown me their work; colourful intricate patterns they hope to display on International Women’s Day, to share publicly the remarkable skills they’ve rarely been able to share outside the home. Skills they hope, if seen, can be used to generate money to alleviate some of the difficulties in their family’s frayed and stretched lives.

Sara has remarkable skills and also remarkable courage, to survive the horrors she has witnessed. And now, to join this women’s group, one of the first in the camps, where women are meeting publicly, some for the first time in their lives, to talk about the very different struggles men and women face in the camps. The burden for mending families and communities rests largely on women like Sara. In the Rohingya camps, women and girls are the majority. In the home, women invest 70 hours a week caring for other family members, compared to 11 for the average man.

Darren Brunk with women’s group in host community, talking about livelihood needs

In a very real way, in these camps, Sara is stitching her life back together. A needle and thread are her one hope for income in a country where, as a Rohingya, she is forbidden from work. The mats, walls and roof of her shelter are made of grasses woven expertly together by her hands. Even walking through the camps – a mad and tight patchwork of lanes and stairs twisting around sharp shorn hills – is like a needle stitching an intricate pattern; left to be unpicked to return from each trip to the latrine, community garden or string of corrugated iron shops lining the main roads.

Sara is a refugee. Today, World Refugee Day, belongs to her; it is a day to tell her story, to remember that in every aspect of her life, she is stitching and mending her way – and the way of her family and community – back to a full life. Last year there were more people displaced around the world than any time since the Second World War, including 25.4 million refugees. The numbers increased in 2018 for the seventh year in a row, including in Bangladesh where new arrivals add daily to the 900,000 Rohingya in the camps around Cox’s Bazar.

Darren with a men’s group talking about domestic violence and how to discuss with neighbours and community

As I sit with Sara and the women of this group; as I look at the art from their hands, I desperately wish I could buy one of these precious creations, and bring it home to New Zealand to better tell Sara’s story. But I can’t. I’m not here as a buyer. As a humanitarian, I am a partner to the whole group – a space where I have been welcomed, to sit and share their stories, so that I might learn how to best bring support to them all. If I choose one, what is the unwritten price that is paid? I may damage my ability to work with the others.

So I ask what the group needs; what are the tools we can help provide as they stitch their lives back together. To a woman, the answer is the same, ‘we want to go home.’

Looking at the beauty these women have made at their fingertips, I wonder at how much weaving they have yet to do in their lives, and if they will ever be able to follow the threads that tie them back to their homes.

There is still much work to do, by many.  But for now I see that in these women’s hands, there is hope in its most tangible form.\

Folk singers singing songs about early forced marriage in Balukhali camp

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

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