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As Kiwis start to breathe a sigh of relief at the departing back of COVID-19, it’s time to look outward - to the children, families and communities most vulnerable around the world.
For them, the fight has just begun.
We’ve been lucky. While some Kiwis have suffered tragic loss from the virus, compared to other parts of the world, we have emerged relatively untouched, keeping the worst at bay by sticking to our bubbles. We filled them with those we love most, with the smells of fresh baking, the words of new novels, the laughter of new games.
But for those living in places like Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, there are no options of bubbles.
No way to enact social distancing, to easily wash hands.
No choice to not share food, the same tap, the same toilet, with thousands of others.
As COVID-19 turns its head to Bangladesh’s shores, it may be nothing short of catastrophic.
Host to the largest number of displaced people in the world, Cox’s Bazar is mainly made up of the thousands of people and families forced to flee violence in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, among them half a million children. And while at first glance, it may feel like a vibrant Bangladeshi city with tom-toms storming down the road, kids jumping over potholes and teenagers playing cane ball, that first impression is misleading.
It’s only once you venture into the narrow alleyways and get lost amongst the one-room bamboo shelters surrounded by rubbish that the reality becomes clear.
And the clock has started.
With the first few cases of COVID-19 confirmed in the camps, it’s now a race to avoid another humanitarian disaster and to protect the people already living in such vulnerable conditions. These are people who have undergone huge trauma when they fled to Cox’s Bazar on foot. Their scars and pains are visible; not just physically, but in their stories and in the people who are no longer with them.
People like Rashida, who is only eighteen years old and was separated from her family in the chaos of fleeing Myanmar. The camps are difficult for her, but services like the Dignity, Access, Participation, Safety Centre (DAPS) have helped her to find a renewed sense of safety, confidence and happiness.
Or people like Jaynab, who too fled violence in Rakhine state in Myanmar, and has been coming to the DAPS Centre to learn to sew. She says, "After losing my home in Myanmar, I feel no peace at all. I worry about my children and how to give them a better life, how to feed them. But I find hope here and ways to help my family. I want to pass on my skills to my children. It's a little bit easier because now I have hope."
A safe space for survivors of violence and at-risk groups, the centre provides psychosocial support and the teaching of new skills such as sewing and fish net making, and for young women who are survivors of gender-based violence, it helps them to meet other women facing similar problems, to share their experiences and to learn from one another. Rashida says, “I usually feel unsafe, unsettled and struggle a lot, but when I come to the centre, I am happy, I can learn new skills, chat with other women and share my suffering and sadness.”
Now that the risk of COVID-19 has become clear, non-essential services and staff have been suspended within the camps, the DAPS Centre being one of them. This is a devastating blow to those who have come to rely on the programme, and as the race to avoid catastrophe begins, now more than ever, people like Rashida and Jaynab need our help.
People who, along with another million more, deserve not to be forgotten by those of us lucky enough not to live in Cox’s Bazar.