A few years ago, Helen Gurr was teaching her classroom of gifted sixth-graders about the Holocaust. As the reality of millions of lives lost sank in, one young girl looked up at her teacher and with great emotion demanded to know: “Where were you?”
While Helen was not yet born during the dark days of World War II, the question has stuck with her. This year, she asked herself “Where were you” when peaceful Rohingya farmers and their families were attacked and forced to flee a genocide in Myanmar?
She can now answer: “I was there.”
“I was there” to bear witness. “I was there” to learn and share stories of the survivors. “I was there” to bring a little joy and hope into the lives of refugees with stuffed bears and simple hijab-wearing dolls. “I was there” to find the good in the midst of tragedy.
Between 700,000 and 800,000 refugees have entered Bangladesh since August 2017. They are coming to a country that is already poor but has welcomed them anyway. The international aid community has stepped in, from the giants in the field like Doctors Without Borders, UNHCR, International Organization for Migration and the World Food Program, to small organizations like ours (Hope Worldwide Utah) and our partner, the AMAL Foundation. Shelters are being built and infrastructure is being put into place as fast as possible, but the sheer numbers make it hard to stay on top of the many needs.
The Rohingya refugees face additional problems in the camps, including wild elephants that are used to roaming freely in areas now densely populated. Those elephants have already caused several fatalities, including a child. The coming monsoon and cyclone season is of huge concern. Authorities warn that more than 100,000 refugees are at risk of losing their makeshift homes to landslides and flooding. The shelters are built on the sides and tops of steep, sandy hills. The trees that once covered those hills have been cut down to use as firewood, increasing the risk of mudslides. The rainy season also increases the risk of disease spread quickly through inadequate sanitation and contaminated water. And still the refugees keep coming.
Patrick Kearon said of refugees that it “may not define them but our response will help define us.” He also cautioned in 2016 that “we must be careful that news of the refugees’ plight does not somehow become commonplace.” We see that right now in Bangledesh where donations are dwindling but the problems are not.
“Disaster fatigue,” “donation fatigue,” “bad news fatigue” and even “compassion fatigue” describe what can happen with an unending stream of bad news. We turn away and disengage. There are a number of counter-measures one can take, but a simple one is to look for the good, like the young man willing to fan an overheated American, the joy of a young boy with a new teddy bear, the older man holding an umbrella over a visitor to protect him from the sun and the many acts of kindness shown every day.
Exemplifying kindness is Eve, our local Bangladeshi contact who received a master’s degree from the University of Colorado and spent some time working at the Gates Foundation before following her heart to return to Bangladesh and work full time helping those less fortunate. She is making a difference and her work matters.
Also following their passion to make a difference in the world are Ron Huckabee and Sarah Franklin, executive directors of Hope Worldwide Utah and the members of our Bangladesh team.
Helen Gurr, now retired, joined me in traveling to Bangladesh. So did Tito, an engineer who works on water treatment solutions in his day job and wants to work on the getting clean water to refugees in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Kraig, who just retired, wants to spend his “golden years” serving others, Michelle, whose heart for service has taken her all over the world, takes vacation time to come and serve. Raymond is a tech guy with a goal to become a full time philanthropist within the next two to three years and has been on multiple trips and Steven Wood, photographer extraordinaire, came to document the experience, bringing with him cameras, bubbles and a gift for connecting. Amazing people, all.
Holly Richardson, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist, loves to hear people’s stories. She firmly believes we are all in this together and that the collective change we bring through our actions across the sea and in our own backyards can lift and bless innumerable lives.