The numbers are staggering. Over 700,000 Rohingya refugees, many of them children and women, have taken shelter in Bangladesh to escape wholesale slaughter, rape, and burning of their villages in Myanmar — systematic violence that the United Nations has described as as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The descriptions of their conditions are moving. Read, for example, this, from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHRC) website: “They have walked for days through jungles and mountains, or braved dangerous sea voyages across the Bay of Bengal . . . Monsoon and cyclone season has arrived . . . Thousands of refugees will face grave risk of landslides and floods.”
But numbers, written descriptions, images are one thing. What must it be like to actually be on the ground, witnessing and providing relief in this humanitarian crisis?
Rhonda Gossen is the person to tell us.
She recently returned home to Lindsay after seven months in Bangladesh where her abbreviated UN title was specialist for host communities’ response.
When Rhonda and her Iranian-born husband, Shahbaz — who joined her in Bangladesh for two month-long stretches — sit down with me, it’s the Bangladesh experience and the lessons she took away from it that I want to hear about.
But I have other questions, too: How did she come to be there? What was it like to return to Lindsay after all that?
The Making of an Aid Worker
Rhonda’s university degrees are in International Studies and Human Security and Peacekeeping, but the experience that really set her on her path was volunteer work in India with the Canada World Youth exchange program (something she’d recommend to any budding humanitarian).
Since then she’s served as a Canadian diplomat and development worker with Global Affairs Canada and spent time as a research fellow at UBC for most of her career but the past five years, she has been a consultant with the United Nations.
It’s taken her into many fraught situations.
Her introduction to crisis response and conflict zones came in 2008, when she was posted to Kandahar in Afghanistan with the Canadian Government.
Later, when the Indus River flooded, affecting 20 million in Pakistan, she first saw the images on TV, sitting in Lindsay with her daughter. She then flew in to this crisis zone and later took assignments with UNDP in South Sudan, and in 2014 in Lebanon with UNHCR.
The experience with massive numbers of Syrian refugees in Lebanon was particularly helpful preparation for Bangladesh.
But there were significant differences: the Syrians had been displaced and were fleeing violence; the Rohingya were victims of ethnic cleansing, and were essentially stateless (having been stripped of citizenship rights decades earlier).
And Lebanon was a much wealthier country than Bangladesh.
In December, 2017, Rhonda flew in to Dakha, then on to Cox’s Bazar, the epicentre of the refugee crisis.
Cox’s Bazar might, at some time in the past, have been a delight to visit. It has the longest sandy beach in the world (129 km) and provides wildlife habitat for tortoises and elephants. But in addition to now being inundated with refugees it’s an area prone to climate disasters such as high tides, monsoons, and mudslides. As Shahbaz notes, “the conditions are there for an emergency within an emergency.”
Rhonda remembers the initial impression the camps made on her. “When you see them what strikes everybody is the sheer size,” she says. “You know something has gone terribly wrong.”
Rhonda was not a first responder. Most of her energy went to work with the host communities — the Bangladeshis — who were facing the impact of the massive influx of refugees.
She was hugely impressed by the generosity and kindness of the Bangladeshis to the newcomers. Here were those with very little, sharing their food, possessions and space with large numbers of refugees who had almost nothing.
She was equally impressed by the refugees, who demonstrated enormous resilience. Just a few weeks ago, the first democratic election was held in the largest refugee camp. Half the elected Rohingya leaders were male, half female. They were empowered to help make decisions about their situation and represent the wider community.
A month ago Rhonda returned to Lindsay. She’d left Bangladesh with mixed feelings. The crisis was deepening, but there had been small victories.
She also took satisfaction in the role Canada was playing advocating for justice for the Rohingya people and contributing $300 million to relief and recovery efforts.
Being back in Lindsay was a relief. She was with Shahbaz and her daughter. “It’s peaceful, she notes, “and the air is clean. It’s so easy to live here.”
Coming back to Lindsay, though, she was reminded that poverty exists here too, despite the general affluence of Canadian society. Here, poverty exists side by side with prosperity.
As she decompresses Rhonda continues to work, from home or on trips to Ottawa or Toronto. Both she and Shahbaz also hope to build their connections here in Lindsay and to contribute to our community.
Doing Our Part
It’s impossible to sit down with Rhonda without wanting to make a bit of a difference yourself, and she has thoughts on what we might do.
To start we ought to be aware of what’s going on around the world and be cognizant of our shared humanity. A child in Bangladesh or Yemen is as important and deserving of care as a child in Canada or the U.S.
And although we should recognize the resilience and capacity of people to improve their lives no matter what crisis situation they are facing, it’s incumbent on us to do what we can to help.
To support humanitarian efforts in Bangladesh through organizations based in Canada that are active there, you could donate to UNHCR Canada, to the Canadian Red Cross or to NGOs like Oxfam Canada. But there are other humanitarian crises playing out in countries around the world.
And here in Lindsay you can donate or volunteer at Community Care, Women’s Resources, A Place Called Home or any of a dozen other organizations.