About a year ago I was in Kutupalong Refugee Camp in eastern Bangladesh, 40 kilometers from the Burma/Myanmar border. It was a dusty, bumpy ride from Cox’s Bazaar, the Bangladeshi resort town where I had celebrated the new year and my birthday with Mark, my friend, traveling companion and business partner. In the evening, we sat on Cox’s Bazaar’s long sandy beach and watched the sun set over the Bay of Bengal.
But on this early January day, in the dusty and neglected camp, the beach seemed much further than a two-hour drive. Instead of upper-class Bangladeshi families, dressed in their finest, we were touring the camp through the eyes of some of its younger inhabitants, the eleven youth we were training in photography. The camp is for the Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Western Burma. Stripped of their citizenship by the Burmese military government, since the early ’90s hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, but this refuge is tenuous and not without its own challenges.
We had been traveling along Burma’s western border meeting with Burmese groups, but we had a specific mission at this camp. Thanks to the generous support of What Kids Can Do, we were in Kutupalong to create a collaborative photo/audio slideshow with youth in the camp. The camp commander was friendly and open, and helped us gather a mixed gender groups of youth between 10 and 14. He then left us with two young translators to have our run of the camp.
The next few days were joyous and utterly exhausting. Most of the kids had never seen a camera before, but they were quick learners, and working in teams they documented happy, unhappy, the disabled and peace throughout the camp. We quickly bonded. After hours of happy shooting throughout the camp, we would return to a community shed where, using our computers and recording equipment, we worked with them to edit the photos and record the audio that would tell their story behind their photos. Clutching the microphones, they laughed over their favorite jokes, spoke of their daily routines and families. Told of life in the camps, the desire to return to the homeland which many had never seen. I bonded closely with Hasina, one of the youngest, and the only girl in the group without official refugee status.
When I asked what school was like for the youth, Hasina replied that she didn’t know because she wasn’t allowed to attend. “I am a new refugee. We are not able to get food whenever we want. We beg rice from other refugees. Unhappiness is always with us.”