As I walked among the endless expanse of makeshift bamboo shelters in Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh, there was one thought I couldn’t shake: Every person I saw over the age of two had fled for their lives as their homes burned and their neighbors were slaughtered.

For the roughly one million Rohingya people living in the camp, severe trauma was a given. As was an acute need for the basics of survival – food, shelter, clean water, medical care. Rapid and extensive work has taken place throughout the camp since 2017 to assure that people’s fundamental needs are met. But trauma is harder to solve, especially when there’s little space to do so.

The roofs top view of the Rohingya refugee camp

Most families in Kutupalong live in two-room shelters constructed from strips of bamboo and plastic tarps. The women primarily remain indoors with the youngest children, where the heat and humidity are sweltering. Homes are built back-to-back, meaning there’s no real privacy and no room to breathe. When I asked our on-site medical staff what the primary health concerns are, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that depression and mental health challenges are at the top of the list.

The Rohingya people aren’t allowed to leave this camp, and they aren’t allowed to work within it. For most adults, that means there is very little freedom and very little sense of purpose. They spend their days trying to forget the violence they’ve survived, longing for the homes and livelihoods they’ve lost and struggling to contain the frustrations of living in such cramped spaces.

Thankfully, our work to provide loving care means that we don’t stop once physical needs are met. We continue working to meet people’s emotional needs as well. Our team on the ground has launched innovative programs to harness the joy and optimism of the Rohingya youth and make an impact on the entire community. Community Health Workers are the hands and feet that make that happen in the Kutupalong Refugee Camp.

Ani leading a local team of Community Health Works and Community Psychosocial Workers
Ani leads a local team of Community Health Works and Community Psychosocial Workers

Team Lead Ani is passionate about training her network of 38 Community Health Workers (CHWs) and 12 Community Psychosocial Workers to hold 5-day Peace of Mind workshops with children in all 35 blocks of their neighborhood. The workshops equip children to be peacekeepers in their communities. They learn how to resolve problems, overcome fears, seek help when needed, and get along with their peers. The CHWs are always on the lookout for the most confident children in these workshops, and they offer them an opportunity to do even more. I had the honor of meeting two of these child leaders in Kutupalong Refugee Camp.

Maisara, Age 10

People often tell 10-year-old Maisara, “You know many things. Teach us things as well!”

Maisara, a Rohingya refugee community health worker who teaches others about mental health
10-year-old Maisara teaches others in her neighborhood about mental health. Photo by Nihab Rahman

The young girl explained that the Peace of Mind workshop helped her feel better about what she experienced in Myanmar. Now, she volunteers three times per week, teaching other children – some of whom are older than her and even some adults – everything she learned from the Community Health Workers. Sometimes she teaches in schools, giving lessons to 40 children at a time. Other times she leads informal sessions for 10 or 15 children in her neighborhood. At first, she was nervous, but practice has given her confidence, as does the pride she takes in her work.

Maisara’s main message to her students is this: “If you feel something bad, share it with someone and you will feel better.”

When she grows up, Maisara hopes to be a doctor because through this experience she’s developed a passion for helping people.

Abdoushukur, Age 13

Abdoushukur, a Rohingya refugee community health worker who helps children in his community
13-year-old Abdoushukur knows how to help other children in his community. Photo by Nihab Rahman

Although still a child, Abdoushukur is beginning to see himself as an elder. Before, he explained, if there were two boys fighting in his neighborhood, an adult would be called upon to separate them. Now, Abdoushukur is equipped to help his friends solve their problems.

He tells them, “Today I help you and give you the knowledge of what to do when you feel bad. And now you must share this with others.”

Abdoushukur encourages the children in his community to attend the Peace of Mind workshops to learn how to deal with their problems. He has embraced a key factor in his own healing: “If I feel bad about something, I share it with someone. My family can help me solve my problems.”

Art Therapy

The Community Health Worker team has empowered children not only with words but also with paintbrushes. Recognizing the lack of safe and cheerful spaces in the camp, the team took on the creative task of infusing a sense of belonging in their training center. They collaborated with a participatory arts initiative called Artolution, engaging CHWs and children together to express their cultural identity through drawings.

The community health worker’s training room with a mural painting

The local artisans brought together groups of children and CHWs and asked them to share about their community and the things that make people happy. Then the children drew those things on paper. The best drawings were selected to be transferred in large format onto the walls of the Community Health Worker training room. And then it was up to the children to fill in their pictures with vibrant paint colors.

Maisara, one of the Rohingya refugee girls, showing her art from art therapy
Maisara shows off her artwork at the CHW Training Room. Photo by Nihab Rahman

Maisara explained that these murals help her neighborhood because people who are depressed will see the art and the colors and feel better. She drew trees, flowers, a fish and a butterfly to bring joy to her community.

“I feel happy when I see this work,” she said, “because my painting makes the building look good.”

Abdoushukur, one of the Rohingya refugee boys, showing his art from art therapy
Abdoushukur is proud of his shark. Photo by Nihab Rahman

Abdoushukur’s drawing of his favorite fish – a shark – was so good that he was invited to draw it directly onto the wall. He also was proud to display his artistic interpretation of a sheep, boat, flower and kite.

A Rohingya refugee boy covered in paint and smiling, with painted hands surrounding his face
Photo by Nihab Rahman

Since August 2018, mental health workshops have played an important role in healing and restoration for many groups of Rohingya people: men, women, pregnant mothers and adolescents. After enduring unimaginable trauma, the refugees now have a platform and safe space to express and work through their mental and emotional distress.

More than 5,250 refugees have benefited from these mental health workshops. Through discussions and targeted activities, people learn that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it is an opportunity for people to ask for help and face their fears, making them more resilient to each new challenge.

You can help people reclaim their space, their mental health and their lives with a gift to support Rohingya refugees today.