For each of the six weeks of Lent, the Diocese of Parramatta is sharing one of Caritas Australia’s feature stories of lives changed through support and empowerment programs.
FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT – 22 February 2021
22-year-old, Jamila, is a single mother, living in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. A Rohingya woman, she fled the armed conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine State to save herself, her elderly mother, and eight-month-old baby daughter.
Having been abandoned by her husband, she faced life in the camp, caring for them on her own. Thanks to the generosity of Caritas Australia’s supporters and through our partnership with Caritas Bangladesh, Jamila had access to emergency food and shelter. Then, as her stay in the refugee camp stretched on, with no end in sight, she received lifesaving practical and emotional support through vocational training and trauma counselling.
When Jamila arrived at the Cox’s Bazar, she’d just made the arduous journey from Myanmar, carrying her baby daughter, accompanied by her elderly mother, sister and brother-in-law.
“I cannot explain the mental agony of leaving my own country,” Jamila says. “All I thought was that I needed to escape. People were trembling in fear, then we had to walk for five or six days.”
Jamila had married at 18, a marriage arranged by her parents and is a local custom. Her husband abandoned her for another woman when she was just three months’ pregnant. Not long afterwards, Jamila was forced to flee Myanmar. She and her family arrived in the refugee camp with almost nothing.
“It seemed a totally awful place for me. I was completely overwhelmed” Jamila says. “In the early days, it was a bare area, with no life-supporting needs like food, shelter and water.”
There were also unexpected dangers, with fears that roaming elephants would trample their makeshift shelters.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have crossed the border into Bangladesh since August 2017 after fleeing deadly violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Over 1.3 million people remain in the densely populated camps in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
Cox’s Bazar is already one of the most vulnerable districts in Bangladesh due to its increased exposure to natural disasters, poverty, poor education and limited livelihoods. Even before the refugee crisis, 33% of residents lived below the national poverty line, with 17% below the extreme poverty line.
When Jamila arrived at the refugee camp, she was assisted with immediate emergency food and shelter. However, as a woman alone without any livelihood skills, Jamila was facing an uncertain future.
Then Jamila joined the camp’s Women Friendly Spaces project, which is run by Caritas Bangladesh. In this safe, joyful and motivating environment, Jamila finally felt a sense of belonging. She received counselling and emotional support, learned about health and hygiene, and took part in a parenting program. She also signed up for sewing training as part of a skills-building workshop to help refugee women to earn an income.
“For the first time in my life, in the camp, I felt cared for and accepted,” Jamila says. “The facilitators took care of my daughter, so I could attend classes or take a nap if I needed it.
“My worries of an uncertain future are disappearing. It was like a ray of hope that spreads in the dark night, through the light of the Women Friendly Spaces,” Jamila says.
As part of this program, Caritas Bangladesh has also trained a group of counsellors from the Rohingya community to reach out to other women. They go door-to-door and visit women in their shelters. They talk to women and help them face the challenges of living in a camp, including how to manage their hygiene needs and maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jamila has now built a sense of family and community around her mother and little girl, and she feels less alone and unsupported.
“I know more people than before, I can depend on them,” she says. “I can see many women like me who are benefitting from this program. They are coping on their own, able to decide independently, gaining stability mentally and ultimately being able to resume a normal life, like me.”
Through the generosity of Caritas Australia’s supporters, about 280,000 people have benefitted from this program so far.
Just as things were looking up in the camp, COVID-19 hit. Without proper sanitation, and with water, soap and masks in short supply, it posed a serious threat.
On the ground, Caritas Australia’s partners, Caritas Bangladesh and Catholic Relief Services (CRS – Caritas USA), were able to act quickly to minimise the spread of the deadly virus by sharing prevention messages, conducting training sessions, installing hand-washing stations, repairing toilets, and distributing soap and masks.
In spite of their challenges, Jamila, her daughter and her elderly mother remain strong. In the future, when she can afford to buy fabric, Jamila hopes to make a living by sewing and selling her products at the market.
“Jamila will be able to create a living through her learning from this program,” says Ankhi Akter, Program Manager for the Women Friendly Spaces Project. “She and her daughter have been able to overcome distress, now gaining stability. She is developing resilience to cope on her own, and is able to make decisions independently with confidence.
“Thanks to our generous supporters, Jamila and her family of three now have a future where positive choices are accessible,” Mr Akter says.
“I am proud of my potential and strength that was hidden before. I will bring up my ‘fairy girl’ providing good financial support, I wish to raise her as happy-go-lucky and bring her up with dignity. I will make her a bright life,” Jamila says with a smile.
“I want to offer my thankful greetings to those who are kindly thinking of us from overseas and giving humanitarian support to us. May God bless those people! Thank you, and thanks Caritas Australia.”
To donate to Project Compassion, you can donate through Parish boxes and envelopes, by visiting www.caritas.org.au/projectcompassion or calling 1800 024 413.
With thanks to Caritas Australia.