Speech by Runa Khan, 12.11.2019

Restoring Dignity Maintaining Hope, how much can a Humanitarian organization do?

© Éric Chenal

It was the night of August 25th 2017 which witnessed the surge of the first wave of the million Rohingyas, who would flow into Bangladesh over the next couple of months. They would came in tens of thousands the first few days. Women, children, old, young, wounded, battered – a visible lack of young men.

Every single household of the 336,000 inhabitants of this relatively poor rural southern tip of Bangladesh- Teknaf and Ukhiya, seeing the inhuman conditions of the fleeing population, opened their doors with food, shelter, medical attention and mental care. The local communities were mainly Muslims but there were also Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians. All equally devastated at the inhumanity they were witnessing in front of their eyes – across the River Naf villages burnt and gunshots continuously heard as the people on this side of the river, welcomed their guests.

Within days, farmers whose sole income for their family depended on the quarter hectare of land they owned, gave these lands for their guests to live on. Soon even the fishermen, because they had taken the people from Myanmar, were no longer able to go to fish on the Naf- all income lost. All stored food and savings of these communities for the year, finished in days, yet they accepted their guests with deep empathy.

Within days, along with the compassionate response of the local host community, came the generosity of the Bangladeshi individuals and organizations and the Government along with the International community and UN. It was an incredible feat for one of the most densely populated, yet one of the poorest countries of the world, to manage over months a million Rohingyas who by now had formed the landscape on one of the few Green belts of Bangladesh.

There was no humane alternative but to receive them. Shivering with exhaustion, one young Rohingya women with a child in her arms, screamed in fear at the sight of the uniformed Bangladeshi army officer who was trying to help her onto a truck to go to the camps. After a while seeing his gentleness she said in awe “your army is different from our army”. Within days the stories of the incredible inhumanity and genocide unraveled. 

I remember telling our staff, as they sobbed at the scenes they witnessed whilst giving relief, medicines, building bamboo bridges over broken embankments: “You need to take care of yourself too. Because though you have spent 18 years on the front line of devastations caused by natural disasters, year after year, it is different this time. For the pain and anger you felt seeing the sufferings of people earlier, you could only be angry at God, but today that anger will be towards people who you know have caused this suffering. But do not let this anger consume you because then you will lose your ability to help these people. We need to manage our responsibility today”.

Many among the Friendship staff worked with hardly any weekends off for over 1 and half year. Our staff needed so much care themselves, to just be able to continue to deliver…

Within a couple of weeks of September 2017, the Bangladesh army managed to streamline the Rohingya community into some form of structure, UN gave the bulk of food and essentials and the International and local NGOs helped with other services.

However, many of us found that many even good willing individuals and many organisation gave relief very disrespectfully. Roads were strewn with clothes, money was thrown at people from cars on the roads, hillocks created of garage sales items, banners of organizations looked like advertisements along the visible roadsides. The struggle for food distributions, housing and caring went on. Planning of distribution of needed goods and services at macro, micro and surprisingly even at individual level, seemed to be somehow missing, making unnecessary inefficiencies. It was beyond understanding.

Friendship decided against the use of any form of banners for visibility.

When I was asked how people will know that we too are working in the camps – I decided it had to be on the quality and impact of our work, which meant working with a conscienceness, working with the values that we say that we stand for: Integrity, Dignity, Justice, Quality and Hope. We wanted to work well and efficiently so that the beneficiaries would be our voice and our banners.

The donors too had the responsibility of ensuring that they choose partners wisely and for the right reasons. I was sure criteria of funding could not be that it goes to the biggest or most visible or most innovative or the best, but on whether an organization is able to use funds efficiently and responsibly without provoking wrong actions. Because no way could one organization handle this volume of emergency needs with dependability.

Donors and NGOs at the field needed to work together with humility and understanding for everything was unpredictable and this needed to be understood deeply between the partners; you knew neither the numbers you needed to serve because it changed daily, type of cares needed multiplied daily, local possibility were limited and difficulties enormous, of access, roads to convey food, infrastructure, greed of sellers of products and thus prices had escalated.

As an organization whose core function was to work with the ultra-poors of the country in the riverine chars and coastal belts, it was very difficult, because we could not disturb any work which we were doing, not even for a day – but being a humanitarian organization we could not close our eyes to one of the greatest humanitarian crises in our world, which was at our doorstep!

Today, in the camps, we are working in health with 13 primary healthcare clinics, also maternity, pediatric and comprehensive clinics with laboratories and caesarians delivery, cervical cancer management, extensive gender based violence care including helplines, door to door services with our satellite clinics and m-health facilities.

Children are taken care of through 12 Child Friendly Spaces and 100 Learning Centres. Women spaces teach stitching to relax their minds. Tubewells and latrines are constructed with access roads and solar lights. Vegetable gardening and reafforestation is also implemented extensively. Training to both host and Rohingya communities as Para-Solar Technicians, fire fighting with the national brigades are also done.

Along with these regularly much training is done for newly recruited 400 staff and 1300 volunteers and labourers employed by Friendship. To keep everyone in tune with Friendship ethics and values and way of working has been difficult but we have been quite successful. UNICEF has training sessions with us, to spread our Code of Ethics and value program with other education providers. The local Government Health care has seminars to disseminate our m-Health for other organizations to use. Local and International organizations ask for our Code of Ethics manual for their organization, and today we are the second largest national organization in the camps.

Interesting as that may be, there is no intrinsic merit in that – rather I would say we have been trend setters in resisting ways of working which we felt would provoke wrong actions, e.g. we always mixed host commmunity and Rohingya volunteers, refused to use plastics due to environmental hazard to our Green Belt, we ensure quality of each good and service so that it does not make the Rohingya community feel that they are neglected. We ensure our staff understand the Friendship values whilst delivering services for nurturing the dignity and that deep human respect is kept at the core of each and every action. And that we do this with love.

Fast forward to November 12th 2019, 2 years, 2 months and 13 days since the first of the mass arrivals.

Friendship is continuing its services.

But, yes the scenario of kindness and compassion has changed quite a bit because human behavior and needs have evolved. No longer are the hosts capable of providing unrestricted kindness; overall wages for the hosts depreciated by 20% in the last 2 years and over 2500 families have fallen below the poverty level.

Unrest at having the Rohingyas have begun within the whole country. Bangladesh has 11.3% of ultra-poors with no access to any services and nearly double the figure for the poor with very minimum access to services, with disparity rising daily between the rich and poor. We in Bangladesh today are finding it difficult to handle this immense number of displaced Rohingyas in terms of sheer management and cost which is not only financial.

A common theme in the country today regarding the Rohingyas is “we have millions who are living in a far more poor condition than the refugees. The government first responsibility is towards them”. It is very sad when with humaneness cannot surface because of the need for survival. Reality is millions in Bangladesh remain without basic dependable day to day income. This creates unrest.

Today, growing resentment mars the harmonious environment of August 2017.  Unrest stemming from needs and opportunity and the influx of middlemen trying to make a ‘quick bucks’, have arisen. The unscrupulous be it amongst the host community, the influentials,  the factional groups or the Rohingyas, have given rise to huge amount of trafficking, drugs, fundamentalism and general insecurity. Bangladesh as a nation, given its limitations, in money, ability, management, feels it has truly done as much as it could. It did not foresee having an extra 1 million refugees in a country of 160 million people to nurture for life… and generations. Every incident gives rise to reactivity. Basic humanity does not allow a country like Bangladesh to force the Rohingyas back to where massacre will continue – but is finding it difficult, and is urging the world to be in turn empathical today, to its needs.

Yet, we as a humanitarian organization realise that there is something beyond basic needs which suffers far more than the human body when starved of it. It is the suffering of the spirit; when you have food and health but you are starved of security not having the right to step on soil for it does not belong to you! You have no rights as citizens, no rights as guests – and then you feel you have no rights as a human to survive. Keeping the spirit alive is as basic as meeting demands for goods and essential services. Human Dignity needs to survive for Humanity to survive.

It is this right that Friendship has strived to upkeep since the very arrival of the Rohingyas.

To ensure quality in giving, to ensure giving is done with responsibility, kindness and empathy, to ensure no human being feels infringed upon, for human spirit needs upliftment, self respect and Dignity… It is this little bit extra that we can do as a Humanitarian organization…

And thus it was in the camps when Shehzar Doja approached us to give what he could as a poet – poetry to uplift the human spirit, we deeply felt this was what Dignity and Identity is also about… He will tell you about the intervention which he and poet James Byrne have done in the camps and the result of their intervention.

And today, standing here amongst all of you, many of you whom I am honoured to call my friends, I regret deeply the passing of one of my best friends and Friendship’s friend – Pierre Brahms, Pierre who has left us on  5th of November to find his peace. I cannot ask Shehzar to speak today without mentioning the support and mentorship he has received from Pierre over the years. Not with the writing of his poetry, but with his guidance and care over many years. Wherever he is, I am sure he will hear Shehzar and all of us at Friendship who thank him dearly and wish him peace.

Thank you

Runa Khan

Founder and Executive Director of Friendship Bangladesh