Tania Rashid captures the plight of the Rohingya refugees at the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

The Rohingya community has for decades been subjected to persecution in Myanmar, as a result of being Muslim minorities in a predominantly Buddhist country. The situation built up to an extreme, when over 742,000 refugees fled to Bangladesh since 25 August, 2017, after a mass genocide that was launched on the Rohingya community and their insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

It’s 2019, and the crisis still hasn’t come to a standstill. For the Rohingyas, the thought of returning home is questionable, as the country that was once home, murdered and tortured many of their loved ones. The mass exodus has thwarted the media, hindering coverage from inside Myanmar. However, the arrival of Rohingyas into Bangladesh gives journalists access to cover their harrowing tales more closely.

Tania Rashid, Bangladeshi-American journalist for PBS NewsHour, details what it was like to see the crisis unfold in front of her eyes. During the influx in 2017, there was a glaring amount of women and children in that road-crossing. The majority of the people were women and babies, people with broken limbs, fleeing for their lives in thousands,” she explains.

Blast smokes filling the air, huts burning right across the bridge, people coming in boats, walking through mud in rain- Tania recalls the sights, sounds and the impact of the chaos that was upon this community. “They were trying to seek refuge from all these things that were happening to them. To just be a witness to that was like experiencing something out of reality,” she says.

For Tania, her duty is aligned with her sense of empathy. “I’m covering the conditions and sufferings of people, and also reporting on Aung San Suu Kyi’s acts of atrocities since her regime is responsible for committing these crimes against the Rohingyas. There are babies and mothers dying, getting killed and raped; so it’s about reporting on trauma and pain being inflicted on a minority group of people, as opposed to human advocacy,” she stresses.

Aside from the trauma, Tania has gathered much about the cultures and practices of the community; and child marriage happens to be one of them. From this she could deduce women’s role in Rohingya families.  While working there, Tania noticed that the women inside the camps are mostly matriarchs; they run the family, ensure food and look after the children. Despite the prevalence of this leadership role, patriarchy stands as the dominant culture, thus electing men as decision-makers in the community.

“Part of their culture is to marry off children when they are very young; in one of our reports from PBS NewsHour, I reported on a young girl named Noorkais, who had just fled for her life from Myanmar, witnessed all sorts of violence and then pressured into marrying someone she’s never met before; she didn’t even know what marriage was,” she exclaims. Marrying off girls as young as 12-13 years old is a common practice among the Rohingyas.

In connection to this, Tania also went and spoke to an Imam, a progressive religious leader in the community who runs a Madrasa and is teaching young girls, not just Arabic but also Burmese and English. In her coverage of this issue, the Imam says that girls who are married off young end up miserable; they need to first educate themselves in the Quran and then get married by the age of 18.

Tania observes that the overriding system in the culture emphasized that women need to be married off early. “Upon learning that I was divorced, a woman in the community addressed me as a ‘Rary’, meaning a woman that is not good because she’s unmarried and has no children. To be embedded in that world and to be seen in that context, that how a woman is to be was fascinating,” she highlights.

With consistent efforts to rehabilitate and accommodate Rohingyas in Bangladesh, the decision has been received both positively and negatively. In light of resources and funding being invested into this crisis, some media have identified it as a ‘burden’ to the country. A report by The Washington Post in particular touches upon the issue of “international humanitarian relief not being enough to cover the costs to the government or to the border region’s Bangladeshi citizens.” Among other issues that Cox’s Bazar experiences, are a change in demographics where the ‘Rohingyas outnumber locals 2 to 1.’

On a societal level in Dhaka, it’s also debated whether a race as traumatised as the Rohingyas will carry out the same oppression among the locals of the country they are residing in as a means of survival.

In light of the scrutiny Rohingya refugees have faced, Tania reminds us of how our nation has survived the violence and trauma during the Liberation War in 1971. “The Rohingyas may not have been through the same, but there’s a similar narrative and we should be empathetic towards them. It’s understandable that natural resources are being depleted, however, no one had anticipated that 1.2million refugees would suddenly be residing in Bangladesh,” she says firmly.

As repatriation continues to be an uphill battle for the Rohingyas living in Kutapalong and Balukhali camps of Cox’s Bazar, normalcy may not be around the bend for this community. However, Tania reckons that a decent standard of living could certainly improve their situation if not change it entirely.  “At the moment the provision for education is up to a certain grade, after which the black market becomes a source of income or survival. If there were more programs to harness technical skills in them, provide proper education or just empower them as a whole, it would give the people of this community agency,” she concludes.

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Rubab Nayeem Khan

Rubab Nayeem Khan is the Sub Editor of ICE Today. She thoroughly enjoys drawing, and being the in-house grammar nazi.