In the Cox’s Bazar camps, at least one million Rohingya refugees are currently facing a crisis health situation, are unable to gain proper education, and are not allowed to work. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is partnering with a Rohingya community to bear witness to the challenges, experiences and survival of Rohingya people.
Laid out on a wooden panel in the backyard of an MSF health facility in Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, a bamboo-cane tree is taking shape. The form of the tree swells. It is puffy, cloud-like, brimming with the possibility of shade for a person who might sit underneath it.
Busy hands work away at the tree, as health staff move between the buildings and banana palms in the background. With the collaboration of medicla staffs and residents from Rohingya, slowly, the bright cane-and-paper scene forms: the banyan tree, two crows, a Rohingya woman and taro leaves. It is a kyssa story-panel(a traditional Rohingya folktale). Working together to create artwork gives participants the opportunity to write the story that defines them, in addition to building partnerships.
Banyan is a type of tree well known to Nurus Safar and Nuru Salam, who are creators of the story panel. Apart from being a tree, the banyan tree is a symbol for them. “When we used to work under the banyan tree and chat, many people could gather, and we could teach others and share the feeling,” says Nurus Safar, reminiscing about weaving back in Myanmar, in the time before they came to Bangladesh. “We could enjoy making there.” Today, while Nurus Safar and Nuru Salam are many kilometres away from their home in Myanmar, the banyan tree is once more providing a place for gathering, teaching and sharing Rohingya culture.
“The story we are going to make, with the crow and the banyan tree, it will make us lighter of feeling… reminding us, and connecting us with our heart to the land,” says Ruhul, a Rohingya community member and MSF staff member in the Cox’s Bazar camps. “That [connection] is separating little by little, particularly for the young generation.”
For Ruhul, the increasing separation of his people from their land and home is front of mind, as this Rohingya community mark six years since they were forced out of Rakhine state (Arakan), Myanmar, into the Bangladesh camps by a violent Myanmar military campaign.
In early August, young patients, their families and MSF staff in the MSF Kutupalong hospital gather for the first kyssa storytelling session with the story-panel. A group of small children crowd close to the banyan tree and crows in the front row, as the storyteller, Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, begins.
MSF head of mission in Bangladesh, Arunn Jegan, shares his impressions. “It was so important to see our Rohingya colleagues share their culture and kyssa. Too often Rohingya people are stereotyped as vulnerable—as patients, or as stateless people who do not have the legal right to exist freely in Myanmar, or as refugees.
For Tasman Munro, the partnership created between everyone involved in the project has gone some way to redefining those stereotypes: “Rohingya people have had a lot of stories placed upon them. Co-design creates a process for them to create the stories they want to be defined by.”
Ruhul is certain about this story. “Even though we suffer for five decades, we are still resilient. Even though our land was confiscated, we are still strong enough to survive.”
*Some last names have been withheld for privacy.