She’d followed the unfolding story with the obsessive fascination of someone passing a multi car wreck on the freeway, slowing down so as not to miss a single detail of the tragedy. She moved from the newspaper to the internet, then back to the newspaper, and back to the internet again. She couldn’t stop herself, all through the fall of 2016 and into 2017. It felt like watching a huge building full of people catch on fire and burn to the ground with no firefighters anywhere in sight. Would no one intercede to prevent this genocide?
She mentioned it to friends and colleagues, but no one knew anything about it. Eventually she found a Facebook page called Rohingya Women Network and decided she must take some action, to help in some way.
That’s how Keira Webster found herself in London on a long layover en route to Bangladesh. She had a lot of time to kill, so she decided to call her best friend back in Minneapolis.
After exchanging pleasantries about the flight, Naomi wasted no time in getting right to the point. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Keira.”
An argument was the last thing she needed at this stage of the trip, but that’s what Keira got. Naomi said taking a leave from Keira’s job as a psychologist at a Minneapolis college health service was a terrible idea. Dangerous but also futile. It was not Keira’s responsibility to try to resolve this problem on the other side of the world. “It’s not too late to change your mind, you know.”
But it was. Keira had committed herself. That phone call made her so shaky and unsettled that even though it was the middle of the night on the East Coast, she decided to call her dad in New Hampshire. She knew she could count on him for support. After all, he was a minister in the Unitarian church. Heathrow’s international terminal bustled around her, constant announcements in multiple languages blaring overhead. People from all over the world hurried by, men from Saudi Arabia in robes and women in colorful saris and black burkas, eyes peering out.
A groggy voice answered.
“Hi Dad, it’s Keira. I’m at Heathrow—”
“Oh my God, is everything okay?”
“Sure it is, Dad.”
But instead of validation, another person who cared about her questioned her decision to volunteer at the Kulupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh, over the border from Myanmar.
“I know you want to help sweetheart, but are you sure this is the right thing to do?”
Didn’t they understand that she was an adult, a professional woman, with a set of skills she could use to help needy people on the other side of the world?
But when she finally boarded the plane in London on her way to Dhaka, Bangladesh, she couldn’t get comfortable, second-guessing her decision to go, on the verge of tears.
She needed to calm herself down. You made the right decision. You needed to do something important to help. And you could get the time off.
She soothed herself like she taught her clients to do. Some reading would be a perfect distraction. She pulled out the Psychological First Aid Training Manual the aid agency had sent to her. It’ll be a review everything I already know, she thought, having a good deal of clinical training and experience under her belt.
And mostly it was, except for the parts she found troubling, like about the need to respect the local culture. What did she know about Muslim women, or Rohingya culture, except that women and children were often viewed as possessions, lacking human rights?
She also wondered about the need to be aware of her own prejudices, so as not to let her biases affect her work. What exactly did that mean?
Finally, the interminably long flight ended. She had expected someone from the aid program to meet her at the Dhaka airport and escort her to the refugee camp. She soon realized how ridiculous that was. A small, dark-skinned man stood at the luggage carousel with a card bearing her name. In English she could barely understand, he announced she would be boarding a bus, by herself, for what would be a fourteen-hour trip to Kulupalong. Exiting the airport for the bus terminal into the moist heat felt like walking into a wall, almost knocking her over. Still stiff from the plane ride, her limbs fought to walk through air that felt like warm Jell-o. She fought to suck in enough of the hot, moist air to breathe.
She boarded the rickety bus and thrust her suitcase into the overhead rack. She had to squeeze into a seat next to the window, crawling over a woman already seated with her two young children on her lap. When she glanced around she saw not a single Caucasian. Of course, the overcrowded bus wasn’t air-conditioned, but only she seemed to notice how stifling it was.
Finally, they got underway, wheezing out of the bus station. Her stomach rumbled. She hadn’t thought to buy food, nor to exchange currency. She wondered about the length of the trip and how many stops there would be. Would her American credit card be accepted to buy food? Despite the humidity, her throat was parched and she needed water. Did anyone else speak English?
The long, hot bumpy ride allowed lots of time to think, to worry. As the brown and barren countryside passed by, her heart raced. Maybe Naomi and her father were right. As sweat soaked her tired body, questions flooded her mind. She tried deep breathing to calm her agitation, but when she inhaled the sulfurous smell of her neighbor’s body odor filled her nose. Babies cried.
Passengers got off and on at small towns and villages. No place looked promising for water or food or US credit cards, so she tried to sleep, jouncing around, stomach growling. Eventually, in a cloud of dust, they rumbled into Cox’s Bazar, a coastal city near the refugee camp, considered a tourist spot with great beaches. Not the least interested in beaches, she hoped someone there would speak English so she could figure out how to get to Kulupalong.
Keira located a driver who spoke enough English to get her to a store where she bought some water and packaged food and to a currency exchange kiosk. She probably got cheated, but she wasn’t in a position to be choosy. Then he made the short drive to the camp.
Rain poured down on the way, making the heat more oppressive as she left the car. Puddles and cocoa-colored mud covered the ground not occupied by makeshift dwellings that stretched as far as the eye could see. As soon as the car sped away, she realized she still hadn’t solved the problem of finding her destination, the Women & Children Aid Program.
Keira scanned the horizon and tried to absorb the immensity and density of the Kulupalong Refugee Camp. It boggled her mind, sprawling for acres in every direction. Tent-like shanties sat shoulder to shoulder, constructed from bamboo poles and white and blue plastic tarpaulins. The camp teemed with people, thousands of people, scurrying in every direction. The first things she noticed were the stench and that most of the residents were children, followed by women. Where were all the men? How would she find her aid program?
As she started to despair, she noticed a mobile health van a short distance away. She made her way towards it, trying in vain to avoid the pools of muddy brown water, her feet getting heavier as thick, sticky mud clung to her shoes. A queue of about thirty people waited to be served.
She guiltily elbowed her way to the front. “Hi, I just arrived from the States. I’m looking for the Women & Children Aid Program. Does anyone here know where they’re located?”
“Welcome!” a guy boomed in a British accent. “Let me see if I can free up somebody to take you over there. As you may’ve noticed, they’re no roads yet, so I can’t give you directions. Hold on.”
He disappeared inside the van. A few minutes later a small, dark woman in a red head scarf introduced herself as Laila in accented English. She would take Keira to the program. For the first time, it occurred to Keira that she wouldn’t be able to communicate directly with the people she’d be helping.
They wove around puddles and a maze of dwellings filled with women and children, single file. Finally, Laila pointed to a large canvas tent with a big sign saying, Women & Children Aid Program. She thanked Laila, marveling at how she knew her way around.
“Hi, I’m Keira Webster. Just arrived from the States,” she announced to the first person she saw inside the tent.
“Really? I wasn’t even expecting you. Jocelyn Smith.” She stuck out her right hand and Keira shook it. “Another pair of hands. Fantastic!
“Let’s see, what’s the quickest way to get you oriented?” Jocelyn asked herself. “Okay, I should introduce you to our small staff, but most are out helping residents. How much do you know about the situation here and how these poor souls got here?
“By the way, have a seat,” she said, pointing to a wooden bench. “You must be exhausted from your trip.”
Keira noticed that Jocelyn looked exhausted herself, lanky, pale and quintessentially British looking, eyelashes almost white.
“I’d say I have a pretty good idea about the past few months,” Keira said. “The Myanmar soldiers burning the Rohingya villages and slaughtering so many of the people. I’ve been following the news and doing research on the internet—”
“You’re up to speed then. What’s your professional background?”
“I’m a psychologist—”
“Fantastic. Mostly all we do is triage and provide psychological first aid—”
“Yes, I read the manual on the plane.” Keira struggled to take in everything she saw outside through the rolled-up tent flaps, a kaleidoscope of color. Women with bright-colored head scarves walked in all directions, trailed by three or four small children in ragged clothes, speaking a language she didn’t understand.
“So you know that we’re essentially putting Band-Aids on gaping wounds.” Jocelyn stopped and shook her head. “You kind of get used to it, but most of these women have been raped—gang raped—and have witnessed family members—parents, husbands, children—being butchered by Myanmar’s security forces.”
Keira winced at the word “butchered.”
“We hear the same stories over and over . . .” Jocelyn sighed.
Keira didn’t know what to say. “What’s it like for a Muslim woman who’s been raped and whose husband has been killed?”
“No good options. At least here they’re safe and can get food and medical care. I have no idea what they’ll do when they leave here. How they’ll support themselves. Even their families often view them as damaged goods, even though everyone knows those fucking soldiers beat the crap out of them, kicked them, punched them . . .” Her voice trailed off again as she fought to regain her composure.
Sensing Jocelyn’s discomfort, Keira wondered if you did ever get used to it. “Okay, so how does it work? What should I do? Put me to work.”
“Righto. Okay, sometimes we have people come here looking for help. We ask what they need and try to point them in the right direction. The recent arrivals, for example, they might have a fresh injury from the sexual assault, so we refer them to one of the mobile health vans. Oh, and of course none of them speak English, so you have to have somebody local with you who is bilingual—often a man, unfortunately—to translate. Sometimes it’s hard to round up one of these translators. They’re super busy.”
Just then a large man burst into the tent, tan, strikingly handsome. “So, mate, what’s happening?” Noticing Keira he said, “Hi, Trevor here. Who’re you?” in a strong Australian accent. He thrust out his right hand.
Blushing, Keira introduced herself and shook Trevor’s hand, cringing from his almost crushing grip.
“Got something Keira can help you with?” Jocelyn asked.
“I do, indeed. Got a teenage girl, fourteen maybe, who just arrived by herself. Kind of a mess. Won’t talk to a man. Soon as I locate a female translator let’s go find her and see what we can learn.” He turned on his heel and left the tent.
“Are you a psychologist?” Keira asked Jocelyn.
“Clinical social worker.”
“What are the most common trauma symptoms you’re seeing?”
“Pretty much what you’d expect. Lots of nightmares, crying, can’t eat. Even people who weren’t directly victimized witnessed loved ones being killed or hurt, so pretty much everyone’s in terrible shape.”
“And are most people willing to talk about what happened to them?”
“Some are—enough to keep us busy. But a lot of them, they’re afraid to.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Reprisal from the Myanmar soldiers. Or if they have a husband they don’t want him to know they were raped. Or teenage girls, if they were raped, afraid that they’re not going to find a husband.”
“Yeah, they’re some things about Rohingya culture that can be difficult to take from a Western perspective.”
Keira recalled the manual, the parts about culture and prejudice. Was it prejudiced to disapprove of having to keep your rape a secret from your own husband? Or to judge a young man who wouldn’t marry a girl because she had been raped? Suddenly overcome with exhaustion, she wondered where she’d be sleeping.
Trevor marched back into the tent with a young, dark-skinned woman in a yellow print headscarf whom he introduced as Mumtaz. “Okay, ladies, let’s see if we can find that recent arrival and help her.”
As they left the tent, Keira asked Trevor, “Are you a psychologist or social worker?”
“Nah,” he said. “Paramedic. Lots of experience working with people in crisis. This is my third refugee gig. Most recently Syria and before that Sudan. Wouldn’t have thought it possible, but this is actually much worse.”
As they picked their way around shanties and mud, Keira asked, “How so?”
“The sheer scope of it—half a million people pouring in over a few months period, largest refugee camp in the world—and how traumatized the people are.” His voice turned bitter. “And the fact that Myanmar is trying to totally eliminate the Rohingya minority, but Bangladesh doesn’t want ’em either.” He shook his head in disgust.
After a short walk, they reached an area on a steep hillside. Keira had no idea how he could remember his way around this seething, squalid mass of humanity. Trevor said to Mumtaz, “She was around here. Can you ask those people if a young girl recently arrived here by herself and where she is?”
Mumtaz talked to the people, several women dressed in ragged, dirty clothing and a couple of men. Four half naked, skinny brown toddlers hid behind the women’s, multi-colored skirts, eyes wide with fear. Or was it curiosity?
Mumtaz pointed a short distance away. “They think she’s inside that tent over there.”
“Okay, let’s see,” Trevor said.
They headed over, and Trevor greeted the group in the tent in what Keira assumed was the local language. I need to learn some of the local language, too, she thought. Then Mumtaz started talking to them and they pointed to a young girl sitting on the ground in the corner, weeping.
“Let’s walk over and see what we can do,” Trevor said. “If she wants to talk, what she needs.”
The three of them walked over and joined her on the ground. Mumtaz spoke to her briefly. Keira asked Trevor, “Is she asking her what she needs and whether she wants to talk?”
“She says she’s willing to talk,” Mumtaz said. “What do you want me to ask her?”
Trevor looked at Keira. “Do you want to take the lead, mate?”
Unsure she was ready, or whether she’d ever be ready, Keira said, “Okay,” despite feeling shaky. She hesitated a moment, thinking. Should she start with whether she came alone or whether she needs medical attention?
She turned to Mumtaz. “Ask her if she has any injuries, if she needs medical attention.”
Mumtaz and the girl conversed, and Mumtaz said to Trevor and Keira, “She says she is bleeding down there,” pointing to the area between her legs.
Keira grimaced. “Okay, tell her we can take her to the mobile health unit and ask if she has anyone else who can go with her.”
After talking to the girl again, Mumtaz said to Keira, “She says she came here by herself, that she doesn’t know anyone. She’s in a lot of pain and has trouble walking.”
“Tell her we’re sorry she’s in so much pain and alone, that we’ll help her over to the health van,” Keira said. “Ask if it would be okay if you and I put our arms under her armpits and helped her walk.”
Mumtaz conferred. “She said that would be okay.”
So, with Trevor trailing behind, Mumtaz and Keira helped her to walk.
Keira looked back at Trevor. “Should I try to get her to talk about what happened to her?”
“Have at it.”
Looking into the girl’s tear-reddened eyes she said, “My name is Keira. What is your name?”
“Her name is Yasmine.”
“Yasmine, what a pretty name,” Keira said. “Yasmine, do you want to talk about what happened to you?”
Again, Mumtaz translated and they spoke for a few minutes. Mumtaz turned to Keira. “She walked several days from Rakhine without food or water, after hiding in the mountains. Before that she watched soldiers slaughter her husband and two children, including her month-old baby.”
Keira tried not to react in any way, but her stomach lurched. She had read this kind of thing in the newspaper and on the internet, but hearing it from this young girl caused a visceral reaction. How could someone this young already have two children? She barely looked thirteen.
Mumtaz continued. “Then the soldiers took turns raping her. She says she wishes they had killed her. She does not know how she will live after losing her family.”
“Tell her how sorry we are.” Keira shifted position, wondering, What next? “Ask her about her parents.”
Yasmine and Mumtaz conversed again. “She said her mother was already dead and the soldiers also killed her father.”
“Jesus,” Keira whispered. It came out without her even realizing it.
“Careful,” Trevor said.
At last, they were at the mobile health unit. Trevor explained to the health professionals, two men, and two women, what they needed. Then Yasmine started struggling, protesting and pulling away. Mumtaz held on and spoke to her.
“What’s wrong?” Keira asked with concern.
“She is afraid the men will touch her, which isn’t allowed in Rohingya culture,” Mumtaz said. “I reassured her that only women will be treating her, that there is a curtain for privacy.”
Finally, Yasmine agreed to stay and receive treatment. Mumtaz would stay with her and bring her back to the Women & Children tent afterwards.
Walking back to the tent, Trevor asked Keira, “So, what do you think so far?”
She hesitated. Thoughts ricocheted around her brain as she tried to process what she had already experienced. “I have so many questions. I’m not sure where to start.” They walked a few paces. “Like, how is it that a girl so young could already be married and have two children. She’s just a child!”
“That she is. But the Rohingya practice child marriage, arranged marriage, where young teenage girls are typically married to an older man. And they want to have as many children as possible, especially because of the ethnic cleansing, but also based on the belief that a married woman—a mother—is safe from other men—”
“Yeah, and we saw how well that worked,” Keira said bitterly. Suddenly exhaustion settled over her, like a thick fog. “By the way, where will I be staying?”
“Here’s how it works. Every other week half the staff stay in the tent, on cots in the back. Pretty primitive quarters. Then the next week you get to stay at a hotel outside the camp in Cox’s Bazar. Not fancy, but a real bed, a bathroom instead of a stinkin’ latrine with limited privacy, and clean running water.”
“Okay, I’ll bet I could sleep standing up at this point.”
They found the tent. It was already dark, approaching nine o’clock. Jocelyn gave her something spicy to eat over rice and showed her to her cot. As she fell asleep, still fully clothed, she overheard Jocelyn ask Trevor how she did.
“Good,” he said. “Real good. I think she’s gonna be okay.”
Two months passed, each day much like the previous one. Keira worked with Trevor and Jocelyn. On some level, she did seem to be getting used to it. She helped women, listening to their stories with the assistance of various translators. After a while, a disturbing sameness to the stories emerged; each one a version of the first one she heard from Yasmine. So many rapes. So many family members butchered. So many nightmares. So many young widows with lots of little kids. She helped the mothers find food for their children, many of them severely malnourished, skinny, sick with chronic diarrhea and distended brown bellies, eyes bulging from skulls with skin stretched tight.
New aid organizations arrived almost daily, but so did many more families, thousands of families. So many refugees poured in that the camp soon overflowed, and people began to set up camp outside the official perimeters.
It didn’t take long for Keira to learn her way around the camp, even absent any roads. One day as she walked with a translator, Mohammed, to meet a young mother, she could hear and see a commotion not far away. A crowd had gathered around a man and woman shouting at each other. Keira and Mohammed stood at the edge of the crowd and watched a shirtless man, his chest slick with sweat, clad in a dirty sarong and sandals. He yelled at a cowering woman, whose hands protected her head. She wore a blue headscarf, yellow blouse and long, wrinkled patterned skirt over muddy bare feet. As the man slapped her, over and over, she cringed and cried. Keira flinched at the sound of each thwap against her bare skin. The crowd murmured around them. Were the men cheering him on?
Keira’s heart raced. “What’s happening, Mohammed? Should we try to do something?”
“Oh no, ma’am,” he said. “He is her husband. Another man told him he saw the wife being raped by the soldiers in their village before they arrived. The husband did not know this. His wife did not tell him. Now he is angry, so angry, that his wife has been . . .” Mohammed stopped.
He didn’t have to finish. Keira finished it for him, spitting out the word, “defiled.” She thought, damaged goods. Wasn’t it bad enough the poor woman was raped—probably gang raped—maybe while her children watched? Now she had to contend with a husband who punished her for it as if it were her fault; as if she could have prevented it?
Then a teenage boy joined the man in hitting the woman, the sounds of his slaps ringing in Keira’s ears, the woman keening and moaning, blood dripping from her nose.
“Who is that boy?”
“He is her son.”
Keira’s face contorted in pain. She wiped away tears.
Seeing her tears, Mohammed said, “At least they are not stoning her to death. They do that in some places, you know.”
Hardly consolation. Suddenly Keira couldn’t stand it. Not for another minute. The stench of the camp, the smell of fetid latrines and human sweat insinuating itself into her nostrils. The crush of people, fighting one another for food, for water, for medical care. The lack of privacy. The heat, the unbearable humidity, always wearing damp clothing, always feeling dirty. She couldn’t bear any of it, not for a second more. She couldn't decide what was worse, Rohingya culture, what Burma had done to these wretched people or the Bangladeshis who wanted them all to go home.
And yet, what could she do? She felt powerless. “Mohammed, I have to go back to the tent.”
“I need to go back.”
Keira burst back into the tent. Jocelyn sat at the table, doing paperwork. “I can’t do it anymore. I know I have two months left on my volunteer commitment, but I just don’t think I can do it. I can’t bear it another minute.”
“Wait, wait. Slow down. Sit. What happened?” Jocelyn’s brow furrowed with concern.
Keira sat hunched over on the bench and told her about the incident she and Mohammed had seen, the crowd, the husband beating his wife for getting raped. And she started to cry, big heaving sobs, dribbles of mucous pouring from her nose.
Jocelyn came over and put her arm around her, saying nothing. Eventually, she said, “This work is so difficult, so . . . taxing. Is there anything that would make you consider staying?”
“I don’t think so. I need to feel like I’m making a difference. That someone’s life is actually better for my being here.”
“But you are making a difference! You’re great at this work. I’ve heard you. I’ve seen you. And not only with the women, with the children too. Their lives are better because of you.”
“I thought I knew what I was doing coming here, that my work with sexual assault victims at the college prepared me for—”
“Darling, nothing prepares you for what you find here.”
“Here’s the irony. Yesterday I had this great idea. That we could recruit some of the Rohingya women, the ones who’ve been here a while and are doing okay and train them to deliver psychological first aid; like we do. And if it worked, we wouldn’t need translators, ’cause they’d already know the language and the culture.”
She looked up from her lap and stared into Jocelyn’s pale blue eyes. “Here’s my dirty little secret. I despise this culture, this misogynist culture that hates women. That thinks women are just to be fucked and to pop out another kid each year and to haul your water.” She stopped to rest for a minute. Venting that much rage took a lot out of a person.
Jocelyn didn’t say a word, just gazed at Keira’s tear-stained face and let her spew her venom.
“Prejudiced? You bet, and I don’t even care!” Keira stood up and started pacing, her voice raised. “I don’t even want to change.”
“Keira, please,” Jocelyn begged. “Don’t make a decision now when you’re so emotional. At least sleep on it. And by the way, I love your idea about training the Rohingya women to deliver the psychological first aid. That’s a first-rate idea. I think it would work. Let’s do it.”
Keira nodded and walked back to her cot, but she’d make up her mind: she had to get out.
A short while later she heard Trevor come in. She could hear him talking to Jocelyn but couldn’t make out what they were saying.
He walked over to her cot. “Hey mate. Heard you had a bad day.”
She’d grown to love that Australian accent.
“Joce tells me that you’re thinking about leaving. Don’t do that, love, we need you.”
Shit. He was going to try to talk her into staying.
Keira packed her luggage while he continued. “She told me about your idea, about training the Rohingya woman to do what we do. Brilliant. Just what we need. I’m all in.”
“It’s too late. I’m spoiled. I’ve grown to dislike some things about this culture to the point where I can’t be effective anymore—”
“Keira, we’ve all felt that way at times! It can be so hard to take. But you are effective, I’ve seen you. You did great work with Yasmine. She’s much better than when she first arrived. Come here, you need a hug.”
She made a face, but stood up and let Trevor encircle her with those huge, muscular Australian arms. Then she started to cry again, wetting his already damp white tee shirt.
“Go ahead, love, cry it out. Sometimes that really helps. But don’t go home mad.”
If only she could save just one person . . .
In the end, Keira surprised herself and let Jocelyn and Trevor talk her into staying. And they worked together to develop a little program to recruit Rohingya women, to train them to deliver psychological first aid to new, traumatized refugees who arrived daily. The challenge pushed Keira to her limits. These women were illiterate, uneducated, and it all had to be done through translators. But after they finally recruited and trained a group of ten, Keira and Jocelyn could not stop grinning as they watched the women practice on one another. Warmth radiated through Keira’s body as she witnessed the women’s transformation from victims to empowered human beings, using their own experiences and new skills to help other refugees. Quivering with excitement, she couldn’t wait to set them loose on their first group of new arrivals.
Her one disappointment was that she couldn’t persuade Yasmine to join the group. She had kept in touch with her, ultimately finding a group of older women who had taken her under their wing. Yasmine was doing better than when she arrived—not crying constantly, eating—but still showed signs of deep depression, withdrawn, her sleep plagued with nightmares. Keira worried about suicide.
Without consulting Jocelyn or Trevor—who after all weren’t Americans—she concocted a plan to try to get Yasmine to the US as an unaccompanied minor. After some research online she found out that the US was taking refugees from Myanmar, although it was a long and arduous process. She contacted her father and talked him into having his church sponsor her in Vermont, working on this during the off weeks she spent at the hotel in Cox’s Bazar. The internet was iffy, but the international phone service worked. She contacted the American embassy in Dhaka, which of course was Bangladesh, and they referred her to the embassy in Myanmar. For some reason, the American embassy in Rangoon, Myanmar often didn’t answer. Once she got through, and after finding out the name of the right person, she was told she’d have to leave a message. And of course she couldn’t be reached and time was running out. Panic set in.
She had hoped to have some arrangements in place before she approached Yasmine so she wouldn’t be making a promise she couldn’t keep. But with just a week left at Kulupalong, it was time to talk to Yasmine.
She found Mumtaz and they tracked her down. When Yasmine saw them coming she started talking right away to Mumtaz, who translated.