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 cred