In February our team from Restless Beings were in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh collecting data and distributing aid in the Rohingya refugee camps. I’ve been volunteering with this organisation for almost a year now, and this was my first visit to the camps in Bangladesh.
We encountered many people on this trip all of whom had many stories. However, there is always one person you meet or whose story you hear that stays with you forever. For me, that one person was 2-year-old Kohinoor.
I first noticed Kohinoor on the way to our children’s safe space. She was wearing a bright yellow hoodie covering her face and sitting on the floor with a couple of other children. As I walked past they all looked up at me and started waving and shouting “hello”. I waved back and gestured to them to come join us as we headed over to our children's space. At once, they all jumped up and started following us.
Soon after we entered the space, we split the children into smaller more focused groups intending to give the children more individual time with our team members. I took my group to one side and sat them in a circle, as I started doing activities with the children, I noticed Kohinoor standing up beside me.
I asked her if she wanted to sit down and join in, but without saying a word, she sat on my lap. She didn’t talk, or at all seem interested in joining in with the other children. As the activities continued, I noticed her nose was blocked. I left the children with my team member and instead picked Kohinoor up and took her to one side. I took my wipes out and cleaned her face and wiped her nose; as I finished up she looked at me and with her tiny hands started touching my face and then her own repeatedly and smiled at me.
I asked her if she wanted to play with the other children but instead, she stretched out her hands towards me. As I picked her up she immediately dropped her head on to my shoulders and held onto me with her tiny arms. I sensed from the way she insisted on holding on to me, and her disinterest in playing with the other children that she hadn’t been held in a very long time.
It became obvious that she perhaps hadn’t had a comfortable place to sleep on for so long. The Rohingya crisis has been going on for longer than four decades now. One million Rohingya refugees have fled Burma since 2016 due to the ongoing systematic killings by the Burmese state. Kohinoor has lived under war and refugee conditions her entire life. She has had to leave her home, her whole life behind. This is her normal. I wonder at only 2 years if she has any idea what is going on.
They don’t have beds or pillows like us - this little girl would be sleeping on the cold rock hard floor. She fell asleep on my shoulders for a while and I wondered how long it had been since she was allowed to just be a child. To not worry about her safety, about food, light. As she held onto me I couldn't stop thinking about how much trauma this little girl is going through, and how much further inter-generational trauma she will suffer from.
She’s only 2 years old and has had to come and live in the biggest refugee camp in the world in order to escape Genocide. Holding her tiny body in my arms, I thought back to the countless of stories we had heard of children as young as her being slaughtered by the use of swords; how many had seen children's bodies cut in half; babies being snatched from their mothers and being thrown into wells or into pits of fire.
10 minutes in she woke up, again looking at me with her captivating brown eyes in wonderment. Around this time the other children had been given drawing tools, and I asked her if she wanted to play. Instead, she just lay her head down on my shoulders again, her arms wrapping me even tighter.
Another child came running up to us and told me Kohinoor’s mum was calling her, I tried to let her go gently but she clasped on, not wanting to let go. Eventually, she let go after I told her to go and I’d come for her later. I watched as her tiny legs with her yellow hoodie meandered down the path and out of sight.
It was our last day in the camps, by this time we had to start saying our goodbyes to all the other children As I said bye, I remember three girls I had met earlier this week (Mukuram, Nukurlima and Ayesha Bibi) they grabbed onto my arms, saying Apu (sister) don’t let go of us, okay?”. Clinging on to me as we were walking back, I asked them, where’s Kohinoor I want to say goodbye to her. They pointed to a small hut, where they ran inside, pointing at me. She told Kohinoor “she’s leaving”.
Something I will never forget is when I said my goodbyes to Kohinoor, I remember distinctly watching her tiny little legs running up to me. I picked her up and she just continued to smile at me. I could hear our Director calling us, so I put her down, neither of us wanting to let go. With her small arm still holding onto me, Kohinoor’s mum came out. I gave her my greetings and she touched my head and whispered ‘Alhamdulliah’ to me. She could see Kohinoor still grabbing onto me, so she took her back inside.
Truthfully I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment, saying my goodbyes to her was painful. Feeling she didn’t want to let go was upsetting. Even writing this, is hard, even just remembering is hard.
Kohinoor didn’t talk much, after all, how many words is a 2-year-old expected to say? We communicated through hand gestures but even then we didn’t really need to. Sometimes connections can transcend the physical.
I can not begin to put into words, how much of a lasting effect she had on me, despite not talking, we had got attached to each other and whilst saying our goodbyes, both of us just held on to each other. I didn’t want to let her go either, and the thought of her being in constant danger breaks my heart every day. You could see in her eyes how tired she was, how truly exhausted she must feel. I don’t think there has been a single day since I’ve been back that I haven’t thought about her, or how she's doing. I want to see her again, even just to put my mind at ease that she’s okay.
When it gets cold in Britain, all I can think of was how cold she must feel in the night, in the camps. She was tiny, I worry about what will happen to her. How will her tiny body survive the pelting rains of the monsoon season?
She won't be able to swim, nor will most of the children there. I’m praying every day she survives, I’m praying every day she’s safe, I can’t seem to do much else from here.
Twelve feet of rain is expected in just three months and one million refugees are in danger of drowning.
(This is the second part of a series of stories I will be writing about the different stories I heard and witnessed in the Rohingya refugee camps.)