Twenty-two thousand children either orphaned or separated from their parents. Women raped. Children torn from their mother’s arms and thrown into fires.
These are the realities of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar to which Phedra Moon (Morris), a Salmon Arm Secondary graduate and the daughter of Vivian and Duncan Morris, has become far too familiar. Moon’s job is head of international aid for the Canadian government in Bangladesh.
Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, which borders Myanmar, has become home to the largest refugee camp in the world. Bangladesh provides refuge for about one million Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim group who are being persecuted by the Myanmar military.
Moon arrived in Bangladesh in May. In August the influx of hundreds of thousands of new refugees fleeing from a military crackdown began.
“So it’s a different job now than when I arrived,” she understates.
She describes how 40,000 refugees had been put in a soccer field in the early days. It was raining. There were no tents and no food. Children had been in the field for days.
“Those initial days, it was terrifying. It’s very hard when you get back from that camp, you see that child standing there without food or coverage, soaking wet. Hearing the women’s stories, we heard so many stories – relatives killed in front of them, children torn from their arms and thrown into fires.”
Canadians have been very generous, she says, raising more than $11 million that the federal government matched. Moon says there’s a high degree of accountability, and donations all go towards an immediate response to keep the refugees alive.
Along with Médicin Sans Frontières, the lead organization for immediate response, and Action Against Hunger, she says the Canadian Humanitarian Coalition website is an excellent one to visit in terms of ‘one-stop shopping’ to donate.
One of the initial challenges was the 22,000 unaccompanied children.
“They left in a panic if their homes were being burned, or they are orphans as their parents have been killed.”
She said a minimum of 300 villages have been documented as burned to the ground. Rape has been used systematically as a weapon in this crisis.
“All of those people fled for their lives, with people killed in front of them, burnt in front of them – they are a traumatized population.”
She said child trafficking gangs were trying to get into the camps to get a hold of children, while women needed protection as many men initially stayed behind to protect the livestock.
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Since Aug. 25, about 700,000 new refugees have arrived at the camp. Severe outbreaks of infectious disease have occurred, including measles, cholera and whooping cough, Moon says.
“Currently we have the largest outbreak of diphtheria in a couple of decades, over 7,000 confirmed cases…”
Within the confines of a huge, heavily populated camp, tracing who has been in contact with whom is extremely difficult, particularly when there are no addresses and only recently has the camp been organized into neighbourhoods with signage.
She says workers are playing catch-up with regards to vaccinating refugees.
“With cholera, we did 900,000 vaccinations within this very complex environment. Populations in this dense camp did not have access to health care previously.”
Every outbreak has the potential for a mass epidemic, so the help of international partners has been crucial.
“We’re staying on the ball and at any time it could snowball.”
Trying to transport people into isolation areas is a challenge in itself.
“You can’t use wheelbarrows because of mud, so we’ve had to use hammocks with bamboo poles. The ingenuity being used is impressive.”
Moon, 40, agrees her job is daunting.
“The implications of not doing a good job are felt,” she says wryly.
Although the work is endless and sleep is scarce, Moon is inspired by the survivors’ resilience.
“It’s very inspirational to speak to people who have such courage. You meet a women who has six children and went through literal hell, and she wants safety and justice… My life is pretty darn good, and I need to do what I can to respond to these needs.”
The levels of complexity in the camp are enormous, Moon explains.
How do you get water, provide sanitation and get food to people with a six-hour hike in? And because the camp used to be a nature reserve, wild elephants have come through and trampled people.
Moon goes back and forth between the capital Dhaka and the camps, discussing policy in one location and monitoring service delivery in the other. Discussions might focus on how to get visas quickly for experts to help plan the tent city of a million, for example, while, in the camp, it’s making sure all the tin roofing is removed so people aren’t decapitated during cyclone season.
She monitors where gaps in service are, which partners are working most effectively, as well as hearing from refugees about their needs.
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Asked if she ever expected in high school to one day have such a job, she explains she wanted to contribute but wasn’t sure how.
She was fortunate to have parents and teachers who always encouraged a sense of responsibility as a global citizen, she says, “so I did a heck of a lot of school,” she laughs. That education led her to India, Sub-Saharan Africa and, most recently, Afghanistan.
She is impressed the refugees from Myanmar are still somewhat in the public eye, and she would like to see the global community support Bangladesh, which has no extra space and is already home to millions below the global poverty line.
Moon would also like to see pressure maintained on Myanmar to make reconciliation efforts.
“People have lost their property, they have lost their identity and this is the country they came from.”
And in terms of global security, if refugees don’t get support, she predicts that some have been traumatized so much that in time they will be angry.
“There are young men who have seen so much and have not been treated as human beings.”
She points out that last week was Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“We say ‘never again,’ and we have a group of a million people who people want to disappear. We should care as a global community, to provide support and to let them have a future of self sufficiency.”