Yasmine was nine months pregnant when the army threatened to destroy her home, and her whole village was forced to run. They walked in the heat of the day, constantly looking back to see if the soldiers were getting closer. From afar they could see the smoke of their houses burning. There was no turning back.
She delivered her baby in the jungle that night. The villagers risked their lives to stay with her until the baby was born, but then she insisted that they go: “You need to leave and get to Bangladesh. I will stay here for a bit with the baby and recover.” Nobody wanted to leave her, but they knew she was right, and left. Yasmine spent the night alone with her new baby in the jungle, not daring to sleep as she listened for the sound of the enemy approaching. “I was so afraid,” she recalls. The next day she got up and kept walking, eventually reaching Bangladesh. She now lives with nine others in a small shack in a crowded refugee camp, where I met her.
She related this story as I held her baby. “I haven’t given him a name yet,” Yasmine told us, and laughingly added, “I thought I would call him Problem.”
I don’t know what this little child’s life will hold. He lives in an overcrowded camp in a country that doesn’t want him, where there is not enough food, water, or shelter to go around. He has no citizenship, no assurance of education, no privacy, and only minimal health care.
But what I do know is this: he is created in the image of God, and I will do my best to make sure the world knows.
Later we visited a family that had just arrived in Bangladesh. They had left everything in Myanmar: their rice fields, vegetable gardens, cows, chickens, cats, and dogs. They had left their houses, blankets, cooking pots, mortars for grinding spices and herbs. They had left clothes, children’s drawings, photos, and tools: all those things that give most of us a reason to live. They had nothing left but life itself.
We sat together on an orange tarp, sun striping through the bamboo walls. We didn’t speak the same language, so we did a lot of smiling and selfie-taking. The women, who had spent all morning cooking for us, brought out curries, salads, rice, and condiments – a miracle created with so few resources.
Before we started eating, Yusuf entered. He was a head taller than the rest, and his smile filled the room. I was taken aback by his confidence and charisma.
I thought that perhaps he was a UN official. “No,” he corrected me, “I fled like everybody else.” In fluent English, he explained that he had been working for an NGO that helped children. He had just finished a new house and moved in with his family when the soldiers came. There was no time to plan or pack. They just ran. He told his wife and children to run in one direction and he ran in another, hoping to increase the chance of his family’s survival. “I was hiding in the tall grass hoping the soldiers wouldn’t see me,” he said. “They set all the houses on fire. While I was hiding, I saw them shoot and kill my neighbor’s daughter. There was nothing I could do but watch.”
Here at the camp, he assists counselors by following up with traumatized children. “They need a way to process all the bad stories in their heads,” he explained. I couldn’t help wondering what this man could have become, and finally asked him, “What would you do if you could do whatever you want with your life?”
He didn’t even have to think about the answer: “I want to help build and strengthen the community here in the camp.”
Yusuf is a refugee without even a birth certificate to his name. Still he manages to use what he has and what no soldiers can steal from him – his will to live for something great, something that will last.
Photography courtesy of the author