COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – Inside the sprawling Kutupalong refugee settlement, dust swirls around the barren hills where over half a million Rohingya Muslims have taken shelter after fleeing Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
“Before this entire area was covered with trees,” said Zahida Begum as she swept her arm across the vista of Kutupalong’s newest camp extension. “But families have cut down the trees for firewood.”
Begum, 28, is a mother of four living in Kutupalong. Her family fled Buthidaung, Myanmar across the river to Teknaf, Bangladesh in 1992, when she was eighteen-months-old.
She has lived almost her entire life in Kutupalong and fondly remembers the forested landscape and wild elephant encounters of her youth.
The UN Refugee Agency – UNHCR – states nearly 700,000 Rohingyas have arrived in Bangladesh since Myanmar began its latest military crackdown last August in Rakhine state.
Several makeshift camps have sprung up around Begum’s home in Kutupalong to accommodate the rapid influx of refugees. She jumped at the chance to help them.
Most Rohingyas have shared stories of unimaginable violence labeled “ethnic cleansing” by the U.S. and UN. But international observers say these crimes perpetrated by Myanmar could amount to genocide.
With her fluency in both Bengali and Rohingya, Begum leads a group of 60 refugee volunteers in Kutupalong. She visits new arrivals to the camp and finds out what they need and how she can help.
According to the Bangladesh government’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, or RRRC, Begum’s work is invaluable.
RRRC camp leader Shamimal Huq Pavel praises Begum’s ability to communicate Rohingya womens’ and families’ needs to aid organizations. He added that she has built trust with both women and men in the camp.
Pavel sends Begum out every day to meet with Rohingya women. She reports back to him about any issues they face in the camp. He takes Begum’s reports seriously because women are often left out of the decision-making process in the conservative Rohingya Muslim community.
“I work with majhis [community leaders] on resolving family disputes,” Begum said. “If a man beats his wife, we can take action.”
In 2017, Begum heard about the attacks on Rohingya villages in Myanmar. She raised thousands of dollars to coordinate an evacuation of women and children from Buthidaung to safety in Bangladesh.
“I met Zahida when I was doing a Human Rights Watch interview. We were interviewing her family members,” said Nafessa Shamsuddin, spokesperson at BRAC, Bangladesh’s largest aid agency.
“What impressed me the most was the fact that she rescued 400 people,” Shamsuddin added.
The newest threat facing Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong settlement is living in flood prone or unsuitable hillside areas.
In the coastal Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh, where both Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps are located, rains may cause a catastrophe, states the UN.
“They know the monsoon is coming but they don’t understand how serious it can be,” Begum said. “Those living at the top of the hill will have shelters destroyed by cyclones. Those living at the bottom will be flooded.”
The UN has identified more than 150,000 refugees living in Kutupalong at risk of flooding and landslides.
Begum has joined an initiative set up by the Bangladesh government and Red Crescent Society called Cyclone Preparedness Program, or CPP. She leads local volunteers, both from the host and refugee communities, to help relocate the most vulnerable.
“We’re working together to train the community [on] how to upgrade their homes and what to do in this situation,” Begum said.
UNHCR spokesperson Caroline Gluck said CPP and other volunteer programs are an effort to protect families most likely to be affected by floods and landslides during the coming monsoon season.
“We’re trying to make these volunteers help empower Rohinyga. It’s important for us to find women to take part in these roles as much as men,” Gluck added.
Ajam Khatum, 28, is a mother of three living in Kutupalong. She comes from Rathedaung, Myanmar and volunteers alongside Begum.
“I enjoy working with Zahida [Begum]. Whenever we have meetings together, she is very helpful,” Khatum said. “I follow her lead.”
Begum looks a bit embarrassed by all the praise heaped on her from Pavel, Shamsuddin and Khatum. She knows her education sets her apart from other Rohingya in the camp and wants to give back to her community.
“Now women have the opportunity to receive an education,” Begum said. “Very few people in the Rohingya community are educated. NGOs are paying women to work, giving us opportunities to provide for our families. This changes our lives.”