Eight months ago, Bangladeshi farmer, Akhter Hossain, opened up his house and heart to dozens of Rohingya refugee families who arrived with young children, wet and caked in mud, after making perilous journeys fleeing Myanmar in search of safety.
Today, he and his family still live in their mud-walled home, in Jamtoli village, which lies close to a large refugee settlement in southeast Bangladesh. But much of his farmland and area around the family compound has been given over to house 71 Rohingya families, comprising 351 men, women and children.
“It was a humanitarian gesture. They came here and they had nowhere else to go – and we wanted to help them”, recalls 45 year-old Akhter. “They needed land for shelter and we had land. We are human and they are human. We are Muslim and they are Muslim.”
"We are human and they are human."
The holy month of Ramadan, which is expected to conclude on Thursday with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, is traditionally a time for reflection and gathering among families and communities across the Muslim world, as well as for acts of solidarity and generosity.
Akhter and his wife Nargis Begum often invite their neighbours to sit or eat with them. The recently invited their next-door neighbour, Rohingya mazhi or community leader, Mohammad Kasim, 50, to join them for an iftar meal, taken at sunset to mark the end of daily fasting during Ramadan.
“He’s our guardian – like a big brother”, says Mohammad, smiling as he speaks of his host. “We were relieved to come here, to have shelter and a good relationship. We live in peace here. It’s a good atmosphere and we don’t fight each other.”
Nargis says it has not always been easy having so many new neighbours, and that sometimes there are tensions. But she maintains the family did the right thing. “We are happy to host them: they are in a difficult situation”.
Since violence erupted in Myanmar last August, some 702,000 Rohingya refugees fled violence for safety in southeast Bangladesh. Most now live in sprawling isettlements.
While much of Akhter’s formerly open farm land is now packed with bamboo shelters, two Temporary Learning Centres for Rohingya youngsters built by local non-governmental organization, BRAC have also opened. Another local organization has built a deep well on his land, so that water is easily available for all the families, including Akhter’s.
Nargis said the family used to feel quite isolated; but now her youngest children have found new friends to play with and happily run around compound with other Rohingya youngsters.
“They often help us doing some carrying like moving rice, from one area to another. Whenever I need their help, they help us,” she said. “We all get on and no one fights each other.”
"Whenever I need their help, they help us."
She says Rohingya families often do other chores around the farm to help. If the family’s seven cows and 12 goats go wandering or missing, they will lend a hand to look for them.
UNHCR protection associate, Mohammed Mahbubur Rahman, who first met the families in the course of his work while carrying out protection monitoring, said that he found the story of Akhter and his family inspirational.
“They are sharing land and resources. They understand they are both facing problems. But they get on. There is a lot of good understanding of the problems refugees are facing. But they have mutual respect.”
In the spirit of Ramadan, Mohammad Kasim says he and other refugee families will never be able to forget the huge acts of generosity and selflessness shown by Akhter and his family.
“If he didn’t give us shelter like a brother, we would have died a long time ago. We wouldn’t be able to survive. He helped us tremendously”.