Orphaned Rohingya refugee sisters face daunting future
After armed men detained her parents, Mabia* heard a volley of gunshots. The 17-year-old took her three younger sisters and ran to the forest.
Surviving on bamboo shoots and water from streams, the Rohingya sisters trekked from their home in Myanmar to Kutupalong refugee settlement in south-east Bangladesh in mid-February, where Mabia, now head of the family, feels the weight of caring for her siblings aged 16, 15 and 14.
“I’m in charge of the family now and I want to die,” she says tearfully. “The responsibility is beyond me.”
The teenager is among at least 5,600 children in the world’s largest refugee settlement who find themselves the lone heads of families and households, whose parents have been killed or are missing in Myanmar. Many are girls.
They face daunting challenges as they start over in the sprawling settlement of rickety bamboo shelters, which houses more than 570,000 people.
“I’m in charge of the family now and I want to die. The responsibility is beyond me.”
Besides securing shelter, food, water, cooking utensils and bedding for her sisters, Mabia sees other responsibilities that she must also meet in her new role as their primary carer.
“I want to feed them well, and most of all, I don’t want them to remember the bad things that they saw in Myanmar,” says Mabia, perched on a plastic chair alongside her sister Shamshidah, 16.
The youngsters had been found collapsed that morning by Nur Bahar – a refugee herself – who took the girls to an information point run by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, as a first step to getting them the help they need.
Nur, 30, a mother of four young children, reached Bangladesh in September with her family. As a volunteer, she now works to identify refugees who need support in this huge pop-up settlement – which has a population greater than Lyon, France’s third largest city – and refer them to available services.
“We’ve come a long way since we arrived, and now have some kind of stability here,” she says. “But the girls are still in a vulnerable position, so it’s very important for me – and a matter of joy – to help them out.”
“Without me, my kids would be in the same situation they are.”
“Without me, my kids would be in the same situation they are,” says Nur, who is one of more than 300 UNHCR Community Outreach Members.
Mabia’s and Shamshidah’s neighbours are also keeping an eye out for them. The community elder in the area where the girls are staying helped them find a vacant plastic-roofed shack to live in. The hut’s former resident lives close by and collects the girls’ aid allocations.
Two days after their first contact, Nur brings the sisters back to the information point, where a team of five staff from UNHCR and its partner Technical Assistance Inc. (TAI) conduct a case meeting for them.
The team includes shelter and protection staff, who offer upgraded housing, counselling and follow-up visits to try and ensure they stay safe from sexual abuse. Another worker seeks to match them up with occupational training, such as learning to sew, make toothpowder or soap – should they want it.
“They can meet people, overcome their isolation, express their opinions, talk to other people, it will be good for them,” says Fatama Islam, a Bangladeshi staffer with TAI, who spoke to the sisters about training opportunities. “They will also have a chance to talk to a counsellor.”
After the case meeting, Mabia and Shamshidah are uncertain what to do. They have some security in the borrowed shelter and wonder if they should accept something clearly better, but unknown. Nur is gentle but firm. She tells them that, so far, all the interventions she has made on their behalf have been good for them. Mabia listens and then nods.
“You decide what is best for us,” she says to the adults. “Now it’s up to you.”
Dressed in yellow and dark red floral print headscarves and ankle-length dresses, Mabia and Shamshidah seem more at ease. The sisters start to talk about their happy, sheltered childhood in a Myanmar village where their family farmed.
“I want peace for them and a proper education, so they can get any job.”
Mabia’s favourite game was Ha-du-du, a rough-and-tumble form of tag popular in South Asia. Shamshidah recalls playing high jump with her friends.
Like all Rohingya, they are stateless, with no right to vote, move freely or have access to services in their country of birth. However, the sisters were able to study and want to return to class.
“It was difficult to continue education for me after fourth grade, but I want to be a doctor. If there’s an opportunity to study, I must grab it,” says Shamshidah, animatedly. “If you try to get me educated, it would give me great pleasure.”
She leans back in the chair and smiles. “If you try really hard, you can do this for me,” she says with a laugh.
Mabia also wants to study: “If I’m properly educated myself, then I can educate others,” she says.
They talk of their hopes for their little sisters. Mabia wants food, clothing and make-up for them. Shamshidah, younger but more serious, says: “I want peace for them and a proper education, so they can get any job.”
The case meeting is over. Nur hovers protectively, ready to walk them back across a bamboo bridge spanning a reeking creek and through a labyrinth of footpaths to their borrowed shack.
“I feel safer now. All praise to God,” says Mabia. And then she is gone.
*Refugee sisters' names changed for protection reasons
- See also: Rohingya Refugee Emergency at a Glance