The people we meet

Jhau trees

Where Jhau trees still line the shore between the Bay of Bengal and Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf Marine Drive. Photo by the author.

An 80 kilometer stretch of road connects the border-town-turned-humanitarian-hub of Cox’s Bazar with what has become a refugee mega-camp, and is officially called the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site. Driving along it one evening, my Bangladeshi colleague sat gazing out her window at the calm waters of the Bay of Bengal. Apropos of nothing, she said quietly, “Sometimes when I look at the horizon, like when the sun sets and meets the sea, I think the world ends there.”

“So you’re a flat Earther?”

My joke fell flat (pun intended) and Sumaiya* returned to her reverie in the front seat. No offense taken: at this point we have moved way beyond polite laughter. We spend six days a week together, often long days, working to put in place services for Rohingya women and girls. Since August, at least 655,000 people have fled unimaginable brutality in neighboring Myanmar, joining over 200,000 Rohingya already here to form the ‘world’s fastest growing refugee crisis’. The Bangladeshi government clearcut a vast swath of the Teknaf Game Reserve to create the mega-camp in which most now live; it’s a disaster in every way you could imagine, plus a few you probably can’t unless you, too, are here.

Elephant routes of Ukhia_ISCG

For example, the sheer number of elephant routes that criss-cross what is now a densely packed, tented refugee camp/makeshift settlement/spontaneous site. Source: ISCG

More than once, when walking through the camp, Sumaiya will survey that horizon—makeshift tents and stripped hillsides as far as the eye can see, the land denuded of any and all vegetation that could hold it in place once the rainy season hits. She will comment softly, “This used to be all trees. We spent the last 40 years re-growing them here.” She doesn’t say it with disdain, or blame, or even anger. She says it quietly, almost as if she’s in shock. And she works extremely hard to support the people now living on this land.

The other day, one of the longer ones, we climbed into the car for the drive back to Cox’s. Possible in around one hour, the journey stretched toward two with traffic. The sun was setting, and we stopped along the Marine Drive to drink some fresh coconut water from a roadside stand. It’s a treat that always threatens to become a horror movie: a man holding a huge, wobbly coconut in one hand and whacking at its husk with a machete held by the other. Safely hacked open, plastic straws refused, we took our coconuts and walked through the thin belt of tall, skinny jhau trees to the beach, where children were playing in the huge curved wooden fishing boats that evoke pirate ships. Their tattered flags flapped in the wind; no skull and crossbones, but I’m told some boat captains were charging desperate refugees $200 a head for the short ride across the Naf River to Bangladesh and relative safety. We stood in the midst of the trees, surveying the boats silhouetted against the sun as it disappeared behind the razor’s edge of the horizon. Sumaiya explained that the whole shoreline was once buffered with a shallow forest such as this one. Then they were cut down to clear the view for beachfront hotels filled with Bengali holidaymakers coming to what’s touted as “the world’s longest sea beach”. The tide took advantage of this opportunity to increasingly erode the trees that are left.

I have come to know Sumaiya very well in some ways, and not at all in others. I know that she likes to eat a big breakfast—two parathas, eggs, dal, mixed vegetables—as we start early and often don’t eat lunch until 4 or 5pm. I know that she hits the ‘door open’ button in the elevator of our office building, thinking it’s the ‘door close’ button… but there is no ‘door close’ button, so instead of making our ride faster, it slows us down. I know this so well, I have started putting my hand over the ‘door open’ button as soon as we enter the elevator, to block her reflexive move to push it. That makes her laugh.

She also giggles and refuses when I offer to bring her tea, even though I point out that I’m going to the kettle anyway to make my own, so it’s really not extra work to bring back a second cup. “But you are my boss!” More giggling. My turn not to pretend to find it hilarious… although her laughter usually makes me laugh, too.

I also know that she has recently suffered a hardship that has been extremely difficult for her. The loss of a beloved pet due to human carelessness and a kind of cruelty that somehow surprises me, in spite of the vast cruelties all around us. When she told me what happened, tears clouded her eyes yet she maintained that same clear, sincere voice she uses to talk about the trees and the sea: “She is a family member to me, no less.” I suspect many of you understand. The sound of strain and sorrow in her voice made my stomach hurt. I am sorry this happened, and offer to listen whenever she wants to talk. Right now, she doesn’t want to.

I don’t know if she considers me a friend, or if we will stay in touch when I leave. But over the years, I have come to carry colleagues like her in my heart and my thoughts—whether or not we share updates via Skype or facebook or whatsapp. They have shaped me into a person that can never again live in one place, without being reminded of and missing the people I’ve come to know, with a particular degree of intimacy, in so many other places. I feel it as a kind of constant melancholy that comes from abundance, not lack: a richness of human exchange, collaboration, confusion and sweat that I would not trade for all of the comfort in the world.


*Name changed.


4 thoughts on “The people we meet

  1. That’s a beautiful picture at the top, I feel a deep connection with nature – trees specifically.
    This piece is wonderfully written and very relatable ” I feel it as a kind of constant melancholy that comes from abundance, not lack: a richness of human exchange, collaboration, confusion and sweat that I would not trade for all of the comfort in the world”, just exquisite

    Liked by 1 person

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