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 Continue reading

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Exhale on 2016.

Exhale.  We made it.  We’re in 2017.  The churning jowls of last year didn’t devour all of us, even if they ground our souls to gristle.

Why did 2016 feel so existentially threatening?  For those of us involved in international affairs, especially humanitarianism, the broad political trends were hard not to take personally.  Brexit was a stunning reminder—a wake-up call?—that growing global cooperation is by no means a given; many components of the Leave Campaign demonstrated the power of xenophobic falsehoods, fear-fueled hatreds that then reared their ugly heads time and time again throughout the Republican campaign for the American presidency.  As these efforts and others, like the “no” vote for Colombian peace, drew to their nasty, lamentable ends, we became increasingly distrustful of those around us: are my neighbors closet xenophobes?  Are my friends secretly racist?  What do my family members really think?  The gap between public polls and private voting booths left us wondering if civility had crumbled behind closed doors.  The loss of trust was one of 2016’s greatest casualties.

As humanitarian aid and international development workers, we were right to take far-right political campaigns personally: they targeted our livelihoods, which reflect core sets Continue reading

My Dark Night of the Soul in Aid Work, Part II

This week an anonymous Missing in the Mission blogger shares what she terms her ‘dark night of the soul’, in the second of a two-part post. Grief can be scariest when it seemingly erupts out of nowhere, yet refuses to be stemmed.

Read Part I here.

francesca-belardini_4

Original artwork by Francesca Belardini Arte.

Fast forward to August 2012. My dark night of the soul had been triggered, I believe, by a Qi Master I just happened to be put in touch with through an advert I’d seen offering 40% off an acupressure treatment. The Qi Master had massaged gently around various parts of my body before telling me with a look of concern on her face that I appeared to be holding in a lot of anger, as my liver was extremely blocked.

According to eastern medical traditions, which she’d studied and followed for years, blockages in the body prevent the circulation of vital energy known as ‘qi’ (chi) which in turn can have a deep effect on our emotional wellbeing. Unlike Western medical sciences and their propensity to isolate pain to one particular area of the body from which it originates, Eastern traditions see the body as a whole, with qi acting to ignite every part of our being, determining our mental, physical and spiritual health.

I went home from my massage slightly baffled, both by what the Qi Master had told me and by the unfamiliar pain I’d felt when she was massaging my midriff and abdominal Continue reading

My Dark Night of the Soul in Aid Work (Part I)

This week an anonymous Missing in the Mission blogger shares what she terms her ‘dark night of the soul’, in the first of a two-part post. Grief can be scariest when it seemingly erupts out of nowhere, yet refuses to be stemmed. 

francesca-belardini_3

Original artwork by Francesca Belardini Arte.

August 2012. In the UK, it was the summer of the Olympics, of the Queen’s golden jubilee, of jet streams that interrupted every sunny day with sudden downpours. It was also the year when the world was supposed to come to an end, when the planets were to come into total alignment with the sun – an astrological event occurring only every few million years – and when we were to move beyond the technology, modernism and cold logic of the last few hundred years and towards a state of deeper consciousness, more connected to the earth and humanity.

That month found me in my small box room in my parents’ house, in hysterical tears. The tears were so uncontrollable for so many days and weeks, that I could be anywhere – not just in the quiet solitude of my bedroom – and I would start welling up with sadness and despair. I could be on the bus, or in a shop, or sitting at dinner with my family, and I would have to start choking back the wave that came rushing in; Oh no, not now…now is not the Continue reading