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


Healing from toxic stress

This blog is written by Minna Järvenpää.  For Minna, yoga and meditation have played a key role in regaining inner balance. She is now finding ways to share the tools she learned, through Tools for Inner Peace, which promotes the mental and emotional wellbeing of aid workers, journalists and other frontline professionals.


First snow on the main bridge in Mitrovica. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Somewhere along a decade-long road from Sarajevo to Kabul I started tilting out of balance – as a result of toxic levels of stress.

The tipping point came on a day of rioting in Mitrovica on 17 March 2004. Nineteen people were killed that day and two hundred hospitalised. I was the ‘Mayor’ of Mitrovica, appointed by the UN in Kosovo as caretaker when the Serbs of the divided town refused to vote. I had seen the violence coming but had been unable to convince those who could have prevented it to act. During the months after leaving Kosovo, I sat and stared out at the Adriatic sea, until the images of that day blurred along with the remembered smell of tear-gas and the sound of bullets ricocheting from the trees.

Already in the lead-up to the violence, I had developed brutal insomnia and started lashing out at people in a state of exhausted dysfunction. The only times I remember experiencing real relaxation in the months before March 2004 were when a friend and colleague in Mitrovica dragged me along to a yoga class.

In the aftermath, when I began suffering from hypervigilance (every car on the road was potentially out to run me over) and avoiding people and conversations that would trigger Continue reading

Sea Change


Source: MIT Water Club 

My father taught us very early on to respect the sea. As young girls, my sister and I would go into the water with him on an inflatable raft and learn to “catch” waves, to ride them into the shore. If we started paddling too late, we would miss the wave entirely; too soon, and it would break on top of us and sometimes throw us off the raft. We would go tumbling along on the sand under the water, forced to hold our breath until the wave let us come up for air again (getting “rolled”, as he called it). It was scary, but exhilarating.

Our most important lesson came on calm days, when he taught us not to mistake the smooth surface of the water and absence of waves for a lack of action underneath. Even when they are barely visible on the surface, there are always currents and sometimes a strong undertow. These powerful forces can carry us very far — in a direction that we may or may not want to go. And sometimes they act stealthily, taking us a ways down the shore before we even realize that we are being redirected.

When I first took a break from aid work, I felt burnt out and alone.  I started this blog in part to confront that stereotype, to respond to the many whispered conversations and questions of, “I feel like that too” and “But how did you do it?” and “Aren’t you scared you’ll never be able to go back?” I had seen a close colleague and friend, someone who I had long admired in the field, leave her job in a sudden and heartbreaking way. I supported her as best I could during her last few months at work, when she felt abandoned by the very entity that she had given so much to over the years. She eventually took the difficult and Continue reading