Living In The After
How one doctor is helping Rohingya refugees heal in Bangladesh
In Cox’s Bazar, there is a “before” and “after.” Before 693,000 Rohingya refugees fled persecution in Myanmar for Bangladesh, and after. Dr. Iftikher Mahmood is living in the after.
Dr. Mahmood, a Bangladeshi-American pediatrician, founded HOPE Foundation for Women & Children of Bangladesh in 1999 to meet the maternal healthcare needs of his home community. He was born and raised in Cox’s Bazar, a seaside area in the southeast corner of Bangladesh, bordering Myanmar. Now, he lives in Miami, Florida, but his commitment to his childhood home has never wavered.
Since he moved to the United States 27 years ago, Dr. Mahmood has traveled back to Bangladesh often. But his most recent trip, in November 2017, was different.
“It was shocking to see the conditions people are living in,” he said of the Rohingya refugee camps sprawling across his home. “And the kind of suffering they endured. They came with a lot of stress and pain.”
HOPE Foundation operates a hospital, health centers, and a small fleet of ambulances in Cox’s Bazar, and plans to open a maternity hospital in the next two years. While the organization focuses on maternal health — an estimated 70,000 Rohingya refugee women are pregnant — its doctors, nurses, and midwives are also trained in emergency and primary care. Since Aug. 25, when refugees began to flee to Bangladesh to escape ethnic cleansing, Dr. Mahmood estimates his clinics and hospital have served nearly 100,000 patients. That’s more than 1,500 a day.
Before, in Bangladesh, there were more than 300,000 Rohingya refugees. Now, there are approximately 860,000 in Cox’s Bazar alone. They fled an outbreak of mass atrocities in Myanmar that broke out when a small group of Rohingya militants attacked police posts, triggering a brutal military counter-offensive. Rohingya refugees reported rape, the slaughtering of children, and other violent crimes that likely constitute crimes against humanity or genocide, which are punishable under international law. The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, but the Myanmar government insists that all Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The state does not recognize them as citizens and describes many as terrorists, effectively rendering the majority of them stateless.
“I don’t think anyone expected this,” said Dr. Mahmood of the staggering escalation of the crisis. “It took us a little time to adjust to the crisis. But we have been there for a long time, and have a solid team of dedicated, passionate people who moved very quickly. We know the community, the local people, and the language.”
Since Dr. Mahmood speaks Chittagonian, which is mutually intelligible with the Rohingya language, he heard stories from refugees firsthand.
“The story is the same everywhere,” said Dr. Mahmood. “What you are hearing in the news is real.”
He told me the story of a woman he met in one of HOPE Foundation’s clinics.
“One family I met was a mother with three children. Before, they had twelve family members. Seven had been killed and five were able to come from Myanmar,” he said quietly. “They walked for five days. They passed three villages that were totally empty. Either the people were killed or ran away.”
Despite the immense challenges to living a normal life, the mother is hopeful.
“She told me her family is now able to live without fear of being killed or tortured,” Dr. Mahmood said. “She told me she feels happy coming to Bangladesh because she’s not afraid anymore. She has a place to live and the government of Bangladesh and aid organizations are giving her food and taking care of her.”
Much goes unsaid when talking about the before and after — most obviously, the “during.” Dr. Mahmood explained he purposefully left out details of this mother’s story, out of respect for her. What an enormous weight to carry: stories entrusted to you that are unspeakable. And so, you move forward. To the after.
Dr. Mahmood is proud of how Bangladesh has taken in the refugees, and he plans to continue serving the Rohingya refugee population for as long as needed. “No one else is doing what we’re doing — maternal health, building a maternity hospital, training midwives — we have a huge responsibility to stay engaged.”