Stepping up to feed the hungry

How World Food Programme (WFP) staff rose to the occasion to help people fleeing for their lives into Bangladesh

Shelley Thakral
Dec 21, 2017 · 6 min read

When the Rohingya refugee emergency erupted in late August 2017, Sunee Singh, WFP Programme Policy Officer in Cox’s Bazar was one of the first responders. Three months into the crisis, she tells me about the situation, WFP’s work and her own experience.

Were you expecting a crisis on this scale?

In Cox’s Bazar, we have been assisting 34,000 Rohingyas fleeing from violence in Myanmar since 1992, and more recently we have provided emergency food assistance to 70,000 who came after 9 October 2016. When thousands began to arrive after 25 August this year, we were the first to respond. We organized an impromptu distribution of high-energy biscuits in the Kutupalong registered camp, where most new arrivals had congregated. We also provided hot meals through our partner Action Contre la Faim, and rice distributions followed as well. We expected a few thousand people and thought “we’ve been doing this before, it will be easy”. But the sheer mass of people crossing the border on a daily basis was overwhelming and beyond our estimation.

When did you realise you were facing a catastrophic humanitarian emergency?

The first shock for me was when some colleagues and I visited Kutapolong camp on 1 September. It was Friday, and we had planned to have a weekend brunch but the day turned into something we could never have imagined.

The children were crying, the adults desperate and in shock.

Thousands of families had poured in overnight and more were coming. There were people everywhere — confused and traumatised. At the beginning, it was mostly women and children. The children were crying, the adults desperate and in shock. It was the first time I saw the ‘face of starvation’ on such a scale. It was raining heavily. Most of the refugees walked around drenched, barefoot in the muddy water, often with their minimal belongings tucked in an old WFP rice bag. We had been feeding these families in Myanmar.

That day, we and the other humanitarians on the ground realised the real magnitude of the emergency.

How did you organize the response?

As I was covering for the Head of the WFP office in Cox’s Bazar, I started coordinating with other organizations to determine the needs and who would be doing what. For food assistance, it was evident that WFP was the only organization with the capacity to do it at the necessary scale. Because it was Eid and offices were closed, my home became the meeting point for colleagues both from WFP and other agencies. Every day we tried to cross check the information that was available. On the basis of this, we prepared our emergency distribution plans late at night and dispatched stocks early in the morning.

What were the main challenges in the first phase of the response?

The most significant flow of arrivals lasted for around three weeks, and the second one was the most crucial and challenging. As the influx peaked, we had to invest lots of energy in getting information on the number of arrivals and their precise locations. Many of the locations did not have good network coverage, which made it difficult to coordinate distributions.

Most of my colleagues, including the Head of our office, were away for the Eid holidays, so we had to run our operation with limited staff. However, every staff member worked tirelessly day and night to get life-saving food to those in need. Even our Administrative assistant, Akhter, who had never been engaged in food distributions before, ended up taking the lead on the whole distribution in one of the new sites we set up.

What emotions did you go through over the first few days?

Although we knew about the atrocities these people had been through, witnessing them first-hand really affected me. Every refugee had a horrendous story to tell. On the first day of the mass influx, with help from my colleague Mohi, we rescued a highly vulnerable, traumatised adolescent girl who was sitting on the side of the road, completely unclothed. Despite the rain, she had been in the same spot without moving for three days. I knew immediately that she could have been a victim of rape. As it turned out, she had indeed been gang raped within a few days of having arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar. We covered her with my shawl and raincoat, fed her and, as no ambulance was available, we brought her to Médecins Sans Frontières for assistance.

On the operational side, there were a few difficult times, like unmanageable crowds, or running out of stocks for the day when there were still people unfed.

There were times when I felt overwhelmed. Although I had covered for the Head of our office for extended periods in the past, I was not trained to lead an emergency operation on this scale. However, he instilled confidence in me, and soon enough — with support of my national colleagues and with remote support and guidance — I was able to ensure WFP did its best to reach out to as many people as possible.

The plight of the Rohingyas made me very humble and helped me stay focused on my purpose.

Besides leading food distributions, I was also carrying out a range of other tasks, from attending numerous meetings to creating the stock plan and writing reports. So it was non-stop work from the time I got up to the time I went to bed. Each day I woke up with anxiety and pressure to make sure we fed as many people as we could, but every night I went to bed feeling proud of our achievements.

Colleagues say I managed calmly and in a composed manner. I guess the plight of the Rohingyas made me very humble and helped me stay focused on my purpose. This was my first-ever emergency experience, so I reminded myself to be grateful to learn so much so quickly.

How does it feel to be working on an emergency of this scale, and do you feel your work is making a difference?

One of my colleagues recently told me that during one of our food distributions one of the people we assist said: “WFP is like my mother — it feeds me.” WFP is the only organization on the ground to provide assistance on such a large scale. We have fed — and continue to feed — hundreds of thousands of people, we have built a bridge and we are supporting various partners who help women and children in child and women friendly spaces. So definitely, our work must have made a crucial and huge difference. I feel very proud and fortunate to be part of this, and especially to have been here from the beginning.

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