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Bangladesh- the Beginning

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Because I'm sure you're curious as to why I'm here and what it's like

bamboo homes in Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh
Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh

Adventure begins!

I’m about ten days into my adventure in Bangladesh, volunteering with the joint venture of Medical Teams International and Food for the Hungry. I knew that Bangladesh was not a typical tourist destination, but I didn’t realize quite how much so until I was boarding my plane to Dhaka. The gate agent asked me, “you know you’re going to Dhaka, right?” And later a flight attendant asked me, “your destination is Dhaka? Why are you going there?” With questions like that, I wasn’t quite sure what I was walking into. But once I arrived at my final destination, Cox’s Bazar, and started the drive from the airport to my guest house, I got excited. Bicycle rickshaws and tom-toms (auto rickshaws) whizzing past, a few cows and goats strolling down the street, and jumbled up mix of chaos, trash, and honking horns brought a huge smile to my face. I love it.

dirt road with rickshaws in Cox's Bazar Bangladesh
The mean streets of Cox’s Bazar

Where I live in Bangladesh

I have pretty awesome living arrangements- a guest house with 10 other expat volunteers, who are doctors and nurses from the US. I have my own room, my own bathroom, laundry, and people who cook us dinner and wash our dishes. And did I mention air conditioning? This is way better than expected. We also have an amazing rooftop deck overlooking expansive lush greenery and some neighbors quietly living out their lives in tin houses with chickens and cows. Cox’s Bazar is also a vacation town, hosting the world’s longest sea beach. Less than 2 miles from my guest house is the beach, lined with hotels and always pulsing with activity. However, no bikinis on this beach- Bangladesh is a Muslim country, so you’re more likely to find women fully covered in long sleeves, tunics, and pants- even in the water. Cox’s Bazar is the closest major town to the refugee camps, so there are many NGOs in town- and therefore many expats and quite a few hotels that cater to their needs for Western food and drinks with safely consumable ice.

Green trees and yard in Bangladesh
Backyard views

women in burkas on cox's bazar beach
Cox’s Bazar beach

Man selling bananas in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh
Street scene

The Scenery

I have just completed my first full week volunteering in one of the refugee camps for Rohingya refugees. My organization has 3 primary health centers and 2 smaller health posts, and we are just a tiny piece of the puzzle in the Rohingya response. The drive to the camp takes us past the massive operations of the World Food Program, Brac, Doctors without Borders (MSF), Hope International, IOM, IFRC, UNICEF, UNHCR… if there is a big name agency in existence, they’re here. It takes 1.5-2 hours of driving each way to get into the camp due to the worst road conditions I’ve ever seen, and traffic. In some parts, vehicles are serpentining back and forth across the road dodging divots that could swallow a car. The ride through the Bangladeshi countryside is pretty darn interesting though. There is a long stretch of good road that parallels the ocean, then it turns through jungle with tall skinny palm trees and little homes tucked back out of sight. There are a few small villages along the way, with clumps of men standing in the street buying and selling all types of goods, and some days there is a betel nut market that causes major congestion. We drive past rice paddies and high security food warehouses, and watch as little kids walk themselves to school along extremely dangerous roads. It’s a fascinating inside look at the real life and landscape of the country.

jungle house bangladesh
Jungle house

market bangladesh betelnut
Men at the market

betel nut market bangladesh
No, these aren't oranges. It's betel nut.

The refugee camp

The camp itself is massive, with reports of 900,000- to 1 million refugees in residence. Rolling hills stretch as far as the eye can see of colorful tents branded with UNHCR logos. There are rugged dirt roads for vehicles, and bamboo bridges for people. Trash is everywhere. People are everywhere. Privacy, and shade from the blazing hot sun are nowhere. After we park our vans and start the walk to the clinics, we wander past little markets, over streams, and up steps carved into the muddy hillside, narrowly dodging men carrying long stalks of bamboo or heavy loads of all kinds. As soon as we are spotted, children run out from all directions waving and yelling “how are you?” and “bye bye” over and over and over again, huge smiles on their faces. Although it looks very much like what I was expecting, I’m still floored that I am there. It’s not easy to gain access to refugee camps. Who am I to be there with the major humanitarian players of the world? And to have the privilege to care for those afflicted by such extreme trauma? I am truly thankful for this opportunity and can’t wait to see the evolution of why God brought me here.

kutapalong refugee camp, rohingya
Rohingya refugee camp Kutapalong

If I dove into details on my clinic work, this post would be too long and you would all stop reading here. You can check that one out here!

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