Rohingya voices: crisis, resilience, and hope

Rohingya Arts Campaign 2021

August 2021 marks four years since a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar resulted in more than 700,000 Rohingya people fleeing to Bangladesh, in search of safety. Rohingya in both Myanmar and Bangladesh continue to face enormous challenges, including violence and displacement. To help mark this moment, Oxfam asked Rohingya artists to share their creative perspectives, reflecting on the ongoing crisis in both Bangladesh and Myanmar as well as their hopes for the future.

Following an open ‘call for artist submissions’, we received a wide range of visual art, photography, writing, and poetry from Rohingya artists. The artwork speaks to the incredible resilience of the Rohingya community as artists reflect upon past hardships and trauma, daily joys, and their hopes for the future.

We are thrilled to share this year’s selected pieces below. Winning submissions from Oxfam’s 2020 Rohingya Arts Campaign are available here.

Selected pieces reflect the views and opinions of individual artists and do not necessarily reflect those of Oxfam.

 

 

Ishrat Bibi

Ishrat Bibi - "Rohingya Hope"

Ishrat Bibi, a 19-year-old photographer, lives in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. In this photo she captures a quiet moment as a young Rohingya girl holds her brother. The girl looks out over the camp where she lives with her family as a refugee, thinking about where she has come from and what lies ahead, hoping for a better future. 

Ishrat began taking photographs in Myanmar after her brother gifted her a phone when she passed her matriculation. Photography is one of her passions, and she spends her days taking pictures of her surroundings, only stopping when her phone battery dies.

Ishrat is currently studying and is committed to ensuring other Rohingya children also get the chance to learn: “I have a number of goals in the long-run such as completing a master’s degree in Islamic studies, to be a good Poetess known around the world, and an excellent photographer. My biggest dream is to work on children’s education—I want to see every individual Rohingya child in school because in my community there are thousands of children who have no idea about their education."

 

 

A Rohingya Girl’s Dream

 

My name is Hafsa, I am a Rohingya girl who had a dream of attending University. I belong to the Arakan State of Myanmar. My family is well educated, and I studied hard to pass my matriculation exam with distinction. Unfortunately, I could not continue my studies due to the genocide on 25 August 2017 in Arakan. My family and community had to flee our motherland to save our lives, and then we became refugees in Bangladesh.

Although I knew there was no chance of being admitted to the university for our Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, I never lost my dream to go to university. Even while living in the refugee camp, I used to hope that I could go one day if I had the opportunity. However, it was hard to think about furthering my studies in the camp because there are no options for adequate learning for Rohingya. It is dangerous for our teenage girls to stay in the unsafe tents in the refugee camp, so my parents planned for me to get married. I could not ignore my marriage proposal and the wishes of my family, because I was a girl who had no other options for choosing.


In the end, my dream became unrealistic. I asked myself why it was not achievable and realized it was because I am a Rohingya, and I am a refugee. I determined that having a dream is not a big sin—but our situation often makes our dreams impossible. We should not stop dreaming, rather we should keep hoping and wait for the right time.

After my marriage, my husband came to know of my ambition to apply for admission to the university. As an educated person, he tried to understand me, and I was able to convince him. He even accompanied me while I completed the admission process. Luckily, I passed the entrance exam nicely and was admitted to The Asian University for Women, where I wanted to study.

I got a second chance at my dream. I am now a university student and learning through online classes. I have not attended any physical classes yet due to the COVID-19pandemic. However, I hope I will be able to next year. As a refugee girl, I never expected that my dream would come true, but it really did. I am so grateful to everyone who helped me in my journey with my big dream—especially my husband, who supported me, and my university, which gave me such an opportunity.

To all my dearest Rohingya sisters who have a dream, hope, or a goal to achieve in life like Hafsa. I would say, never ever give up in life. If you dream it, hope for it until you gain it. I know you face many problems including being refugees, being stateless, having limited opportunities, and facing society’s obstacles—but I would say to try your best to challenge all of them. You have to overcome all the struggles that are around you. Otherwise, you will have to survive your whole life being a victim of your life. You are responsible for your own success, so make your own decisions. Be the key to your happiness and spread it to others if possible.

Parmin Fatema @MaMayChit - "A Rohingya Girl’s Dream"

Parmin Fatema, a writer, and poet, is originally from northern Rakhine in Myanmar. She now lives in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh where she works as a volunteer for a humanitarian agency and attends the Asian University for Women. For her, the role of art is critical not only to her self-expression but also as a way to share the struggles and hopes of the broader Rohingya community in the camps. As she describes it: “I create art to share my feelings, my opinions, and experiences of my people, and to share what is happening to my community.” In regard to her winning essay, she states: “There are many Rohingya girls who have similar stories but cannot raise their voices. So, I did on behalf of them.

For Parmin, she sees equality and basic rights as critical to building a better future: “An individual should have the liberty to do anything that they want in their life without any discrimination and injustice. I hope for a future that will bring peace to my country. Every learner should have access to a proper education and have the freedom to pursue their own life.”

 

 

Mayyu Khan

 

Mayyu Khan - "Mother and Child on the Bank of the Naf River"

In this painting, 20-year-old Mayyu  Khan depicts a Rohingya woman and her baby as they flee the Myanmar military’s campaign of violence in August of 2017. Mayyu was born in northern Rakhine state and was among the 700,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh four years ago. Like many living in the camps, he struggles to contend with the loss and trauma he has experienced. “I am a victim of many tortures and a member of the lost generation of Rohingya,” he says. “When I express my stories then they become poetry and when I sketch my stories then they become artwork. My situation has made me a poet and artist.”

You can read more about the events of August 2017 and how they link to longstanding patterns of violence and persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar in the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

 

 

Zia Hero Naing

 

Zia Hero Naing - "The Fire"

Twenty-eight-year-old Zia Hero Naing has become a well-known photographer in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, capturing powerful images of daily life and struggles in his community. In the past year, the camps have seen a sharp increase in fires. In the first six months of 2021, there were 100 separate incidents, compared to 82 fires in all of 2020. The single largest fire occurred on March 22 and left 45,000 refugees homeless as it rapidly destroyed bamboo shelters.

“Nowadays, fire incidents have become a normal fear for the Rohingya community,” says Zia. This photo captures members of the refugee community struggling to contain a blaze in July 2021. When disaster strikes, refugees are the front-line responders in the camps, as silhouetted in this photograph. Fires, flooding, and landslides are just some of the hazards Rohingya face living in the camps in Cox’s Bazar. The COVID-19 pandemic has come to represent another serious threat, particularly in the densely populated camps, where physical distancing is often impossible.

To see more of Zia’s photography, you can follow him on Twitter at @hero_zia.

 

 

My Refugee Life

Under this tarpaulin shelter,
I dwell like ants in hole
Spending my mundane life
By hankering for home and homeland
My dark night never turns into daylight.

In daytime, I stand at the queue
By holding ration-card for foods
Sometimes, I'm whipped with sticks
Sometimes, I'm fallen and crashed
For these, I forget the day I smiled

Having always the same tasteless foods
I lose my appetite bit by bit
Children murmur with mother
I hardly swallow just to survive
For these, I forget the day I laughed

Men are lined up to refill stove-gas
Women, for soaps and sanitation
Children, to pour water into vessels
The queue is as long as my eyes can see
Vessels are much as my mind can count
For these, I forget the day I exulted.

The night under this shelter lengthens
My head on pillow with open eyes
The memories in mind are recalled
Soon my cheeks get wet with tears
Indeed, I forget the nights I slept in peace

Where I was and now where I am surviving
What I did and now what I'm doing
Who I was and now who I am
Today, I've to look for charity like a beggar
Indeed, I forget the dignity I belonged.

The actual meaning of refugee life is
Yearning for homeland every moment
Battle of homesickness,
Battle of sleeplessness,
Battle of nostalgia,
Downhearted mood darkens deeper
The whole world gets darker and darker
Indeed, I forget the face I had in my own land

Ro Anamul Hasan - "My Refugee Life"

Ro Anamul Hasan is a 24-year-old poet from Maungdaw, Rakhine State, in Myanmar. His writing examines his family’s as well as his own experiences amidst horrific violence in Myanmar, a place where his uncles were arbitrarily arrested and tortured and from where he was forced to flee. Rohingya in Myanmar face severe discrimination and after Ro Anamul passed his matriculation, he was barred from attending university because of his identity. He became a voracious reader and felt compelled to start writing poetry as a way to express his frustration at the injustices he and other Rohingya were experiencing. Once in Bangladesh, Ro Anamul had the chance to attend writing workshops and he has continued to hone his craft.

Through his poetry he sheds light on what it means to live as a “refugee”, highlighting the humanity and daily struggles that are so often masked by such a label. When asked why he writes, Ro Anamul responded: “poetry is like raising my voice to the world from my obscure world.”

 

 

Life of Rohingya Women

Enayet Khan - "Life of Rohingya Women"

Enayet Khan, a 22-year-old Rohingya artist, can often be found inside his shelter in Nayapara refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, working on his latest painting. Inspired by his uncle who was a well-regarded artist in their home village in Myanmar,

Enayet began drawing at an early age. Enayet’s talents were recognized first by his fellow students and as he got older, he found he preferred to spend his free time drawing and painting rather than playing with friends.

Today Enayet uses his art as a means to tell stories of Rohingya people and to express himself in ways that go beyond words. Enayet dreams of being able to study art and become a full-time artist. He currently works at the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre established by IOM, an initiative that aims to document and celebrate Rohingya arts and culture.

To learn more about Enayet and to see other powerful paintings by him, check out this blog.

 

 

Drawing makes me happy , what makes you happy

Mohammed Zonaid and Mohammed Raihan - "What Makes You Happy?"

Mohammed Zonaid is a 25-year-old photographer, videographer, and teacher living in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. He works at Omar’s Film School, a refugee-led initiative based in Kutupalong camp. The school’s mission is to promote health, hope, and heritage by training Rohingya youth in photography and videography.

This video features 17-year-old Raihan, a young artist living in the camps.

As described by Mohammed Zonaid: “We live in the world’s largest refugee settlement—among the one million Rohingyas there many different life stories. We want to bring out some of the courageous and inspiring stories of the Rohingya refugees to let the world know more about our community. Like Raihan, we each have talents.”

To see more about Omar’s Film School projects, follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

 

 

Tradition

Abdullah @ Khin Maung Thein - "Tradition"

In this photograph, Abdullah captures the profile of one of his neighbors, a young Rohingya girl who is wearing ‘Thanakah’ on her cheeks, a paste made from ground bark. Thanaka has been used in Myanmar for an estimated 2,000 years and continues to be used to this day. It’s a tradition that’s visible across different ethnic groups in the country, including Rohingya, across cities and villages, and across different genders and ages. It helps keep skin cool and protected from the sun and many apply it using different patterns and designs.

Abdullah is a twenty-six-year-old Rohingya refugee, photographer, and poet living in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. He states, “For me, a better future is living a life without fear in mind, having all the human rights, and being able to proudly say that I am a Rohingya. I hope to return to my home, to be free, and to see my community develop.”

 

 

Hope of living a happy life

Abdullah@ Khin Maung Thein - "The Hope of Living a Good and Happy Life"

In this photo, Abdullah captures another neighbor. “This Rohingya boy is playing with a balloon made from a plastic bag and delivering the cutest smile, proving that children should have space for happiness by playing.”

To see more of Abdullah’s photographs, you can follow him on Twitter at @Abdulla30424503.

 

 

Folktales

 

 

Mohammed Rezuwan and Mayyu Khan - "Rohingya Folktales"

Twenty-four-year-old folklorist Mohammed Rezuwan has lived in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps since fleeing Myanmar in 2017. For the past two years, he has traveled throughout the community, speaking to refugees from across Arakan (also known as Rakhine State) in order to collect and preserve Rohingya language folk tales.

“Folktales are common among the Rohingya of Arakan. In particular, elderly people used to tell these folktales to children to teach them morals and lessons,” he says. “I have always been interested in studying and researching the culture of the Rohingya people, and in particular the folk stories that have been passed down for centuries. I have been unable to find them in any book that records them". Mohammed is working with Rohingya illustrator Mayyu Khan and editor Alex Ebsary to compile a book of these stories before they vanish from memory.

“We Rohingya people have our own culture, tradition, folk songs, folk tales, and folk music. Unfortunately, due to persecution, the written Rohingya language has been lost; as a result of the genocide against us, today we are on the brink of losing our rich cultural heritage as well.”

To read more Rohingya Folktales and pre-order the collection visit: https://rohingyafolktales.com/

 

Rooftops

 

 

 

Fire aftermath

Azimul Hasson - "Rooftops" and "Aftermath of the Fire"

In these photographs, nineteen-year-old poet and photographer Azimul Hasson captures scenes from a devastating fire in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. On March 22, flames ripped through the camp, destroying 11,000 shelters and leaving 45,000 people displaced. In the photograph entitled “Rooftops,” Azimul captures a shot of refugee men standing atop a bamboo and tarpaulin shelter watching the blaze, while in the second photo, entitled “Aftermath of the Fire” he shows the scene of devastation.

Art is essential to Azimul. “Writing poetry is my passion. It allows me to enter a world where I find no injustice, discrimination, or division of religion,” he says. “Photography is my dream. I work as a photographer for my Rohingya people. It is important because there are many things journalists miss—but I live in the camps and am myself a refugee, so I can capture the daily reality of my community. Through my photos, the world can be updated about the situation in the refugee camps.

Azimul Hasson is a Media Fellow with Fortify Rights. To see more of his compelling photography, you can follow him on Instagram at @azimulhass.

 

 

Rohingya people love football

MD Aiyas - "Olympic Football and Dreams of Rohingya People"

Rohingya people love football,” says MD Aiyas, who lives in one of the sprawling Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. He is passionate about football and has been fascinated with the Olympics ever since a teacher told him about the games when he was a schoolboy in Myanmar. “The Olympic Games are the best-known sporting event in the world. Refugees joined the Tokyo 2021 Refugee Olympic Team. They dream of joining football sports teams internationally one day.”

Football is played across the camps, with children often creating their own balls out of plastic bags and string. Despite the constraints, the talents and commitment of these young players are impossible to ignore.

MD Aiyas is a Community Outreach Member of ActionAid Bangladesh’s Community-Based Protection Project, which is carried out in partnership with UNHCR. The project provides art supplies and training in the Cox’s Bazar camps.

 

 

Umme Sal

Umme Salma - "Children in the Window"

Umme Salma is an 18-year-old photographer living in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. In this photograph, she captures two neighbors through the window of their bamboo and tarpaulin shelter. The COVID-19 pandemic has further limited educational opportunities for the half-million Rohingya children living in the camps. Learning centers have been closed since March 2020.“I am a Rohingya girl who takes photographs,” Umme says. “Since childhood, I have wanted to be a professional journalist, but I can not due to lack of education and opportunity. My ambition is to help our community raise their voices to the world through storytelling and pictures.”

Acknowledgments

Oxfam is grateful to the incredible artists who shared their stories and creative pieces with us. The following artists who participated in this project have been awarded honorable mentions: Azad Mohammed, M.Z., Md. Iddris, Md. Jamal, Md. Nobi, Tanzina Ashraf, Tofura, Toyoba, and Umme Hairu.

Oxfam would also like to acknowledge ActionAid Bangladesh’s ‘Community-Based Protection Project’ and the many other organizations and activists who helped us circulate the call for submissions. To follow more stories and art created by Rohingya artists check out the following initiatives:

 

  • The Art Garden Rohingya is the first Rohingya community-based online poetry website with about 200 emerging young Rohingya poets involved.
  • Omar’s Film School is based in Kutupalong Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The school trains Rohingya youth in photography and videography.
  • Rohingya Photography Competition for Rohingya refugees initiated by Shafiur Rahman, UK-based journalist and activist.
  • The Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre is a community space and interactive gallery that showcases cultural artifacts and artworks researched and produced by Rohingya refugee artists and cultural practitioners living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Support Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Close to a million Rohingya people, more than half of them children, have fled violence in Myanmar to seek refuge across the border in Bangladesh. Learn more about the crisis, Oxfam’s response on both sides of the border and how you can help.