Darshita (Right): Project Rohingya Sisu – “Sisu” meaning kids – is something that grew organically after Ayesha and I came back from our trip to Bangladesh last April. We visited the Unchiprang Refugee Camp to volunteer our services and help kids who fled Myanmar with their families.
Ayesha (Left): We attended the same JC and even experienced Outward Bound in India together, and when I saw her Facebook post about raising money on a crowdfunding platform to provide emergency relief in Bangladesh, I wanted to help out. We went in 2018 just when the Rohingya crisis was at its peak in 2017.
Darshita: We had two objectives during our recce trip, and one of it was to bring down raincoats in preparation for the monsoon season. There were 500 kids in the safe haven, so we brought 500 raincoats with us. It was a huge challenge, but we managed it somehow.
Ayesha: Our second objective was attending to the education crisis. The kids at the refugee camp are aged three to 15-years-old, and if I remember correctly, about 93 percent of them have only one parent missing, while three percent are orphaned.
Darshita: When children who have experienced a violent environment are brought into such refugee camps, what do you teach them to give them a sense of routine and stability? Trauma pedagogy is very important, which is why we worked closely with JAAGO.
Ayesha: The JAAGO Foundation is a young civil society organisation with a network all over Bangladesh. University students from all over the country join as volunteers, and you can tell that their motivations and desire to help are very genuine.
Darshita: They had already set up a safe haven corner in the refugee camp, and we supported them by teaching the kids under their care English and a little bit of Math. We taught from 9am to 2pm everyday for four days straight as the kids moved from zone to zone within the camp.
Ayesha: One of the biggest challenges we faced was the language barrier. I mean, we were not speaking their mother tongue. We had to speak English to the JAAGO staff, and they translated what we said to the teachers in Bengali. The teachers would then relay the information to the kids.
Darshita: Adjusting to the diet and weather was challenging too; I grew very ill towards the end of the trip. But compared to what these kids had gone through, our “hardships” were trivial. Most of them were excited about the lessons, but some seemed dazed and unresponsive, quite possibly from trauma.
There were also children who didn’t understand the idea of sharing crayons easily and kept some to themselves. Perhaps this behaviour is rooted in their instinct to survive, and that’s why part of trauma pedagogy is teaching them a sense of civic-mindedness.
Ayesha: We do plan to go back to Unchiprang around the same time next year, but with a bigger team next time. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into the first time, but we want to make our volunteerism efforts sustainable and see the kids progress each year when we return.
And because we raised funds to provide raincoats for the children, the rest of the funds are now being used to pay the remuneration of counselling sessions for selected children – children who are showing signs of developing PTSD. The funding will last for the next two years.
Darshita: Yes, there are challenging days. I’m a corporate lawyer mostly working in the FinTech / Financial Services space, so dealing with work life and managing a side project does come with its ups and downs.
Ayesha: I’m working full-time in a small start-up tuition business called The Write Corner, and because Darshita and I have different work timings, even meeting up to discuss the project can be tough sometimes.
Darshita: But for me, I’ve always believed that if you felt passionately about a cause, you should do something about it. Don’t just say you care but do nothing. Action speaks volumes. I’ve always been drawn to issues of conflict involving refugees, so that’s why I continue to do the work that I do.
Ayesha: There will be times where it feels there’s really nothing you can do to change the situation because it’s so complex. So I’ve learnt to manage my expectations, and my approach to what we do is very simple – if I make one kid smile, then I’m happy. We take it one day at a time.
Interview by: Arman Shah