Rohingya Crisis: “A place to call home”

Nina, a doctor from the UK, is in Bangladesh, caring for people who have fled violence in neighbouring Myanmar. As she approaches the end of her posting with Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Nina writes about some of her young patients, and the desire they feel to go home...

I recently bought my first ever flat. I have been refurbishing it over the last few months, or more accurately, my sister has been, while I am in Bangladesh (thanks Faye!). I am excited about the prospect of living in my own flat for the first time.

Image shows the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, which shows temporary structures with hills in the background

Part of the refugee settlement. Photo: Anna Surinyach.

Buying a house has made me think a lot about what it means to have one.

Most of the patients I look after are Rohingya refugees, who live in precarious dwellings solely made up of plastic sheeting held up by bamboo. Their “houses” don’t have electricity, heating or beds, and they are at high risk from flooding, mudslides and heavy rain. Being “at home” provides no guarantee of a regular meal or security.

We recently admitted an 11-year-old girl to the clinic with a suspected neurological condition. She developed signs of extreme weakness, and eventually she was unable to walk.

After weeks of physiotherapy the girl made some progress. She went from not being able to move her legs at all, to standing up, albeit with a significant amount of assistance.

Image shows a Rohingya refugee girl in a wheelchair at one of MSF / Doctors Without Borders' clinics in Bangladesh

A patient at the MSF clinic in Kutupalong, photographed in September 2017. Photo: Antonio Faccilongo

As soon as she felt herself getting better, the girl started asking us when she would be able to go home.

There was still some time to go as we were preparing her discharge with the help of another organisation supporting people with disabilities. She was given a mattress so she wouldn’t be lying on the floor at night and a wheelchair to provide some – although limited – mobility. The camp isn’t exactly wheelchair friendly with the hills, mud and narrow bamboo bridges. Now, she was just waiting on a latrine chair to arrive.

Every day, she asked where her latrine chair was so she could go home. Thankfully, our clinic logistician came to the rescue with a specially made version out of one of the plastic office chairs. When we delivered the chair, she became our jolliest patient, because she was finally able to go ‘home’; back to the shelter she had lived in for less than a month. She even invited me to go around for a visit!

Image shows a young Rohingya woman wearing a black headscarf at an MSF clinic in Bangladesh

A patient at one of MSF's clinics serving the Rohingya refugee community in Bangladesh. Photo: Anna Surinyach

We also admitted a teenage girl with acute hepatitis and while she had only been in the hospital for a week, she was desperate to go home. While doing the ward-round, she asked me why the patient next to her was being discharged but she wasn’t. I explained that she hadn’t shown us that she was able to eat or drink anything yet. She proceeded to do her best to eat handfuls of grapes – seemingly a hospital staple all over the world. Despite her attempts, I told her I couldn’t discharge her yet and she responded with a look to show me she had proven her point.

This week, we also discharged one of our longest staying patients. She is paralysed from the waist down, and was unable to leave as she needed regular wound care. Now, she had improved so much that she didn’t need frequent dressings and her family felt that occasional trips to the clinic was achievable. The hospital was the only home she knew since leaving Rakhine State, so she was extremely nervous on the day of discharge. After a chat with her mum and our team of counsellors, she was ready to leave.

These three patients are a reminder of how important it is to have a space you can call home. I really hope the situation for our patients improve so they have a better place to go home to.

If you live in the UK, please donate to MSF UK’s winter 2018 appeal to support our work with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

If you live elsewhere in the world, please click here to make a donation.