Ash Wednesday (17 February) is the beginning of Lent, which means that Caritas Australia’s annual Lenten fundraiser, Project Compassion is about to start. The theme this year is ‘Be more’, inspired by the words of St Oscar Romero: “aspire not to have more, but to be more”.
Week One features the story of twenty-two-year-old Jamila, a single mother living in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh. A Rohingya woman, she fled the armed conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine State to save herself, her elderly mother, and her eight-month-old baby. “I cannot explain the mental agony of leaving my own country,” Jamila says. “All I thought was that I needed to escape. People were trembling in fear, then we had to walk for five or six days.”
Jamila had married at 18, a marriage arranged by her parents and is a local custom. Her husband abandoned her for another woman when she was just three months’ pregnant. Not long afterwards, Jamila was forced to flee Myanmar. She and her family arrived in the refugee camp with almost nothing.
“It seemed a totally awful place for me. I was completely overwhelmed” Jamila says. “In the early days, it was a bare area, with no life -supporting needs like food, shelter and water.”
There were also unexpected dangers, with fears that roaming elephants would trample their makeshift shelters.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have crossed the border into Bangladesh since August 2017 after fleeing deadly violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Over 1.3 million people remain in the densely populated camps in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
Cox’s Bazar is already one of the most vulnerable districts in Bangladesh due to its increased exposure to natural disasters, poverty, poor education and limited livelihoods. Even before the refugee crisis, 33 percent of residents lived below the national poverty line, with 17 percent below the extreme poverty line.
When Jamila arrived at the refugee camp, she was assisted with immediate emergency food and shelter. However, as a woman alone without any livelihood skills, Jamila was facing an uncertain future.
Then Jamila joined the camp’s Women Friendly Spaces project, which is run by Caritas Bangladesh. In this safe, joyful and motivating environment, Jamila finally felt a sense of belonging. She received counselling and emotional support, learned about health and hygiene, and took part in a parenting program. She also signed up for sewing training as part of a skills-building workshop to help refugee women to earn an income.
“For the first time in my life, in the camp, I felt cared for and accepted,” Jamila says. “The facilitators took care of my daughter, so I could attend classes or take a nap if I needed it.
“My worries of an uncertain future are disappearing. It was like a ray of hope that spreads in the dark night, through the light of the Women Friendly Spaces,” Jamila says.
As part of this program, Caritas Bangladesh has also trained a group of counsellors from the Rohingya community to reach out to other women. They go door-to-door and visit women in their shelters. They talk to women and help them face the challenges of living in a camp, including how to manage their hygiene needs and maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know more people than before, I can depend on them,” Jamila says. “I can see many women like me who are benefitting from this program. They are coping on their own, able to decide independently, gaining stability mentally and ultimately being able to resume a normal life, like me.”
Jamila has now built a sense of family and community around her mother and little girl, and she feels less alone and unsupported. As a result, she’s able to ‘Be More’ to her family.
“I want to offer my thankful greetings to those who are kindly thinking of us from overseas,” Jamila says. “Thank you, and thanks Caritas Australia.”
Join us to ‘Be more’, and create a deeper, truer partnership and solidarity with our global brothers and sisters facing the injustice of poverty.
Your gift will help uplift the most marginalised and vulnerable members of society. Please give generously and support women like Jamila.
To donate to Project Compassion, visit https://lent.caritas.org.au/ or call 1800 024 413.
School resources are available at https://lent.caritas.org.au/schools
Parish resources are available at https://lent.caritas.org.au/parishes