Dr. Katie Woods has worked at refugee camps before, but the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh where she volunteered this month was in far worse shape.
“The experience was unbelievable, like nothing I’d ever seen before,” Woods said Friday, back in her campus office.
A physician with Montana State University’s Student Health Center, Woods worked in early January with the nonprofit MedGlobal at the Hakim Para camp, with a volunteer team of seven doctors and a nurse from the United States, England and Ireland.
“I think, like me, they all saw the news about the Rohingya victims of ethnic cleansing,” she said. “Everybody had the same feeling they wanted to help in any little way they could.”
An estimated 500,000 to 650,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar. They are a Muslim ethnic minority in a predominantly Buddhist country where the military dominates.
When the refugees each enter the camp, they’re given a kit of bamboo and tarpaper to build shelters. The camp of makeshift shacks keeps growing, hill over deforested hill.
Each morning when the volunteer doctors arrived, the clinic waiting room was full, Woods said. Fortunately, the doctors could treat most of the illnesses with medications or refer patients to nonprofits treating conditions like malnutrition.
“It was harder to find any help for all the emotional trauma they’ve gone through,” Woods said. “We heard about family members killed or raped. They’d show scars and burns. They lost their farms and livestock. People talked about seeing their villages burned.”
Last winter Woods volunteered at a huge camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. The year before she volunteered on a Greek island, where refugees risked their lives to cross the sea in leaky rafts, trying to flee wars and find safety and new homes in Europe.
In Greece and Jordan, the refugees had careers, homes and educations. The Rohingya didn’t have any of that, she said, because since 1982 they’ve been denied citizenship by Myanmar. They’ve had only minimal access to education, health care and better jobs, leaving them among the poorest and most unhealthy and undernourished people in the country.
“We didn’t see anyone who’d ever been vaccinated,” Woods said. “I saw a lot of illnesses I’ve never seen before.”
She saw patients with chicken pox, measles, mumps and diphtheria, which can be life threatening. Some had blindness from lack of vitamin A, rickets from lack of vitamin D and goiter from lack of iodine.
Woods met one 15-year-old boy with clubfeet, who’d walked for three days barefoot to escape Myanmar.
Despite their hardships, she said, “They seemed really resilient.” Walking to one clinic, the doctors were constantly greeted by children, calling out in run-together English, “’Hello-how-are-you-I’m-fine.’
“They’re great. They’re nice kids,” she said. “They’re friendly, cheerful, resourceful.”
One of her favorite photos shows a little boy flying a kite above the tarpaper shacks. “To me, that’s a picture of resilience,” she said.
A group of professional clowns from Sweden, volunteers with Clowns Without Borders, performed for the refugees and made kids and parents laugh. Another positive thing was seeing Bangladeshi women trained as midwives to help Rohingya women.
But Woods is worried about the refugees’ future.
“This is the worst situation I’ve seen, and it has potential to get worse,” she said. “There’s potential for outbreaks of cholera.” And they’re not citizens of Bangladesh either. “They have so little, it’s hard to see how they’ll succeed.”
If any Bozeman residents want to help, she suggested donations to MedGlobal, OBAT Helpers and UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. People can also advocate with Congress to support the Rohingya refuges and hold the Myanmar government accountable.
Woods had started a GoFundMe online fundraiser to help pay for her airfare to Bangladesh, but said she ended up donating it all to MedGlobal when she saw how much people were struggling.
“It inspires me,” to volunteer, she said. “I think it’s important to give back.”
She plans to share her experiences with the 75 students in the global health class she teaches.
“When I left I had a feeling there was a long road ahead,” Woods said. “There is hope because people care. Every day we saw people who selflessly helped provide food, medication, infrastructure.
“They really are relying on humanitarianism, and the kindness of strangers.”