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Letter from the field - Ruben Flamarique, Program Coordinator Bangladesh

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I have been working with Austcare for almost four months in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh as the Coordinator of our Program with Rohingya refugees. The Rohingyas are a persecuted ethnic and religious minority from Myanmar, and the groups in Cox's Bazar fled that persecution in 1991 to live in Bangladesh. While the Rohingyas are ineligible for citizenship in Myanmar, their rights in Bangladesh are also severely restricted. This effectively makes these people stateless.

I grew up in Mendivil, a village of 55 people in the rural area of Navarra in Spain. From a young age, my six brothers and I (we have only one sister out of eight siblings!) learned to help my father with all the duties around our farm: harvesting, tending the animals etc. It is not surprising then that I chose Agricultural Engineering as my profession. After my initial studies I followed my desire to understand and support communities in developing countries and did a Master's degree in Development, then went to work with marginalised groups in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador.

My current work in Bangladesh focuses on the refugees living in Nayapara and Kutupalong camps, which house 15,000 and 11,000 people respectively. Within the camps, while some refugee shelters are quite old and dilapidated, many have recently been replaced with new, semi-permanent structures. You can see chickens and ducks walking around as well as many, many children. The children immediately say "Hello! How are you?!" in English to any foreigner they see, and when you say "Good and you?" they will answer very excitedly, "I'm fine, thank yoU!!" (with an accent on the U).

Some of the children will ask "Your country?" When I reply with "Spain, your country?", some will answer "Nayapara refugee camp", other will say "Myanmar" and still others respond with "Bangladesh". Considering these camps have housed Rohingya refugees since 1992 and most children were born here, it is understandable that there is no consensus on exactly what "their country" is.

Fundamentally, the most critical needs for the Rohingya refugees are the rights to work, to education and to freedom of movement that would give them more control over their own lives. While we continue to lobby for these rights, vocational skills are vital so that refugees can recover their livelihoods when they either obtain rights in Bangladesh, go back to Myanmar or are resettled to a third country.

Austcare's program in Bangladesh works to address these needs by helping to improve the camp education system, supporting vocational training programs, providing civic education courses and implementing nutrition and sanitation initiatives.

One of my fondest memories is of when we started sports activities - including football and volleyball tournaments and table tennis - in the camps. A boy of around 14 years approached me, saying how happy he was because "now that the youth is participating in sports they are less interested in doing bad things". This showed me that Austcare and its partners are successfully providing alternatives to young people in the camps who are left idle after completing primary school at age 11 or 12. In a small way, through sports, refugees can overcome some of the apathy that results from living more than 15 years in the camps with virtually no options for things to do.

Most Rohingyas in Bangladesh want to go home, but recognize that it would be very difficult to do so because their situation remains the same, ie they are still a persecuted ethnic and religious minority Myanmar.

Thank you to all of Austcare's donors for making possible our vital work with Rohingyan refugees and our other programs with communities affected by conflict and natural disaster around the world.

Yours sincerely,

Ruben Flamarique
Program Coordinator, Austcare Bangladesh