Published on 2022 - 12 - 11

An Advent of honour: the story of Salim Ullah

By Minaz Kerawala, Communications and Public Relations Advisor

In November 2022, Caritas Bangladesh invited Development and Peace and other Caritas Internationalis members to an international partners’ meeting to help review its emergency response program for Rohingya refugees. Delegates visited the camps in Cox’s Bazar that house the world’s single largest refugee population. This year’s Advent stories were gathered in and around those refugee camps.

Salim Ullah was honoured to have been chosen as a leader by the 91 families who reside on his block in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Choose for each of your tribes individuals who are wise, discerning, and reputable to be your leaders.

Deuteronomy 1:13

Salim Ulllah was not wealthy but had been comfortably off. “I had a shop, I worked as an electrician and did a bit of fishing, too,” the 35-year-old recalled with a hint of pride. But all that was in Burma (Myanmar), in a past that now seems very distant.

In 2017, Ullah, like hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people, was forced to leave his homeland. They were fleeing persecution by the Burmese army, that Canada has since recognized as genocide.

“I had elderly parents, four young daughters and my wife to take care of. Every time we reached what we thought was a safe place, the army attacked, and we’d have to run again,” Ullah said. When they reached the sea, there was nowhere left to run. “I gave the last of my savings to a boatman who brought me into Bangladesh.”

As Ullah recounted his arduous journey, Mohammed Shahidul Islam nodded sadly and knowingly. As Caritas Bangladesh’s shelter program officer, he had heard many such stories. “Nearly every Rohingya I know came just like this, with nothing,” he said.

Having entered the country along similar routes to Ullah’s, nearly a million Rohingyas now live in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

“Nearly every Rohingya I know came just like this, with nothing,” Islam said.

Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada has been supporting Caritas Bangladesh’s response to the Rohingya crisis from the outset.

“Since Caritas Bangladesh began the shelter and site improvement work, things are much improved. We now have the best shelters and the cleanest block.”

A robust response

With consistent funding from Global Affairs Canada and unstinting generosity from ordinary Canadians, Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada has been supporting Caritas Bangladesh’s response to the Rohingya crisis from the outset.

Backed by Development and Peace and other Caritas Internationalis agencies, Caritas Bangladesh’s emergency response program, now in its sixth year, provides shelter; water, sanitation and hygiene; protection; education; disaster risk reduction; and livelihood services in nine refugee camps and in host communities in four upazilas (subdistricts). Its facilities include five multipurpose women’s and girls’ centres, 11 multipurpose children’s and adolescents’ centres, three multipurpose community centres, three learning centres, two water supply stations, a water reservoir and six warehouses.

Such a large-scale, complex operation requires community buy-in, but, as Caritas Bangladesh has reported in the past, the refugees were initially not very trusting.

Majhi to the rescue

Early on, the Bangladeshi authorities realized they would need allies within the refugee community. They drew on lessons from an earlier, smaller influx of Rohingya refugees in the early 1990s. Back then, community leaders, known by the honorific Majhi, had served as important communication bridges.

To facilitate the management of the camps, the authorities divided them into blocks, each of which was to have its own Majhi. And that was how Ullah came into his own.

The Majhi of Ullah’s block moved to another section of the camp, leaving his post vacant. “The 91 families of my block chose me as their Majhi,” Ullah said. “It was a great honour for me.”

“I convey important information from the camp in-charge and the aid organizations to my people,” Ullah explained. He also transmits information the other way. “If people have any problem, they come to me with it, and I take it to the authorities. Whatever they need―food, shelter, healthcare―I make sure they get it. I know where people need to go to have their problems resolved.”

In addition to being a communicator and a resource marshal, Ullah is a peacekeeper. “If I notice any trouble brewing, I get people together to talk it out,” he said. To help resolve domestic strife, he ropes in respected elders. “When children or young people have a problem, I refer them to counsellors at the child and adolescent centres.”

An approach that works

Initially, there were criticisms of the Majhi system. Some saw them as unnecessary intermediaries who hoarded power and impeded direct communication with the refugees. But Islam thinks that Majhis like Ullah have proven their worth.

Ullah, in turn, is appreciative of the difference the Caritas Bangladesh has made. “Earlier, the conditions were very bad. The shelters were dilapidated, and the pathways were muddy,” he recalled. “But since Caritas Bangladesh began the shelter and site improvement work, things are much improved.”

Majhis like Ullah have helped Caritas Bangladesh get through to and understand the needs of the refugees. As a result, shelter construction guidelines are adhered to, drainage systems are properly desilted, and stairways and bridges are built and maintained well. Ullah gushed, “We now have the best shelters and the cleanest block. We don’t dread the monsoons anymore.”

Ullah said that seeing these improvements and helping make them happen has strengthened his belief in himself and his people.

Until they return

“I would love to return to my motherland,” Ullah said, blinking to hold back tears.

Everyone agrees that the safe and voluntary return of the refugees is the most desirable long-term end. But, as Ullah said wistfully, “There is still no peace there.”

“For now, they have to live here, and we have to support them,” Islam said matter-of-factly.

Ullah appreciates the support. “Shukriya to the people of Canada,” he said gratefully. “If Canada and other countries work with the UN to bring peace to Myanmar, Inshallah, I will go back.”

In many of the world’s hotspots, your solidarity helps Development and Peace’s partners make the lives of people like Salim Ullah a little bit better while they wait to return to their homelands.

In this season of blessing, please consider making a donation so that our partners can restore honour and agency to displaced and dispossessed people.


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