On her first day at the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, actress Lisa Surihani’s eyes welled up with tears.
“I couldn’t control myself,” she shares. “I didn’t want to cry but hearing their stories … listening to what the women and children had to go through to escape from the violence in Myanmar and make their way to Bangladesh … it was truly unfathomable and I was overcome with a whole gamut of emotions.
“Seeing what they continue to go through in the camps … how they have lost everything and live in tents made from plastic and bamboo. It was just overwhelming. They left everything behind.
“I have read about and watched the crisis unfold on TV and read about it in the news but I didn’t truly understand the scale of this crisis until I saw it for myself. One of the first things that crossed my mind after the visit to the camp that first day was that I don’t deserve to complain about anything. None of us do,” shares Lisa, who visited the camps for the first time since she became Unicef Malaysia’s national ambassador two years ago.
During her three-day visit to the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, Lisa visited the different posts that were set up by Unicef for the refugees, particularly for women and children. She learned about the health and nutrition programmes for nursing mothers and pregnant women as well as children, learning programmes for children aged four to 14, adolescent clubs for adolescents as the Safe Space for Women and Girls, a female-friendly space where vulnerable women who need to seek refuge from gender-based violence, among other initiatives that are in place.
Accompanied by Unicef representatives from Bangladesh and Malaysia, Lisa was eager to find out not just about the humanitarian programmes but about the women and children she met. She played with the children and spoke with the women, trying to learn as much as she could about their situation in the short time she was there.
“As emotional as the experience of being in the camps was, I needed to focus on my mission for being there: finding out about the initiative that were in place so that I could report to Malaysians, particularly those who have donated to Unicef, about whether their money was bringing relief to the children or not. And, to spread awareness about the situation of the children in the camps.
“I was really pleased to see the good work being done there and meet the aid workers who are devoted to improving the lives of these refugees. But I could also see else what needs to be done,” says Lisa.
As the ambassador for Unicef, Lisa said that her main concern was seeing how the needs and rights of the children were being taken care of.
“More than half the refugees in the camps are children and I wanted to know that they were safe and that their nutritional and health needs were being looked after. It was so good to see the children at Unicef’s learning centre … to see the smiles on the faces of children, to see them so curious and inquisitive. To see them answer their teachers in unison when asked questions. To see how much they love going to school. These children want to learn. “Humanitarian work and aid has really made a difference. But more needs to be done for the adolescents who currently do not go to school,” said Lisa.
There are 1,600 learning centres set up by Unicef and its partners in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. These centres provide early childhood and primary education for children aged between four and 14. So far, there hasn’t been secondary-level education but the curriculum is currently in development and is expected to be implemented in June.
“Humanitarian work really makes a difference. Without aid, the situation of the refugees would be even more catastrophic. I am glad I got to see how the contribution of donors, no matter how small or big, has made a difference in the lives of the children there. But the reality is that there is a continuous need for aid and I hope that Malaysians will continue to play their part in easing the suffering of the Rohingya children in Cox’s Bazaar,” says Lisa.