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A Kiwi view of the world's largest refugee camp

My bags and I are heading to Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh - the largest refugee settlement in the world

The Air New Zealand baggage handler has never seen the three letters on my luggage tag before.

He leans in for a closer look. “CXB, where’s that?”

My bags and I are heading to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh — the largest refugee settlement in the world.

The Rohingya refugees living here have experienced unimaginable horrors.

After fleeing to Bangladesh from neighbouring Myanmar, more than 900,000 people now live in sprawling refugee camps.

And among them are more than half a million children.

900,000 Rohingya refugees in the camps in Bangladesh
900,000 Rohingya refugees in the camps in Bangladesh

The only way to access the main Kutupalong-Balukhali camp is via Military Road, where a congested stream of hand-painted tuk tuks jostle for position with the giant trucks delivering supplies. Behind us an ambulance with its sirens on is stuck in the same traffic jam. Nobody moves in the overwhelming heat, but it is full of life.

There are stalls set up along the road selling fruits and vegetables, and each morning children dressed in school uniforms make their way along the bumpy roadside. It has an intense energy — noisy and colourful.

As we walk down one of the dirt roads running through Kutupalong-Balukhali camp, we see a young girl carrying a silver kolshi, or jug, high on her shoulders.

She’s climbing up a treacherous winding path which leads to her home, perched high on a steep hill.

She looks down at me and I wave at her. Her name is Halima, and she is eight years old.

She tells us that her mother and brothers and sisters are all living here, in a flimsy shelter made of bamboo and tarpaulins.

Their outdoor squat toilet is jutting out over the edge of the hill.

Whenever there is heavy rain at night Halima worries that the roof could be taken away in a landslide.

Like many other families, their shelter is built on unstable deforested land, meaning a landslide could take the entire structure, and those inside along with it.

Halima and her family live in a filmsy shelter made of bamboo and tarpaulin
Halima and her family live in a filmsy shelter made of bamboo and tarpaulin

Before the Rohingya settled here, the area was a national park full of lush trees.

In the efforts to house 900,000 desperate people, the trees were used for construction and fuel.

Shacks sprang up where they had been cut down, crammed closely together.

Now privacy is a concept that doesn’t exist. But fear does.

Around half of Rohingya refugees living in Cox's Bazar are children
Around half of Rohingya refugees living in Cox's Bazar are children

It’s monsoon season. The sky opens without warning and heavy rain hammers the shelters.

While some children have umbrellas to cling to, others shiver through sopping wet clothing. Surprisingly, the temperatures plummet after each downpour.

Halima’s four-year-old neighbours come to say hello.

Mohammad is wearing a faded Minnie Mouse t-shirt and stands next to Rashid, peering out from underneath their umbrella.

Halima's neighbours Mohammad and Rashid
Halima's neighbours Mohammad and Rashid

They tell us that there was a landslide near their home. At night they move to a neighbour’s shelter to sleep because it’s safer.

Landslides have already killed one child since the monsoon rains began in May. Another child died when his shelter collapsed on him in the night.

Halima is also scared of the rain.

During the night, she says her mother holds her and her siblings close. Fear keeps them awake all night.

Preparation of the communities  for the coming monsoons and cyclones
Preparation of the communities for the coming monsoons and cyclones

Her mother is shy but, inside their small shelter, she’s happy to talk. She and her children had fled extreme violence in Myanmar.

Neighbours told her that her husband had been killed by the military. It was a nine day walk in heavy rain to reach the border. Her children were sick with fever and they had no medicine.

Many of the children around me are barefoot. Children are everywhere. Some play in the mud. Others are far too small to be wandering aimlessly, but they wander anyway.

The rain stops as I wait for Halima at the bottom of the hill. She is taking a long time to get ready and when she finally emerges she’s wearing what must be her best dress, and probably her only dress.

I marvel at how she can possibly keep her dress clean. She’s proudly carrying her bright blue UNICEF school bag.

Halima outside her family's shelter
Halima outside her family's shelter

Halima’s education is restricted to just two hours a day but she loves it. One day, she tells us, she will be a teacher.

She is just one of half a million children living in this sprawling camp. Life is unbelievably tough. Disease is a constant concern.

Many children have brown and broken teeth. Hygiene and sanitation is being pushed to the limit. Children are always hungry. Many eat just lentils and rice, barely enough to line their small tummies.

As the sky opens again, unleashing another downpour, I feel an overwhelming respect for these children.

Rohingya children in front of the camera
Rohingya children in front of the camera

Their childhoods have been marred by horrific violence, which no child should ever have to witness, and yet they proudly show me intricate, handmade toys made from bamboo.

Others race up to me with squeals of “How are you?” and “What is your Father’s name?”

The thought of Hamila stays with me all way back to New Zealand. Having arrived at Auckland airport, a customs official asks where I’ve been.

When I describe the sprawling refugee camps, and the terrible conditions these children are experiencing, he replies “We need to look after our own people first.” It’s a sentiment shared by many New Zealanders.

But caring for Kiwi children, and caring for children like Halima shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

The children I met have experienced the very worst of humanity.

But, by showing that the world hasn’t forgotten them, we can ensure they also experience the very best.

By Shelley Knowles, UNICEF NZ Content Specialist