In late 2017, one million Rohingya refugees fleeing violence streamed into Bangladesh, walking through jungle, across mountains and rivers for weeks to find safety.
“While emergency care was the first priority it soon became clear that up to 50,000 refugees were blind,” points out Ian Wishart, The Fred Hollows Foundation CEO.
With the help of partners, including Baitush Sharaf Eye Hospital, The Foundation was the first eye health organization to try to help. When The Foundation held its first eye camp for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, it was clear there was a dire problem. Almost 600 people lined up for help.
“I was so proud our Bangladesh team looked at the crisis and realised we could help,” Mr Wishart reflects.
Now, many organizations are working together on this humanitarian project. And The Fred Hollows Foundation is looking at other ways they can help deliver eye care to the world’s displaced people.
Blindness is just one of many problems Rohingya refugees face, but it’s a problem that The Fred Hollows Foundation can help fix. The Rohingya tell us they have never been able to see a doctor, or visit a hospital. Local doctors think up to 50,000 people need cataract surgery. Below are accounts of three Rohingya refugees for whom the Fred Hollows Foundation has helped restore sight.
Blind with bilateral cataract, Shamsun could only hear as her husband was shot dead and five of her children were killed with machetes. One of the girls was raped before being murdered. Their bodies were burnt to destroy the evidence.
Her neighbours confirmed to her what her eyes couldn’t: her family was gone.
With the help of her son-in-law and other villagers, she escaped and spent four days in the jungle and hills, and across the river before finally making it to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Walking for days through the jungle across mountains and rivers is unimaginable. But for the refugees who are also blind, it’s impossible without the help of family or neighbours.
Shamsun received her surgery at the Baitush Sharaf Eye Hospital, a trusted local partner of The Fred Hollows Foundation and the only eye hospital at Cox’s Bazar. For Shamsun, it’s hard to imagine there’s anything to smile about – displaced from your home and with most of your family killed. But when the patches came off the morning after her surgery, Shamsun smiled at the nurse and clasped her hands in thanks. She was so happy that she could see again.
Meet Pir Mohammed, a 45-year-old Rohingya refugee who for the past four years was completely blind in both eyes.
Faced with unceasing persecution at the hands of the Myanmar military, Pir was riddled with guilt and worry, unable to protect his daughters from harm, “My family suffered much more because I was blind and could not defend them”.
Eventually, they couldn’t take it any longer. They decided that their only choice was to flee to Bangladesh, along with more than a million others who have escaped following ethnic and religious persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
An arduous journey led to a refugee camp about an hour outside Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the place Pir and his seven children now call home. The camp’s dusty roads weave through the endless rise and fall of hills, covered in thousands of makeshift canvas tents. Pir’s tent is perched high up on one of these hills, overlooking the gullies below.
The Rohingya refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh
To arrive here safely, Pir clung to his eldest son’s hand, and was led through jungle, over mountains and across rivers. Two weeks later, they arrived at the tiny tent they now call home at a refugee camp about an hour outside Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
At the camp, Pir was finally safe. But being unable to find food or work, he still felt helpless. That was, until he heard about the eye camp organised by The Fred Hollows Foundation.
Pir and 60 other patients were shuttled by bus from the camp to Cox’s Bazar for sight-saving cataract surgery at the Baitush Sharaf Eye Hospital.It was Pir’s first ever visit to a hospital. And this was a visit that would change his life.
After the surgery, Pir felt overwhelmed as he took off his sunglasses and light and colours streamed into his worldview.
For the first time in four years, he could see his 18 year old daughter, Nouhaba. He smiled proudly, squeezed his eight-year old son’s hand, and said “She is beautiful.”
Nouhaba smiled back. She, too, was relieved.
“When we were in Myanmar I used to hold him and help him down the stairs and get him food. I am very happy he can now see.”
Pir says he plans to send his children to school, “I hope [Nouhaba] can work as a humanitarian worker with an NGO to support other people in the community.”
Blind with bilateral cataract, 60-year-old Abu Sayed fled Myanmar in a state of confusion and panic.
With thousands of other Rohingya people also escaping persecution in Myanmar, two of Abu’s sons, aged 15 and 20, carried and assisted him on the 12-day trek to the refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, across rivers and through dense jungle.
Abu lost contact with five of his children – a daughter and four sons.
“I didn’t know where they were,” he said. “My mind was very sad to leave them, but it was a very bad situation and I thought we were going to be killed… My body was in Bangladesh, but my mind was with my children in Myanmar.”
While in the camp, Abu had his eyes screened at the eye camp organised by The Fred Hollows Foundation, the first effort by any organisation to treat some of the thousands of Rohingya people with eye conditions. After ten years living with avoidable blindness, Abu had the opportunity to see again.
Following the surgery, he was uplifted with hope: “I can see through the window and see the green leaves of the trees. I am so happy I can see everything.”
But through the happiness a deep sadness pervades. After arriving at the camp, Abu received news that the rest of his children had arrived safely in Bangladesh, seeking refuge at another camp. Although he’s relieved that they are safe, Abu tells us about the restrictions refugees face moving freely in Bangladesh, preventing him from visiting his children.
“I’m very happy to have my eyes fixed but I am sad that I still won’t get to see my other children,” Abu said.
Despite the challenges Abu has faced for over a decade, he is hopeful that one day he will see his five children again. And with his vision restored, this humble dream is one step closer to realisation.
You can read more about The Fred Hollows Foundation here and support their work here.