Photography, social media open borders to Rohingya refugees

By Gaspar Ruiz-Canela

Bangkok, Oct 10 (EFE).- Rohingyas in the refugee camps of Bangladesh may not be free to leave their precarious dwellings, but many of them are using photography and social media to break borders and tell a global audience their daily hardships and share their joys and hopes.

Omal Khair, Dil Kayas and Azimul Hasson are among those activists, poets and photographers who escaped discrimination and violence in Myanmar, and now use their creativity to portray life in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh.

“I would like to show the world how hard it is for the Rohingyas are in the camps,” Dil, a photographer and mother of three, told EFE via video conference from her humble bamboo hut in a Bangladeshi camp near the Myanmar border.

This 28-year-old Rohinya has broken the mold by becoming a photographer, unusual among women because of the patriarchal character of her community, although she acknowledged having taken her husband’s permission.

Dil, Omal and Azimul have published nearly a hundred of their works in a book of photography and poetry titled “A chance to breathe,” thanks to a project by the nonprofit Fortify Rights, Doha Debates and FotoEvidence which was presented last week in Bangkok.

The event, in The Fort gallery, featured an exhibition of the works by the three Rohingyas, who also post their mobile photos on social networks such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

“I like to photograph young children playing in open spaces, also children going to study and madrasas, the religious schools,” Dil said in her native language while an activist translated.

One of her photographs showed a group of children around a man playing the mandolin, while another picture depicted a woman wearing the niqab – a veil that covering the hair and face – walking down a steep dirt road.

Dil hoped that the skills she has learned as a photographer in this project, which began in 2018, will also be picked up by her children and serve to help her community.

In Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims are not recognized as citizens and live in fear in villages guarded by security forces or in displaced persons camps without freedom of movement and insufficient access to health, education and other basic services.

The scars are still fresh for many refugees who vidly recall the murders, rapes, and burning of houses by soldiers and Buddhist militants during the 2017 military operations, which were described as genocide by the United States and several jurists.

The violence led to an exodus to Bangladesh, where they also suffer deprivation but are not constantly under threat as in their native country.

More than 900,000 Rohingyas live in overcrowded shelters in the world’s largest refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar area, where they face a lack of access to healthcare and education, and live amid prevailing crime.

Without ID or passport, they cannot buy mobile cards in Bangladesh, so they usually have to acquire them illegally. Moreover, internet connections are unstable and solar panels need to be used in the absence of electricity.

Azimul Hasson, 20, said other refugees feel happy when explained the objective of his shoots, which depict everything from floods and fires to young people playing sports and demonstrations for their rights.

The shops and markets in some of his photos no longer exist, as they were dismantled by the authorities, who want to discourage economic activity in the camps.

“There are barbed wire around the camps, and we can’t go out and charge (mobiles) because there are checkpoints. They’ll beat me if I try to go out in secret,” Azimul said in English over video-conference.

He added that he tries to avoid posting his photos on Facebook because there are many immigration officials on this social network.

Omal Khair, 18, said she did not know anything about photography before being chosen for this project, but she is now proud to be able to tell the world about the situation in her community.

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