Iqbal Damit woke up one Tuesday thinking it had weighed on his mind long enough, he could no longer wait around and do nothing.
The 34-year-old sprung to action, taking a “come what may” approach, deciding he would travel to Bangladesh to help the displaced Muslim Rohingya in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp.
In less than a week, the founder of Hand4handbn — a new organisation involved in humanitarian relief work — sorted the logistics needed to deliver over 1,000 food packs to as many of the 600,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled from their homes in neighboring Myanmar.
“One Tuesday morning, I woke up and I knew I just had to help. I needed to go. That following Saturday, I managed to get my visa, locate a Bangladeshi NGO and arrange for travels to Cox’s Bazar via Dhaka,” he told The Scoop.
Upon arriving at the refugee camp with his brother Bahzi Damit and a friend, Iqbal was taken aback by the sheer number of children who had made the perilous crossing into Bangladesh. Stories of the elderly carrying two to three children across the river to seek asylum are commonplace.
“The first thing that you notice is the sheer number of children… and the (overpowering) smell of human waste. There is no sanitation,” he said.
He was immediately aware of the desperation at the camp. This was like nothing like the humanitarian work he had undertaken in Cambodia and Malaysia.
“[The camp] was a mess, chaos, dirty and unorganised. All they [Rohingya refugees] care about is that they get through the day alive,” he said.
Iqbal recounted his experience at the refugee camp during an emotional interview at a coffee house in Kiulap on Wednesday.
“Besides the distribution of food packs, we also brought along some candy that we wanted to give to the children. I broke down when we gave away the last candy and there were still hopeful faces, waiting for their share of candy,” he said as the fresh memory evoked tears.
As for food distribution, the Bangladeshi government had a system in place to ensure that all families had their fair share. But in the chaos and fragility of Cox’s Bazar, the distribution did not always go as planned.
Food was distributed on a rotational basis, giving food to each section of the camp in turn. To claim their rations, each family was given coupons whenever a fresh batch of aid arrived.
“These coupons were their lifeline. It would ensure that their family had enough food for the next two weeks,” he said.
As the last of his food rations were distributed, there were still seven families left clutching their coupons for the already exhausted truck-load of Bruneian aid. Iqbal could only stand there helpless as he was forced to turn them away.
This is why Iqbal is determined to return to the camp and do more for the Rohingya.
“The situation is really desperate. Kids are running around naked… because they have no clothes. I broke down five or six times during my visit,” he said.
In his last trip, Iqbal secured over $15,000 to buy 1,045 food packs. Each pack comprised 10kg rice, 1kg cooking oil, 2kg potatoes, 1kg onions, 1kg chili and salt. The money, he said, came from friends and families who supported his plans to reach out to the Rohingya.
“There’s only so much we can do, but we need to at least do something… It only makes sense that we do more. As we speak, there will be more crossing the border into Bangladesh and they will need help too.”
The Hand4handbn founder is planning to hold a sharing session to raise awareness on the dire humanitarian situation there. He wants to go back again in November with more supplies and funds.
One of the reasons he brought his brother and friend on the trip was so they could document and share videos of the experience.
“I want to bring in doctors and buy medical supplies. We also need to raise funds for over 2,000 food packs and build at least 10 wells and a prayer hall too,” he shared.
Although Iqbal, a recipient of a national youth award last August, has always been actively involved in charity work, he said providing humanitarian relief is different.
“Not everyone will enjoy doing this. It’s hard,” he said, pointing out that there were risks involved.
He spoke of the difficulties in operating in refugee camps, which are normally initially erected as temporary shelters. For the trip, they had to take a cholera jab in Kuala Lumpur as a precautionary measure.
“If you were there, it would be life-changing. It made me think, ‘who are you to complain about the little things in your life?'” he said, summing up his experience.
In a recent report, it was estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 Rohingya cross the border into Bangladesh everyday. This has prompted the Bangladeshi government to expand the refugee camp at Kutupalong, near Cox’s Bazar, in order to accommodate the growing numbers.
The U.N. human rights office said on Wednesday that half a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks, escaping the the violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state.