Images: Tom Pilston/ Action Against Hunger
Breastfeeding in a refugee camp: Humaira's story
This World Breastfeeding Week, a Rohingya refugee explains the challenges of being a mother in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Aug 1 2019
27-year-old Humaira was heavily pregnant when violence broke out in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Along with thousands of other Rohingya, her family had no choice but to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Being a mother and breastfeeding can be challenging in most environments. And for a mother who has recently become a refugee, these challenges can become life-threatening for both themselves and their newborn child.
In humanitarian emergencies like the Rohingya crisis, the trauma of disaster and conflict can have a devastating impact on a mother’s mental and physical health – affecting their ability to breastfeed.
The first 1,000 days, indeed the first hours of a child’s life are crucial to a child’s long-term health and breastfeeding has been called “the ultimate natural vaccine” for babies. It boost their immune systems and breast milk provides vital nutrients that support physical and cognitive development.
Without proper breastfeeding, a baby’s risk of diarrhoea and pneumonia increases drastically.
Escaping violence in Myanmar
Humaira and her family, including her sister who was also heavily pregnant, fled their village in Rakhine State as soldiers rampaged through their village.
“The soldiers came very early one morning when it was still dark and surrounded the village,” she recalls.
“All of our houses have been burnt – they took everything. The men were shouting and screaming for us to leave, to go anywhere, but never to come back because this wasn’t our home.”
The military crackdown was brutal, shattering Humaira’s village as well as thousands of other Rohingya communities across Rakhine.
“I saw my friend’s children beaten until they stopped moving, girls and women stripped of all their clothes and taken away into the fields by soldiers. I don’t know what happened to them but they did not come back.”
Humaira’s family was also caught up in the violence.
“My sister’s husband was beaten and robbed by the soldiers – they took gold and also money so we were left with nothing. My uncle and my neighbours died, I saw them lying on the ground, there was a lot of blood.”
The family fled deep into the jungles of Myanmar as soldiers hunted them. Without adequate food, the family started to go hungry.
“We ran and ran into the jungle where we hid for nearly ten days. It rained and rained and we had nothing to eat but rice. We constantly thought that the soldiers would come back. We thought the world had ended in that rain,” she says sadly.
Along with many others, they made their to Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh.
“I travelled with my sister. We didn’t know where to go, it was too much for my heart to take. She gave birth in the camp just after we arrived and the baby was fine to begin with but my sister became sick because we walked so far and she didn’t get any rest.”
DEALING WITH TRAUMA
Over one million Rohingya refugees live in camps in Bangladesh, and Cox’s Bazar now has a population larger than Manchester.
After becoming a refugee and witnessing appalling violence, Humaira’s sister’s mental health began to deteriorate.
“Her baby started becoming unwell because my sister couldn’t breastfeed, her mind was not right, she is not the same as before. She couldn’t eat much and every day she got worse.”
After the death of her uncle and neighbours, Humaira also began to struggle with the challenges of being a refugee mother.
“Life in the camp is too hard and everything is dirty,” said Humaira. “My little daughter has a lot of bad stomach issues too. She is weak and getting thinner. She doesn’t laugh as much as she used to and doesn’t trust new people. However, she does enjoy the baby-friendly spaces to play with the other children.”
Hope for the future
For two years, Action Against Hunger has been running breastfeeding advice services for Rohingya refugee mums. Over 19,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women have sought our medical assistance since the crisis escalated in 2017.
Humaira visited our centre to prepare herself for motherhood and to support her sister.
“Here at the clinic I have learnt how to keep clean as best we can, and how important breast-feeding is to a baby’s future life,” she says. “Other pregnant women and girls with new babies have regular check-ups with the nurses too, and they talk to us about what happened and how to cope better.”
Shaki, Action Against Hunger’s Women’s Health Education Officer in the region, works tirelessly to help the traumatised and malnourished mothers and infants of the camp.
"Often women cannot breastfeed anymore because of the horrors they saw in Myanmar added on top of the distress of leaving their homes and running, running from the soldiers for many days,” says Shaki.
“Just today I saw two pregnant women crying, suffering a lot, because they cannot feed their babies. I have a one-year-old daughter myself who I’m breast-feeding and I know how sad and difficult it would be for me if I couldn’t do that.”
Our staff and Rohingya volunteers are running ten community kitchens to provide over 11,000 meals every day.
“We have a hot meal every morning and afternoon here so I am not as thin as when I arrived.”
Humaira is now confident she and her baby have a chance now.
“When my baby is born I think she might have a chance now,” she said. “I only want to do my best for her. I pray every day and night that I can feed my baby myself. Without the help I am getting here I can’t picture in my head how we would have survived here. I don’t want to think about what would have happened.”
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