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Humanitarian workers in Bangladesh have been delivering life-saving services, specifically to women and children during some of the worst humanitarian crises, including the Rohingya refugee crisis in Cox’s Bazar, Super Cyclone Amphan, the flash floods in 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
On this year’s World Humanitarian Day, we bring the stories of some humanitarians who are going the extra mile to help those who need it the most.
Hasina Akhter Huq
Area Director, BRAC Humanitarian Crisis Management Programme
Hasina leads BRAC’s work in Cox’s Bazar, focusing on providing humanitarian assistance and development support to communities affected by the Rohingya crisis. A humanitarian by heart, passion, and profession, Hasina joined BRAC in 2017, and has been stationed in Cox’s Bazar since 2020.
Hasina realised that this was the line of work for her in 2004, during the Indian tsunami. She travelled to South India to provide emergency support as part of a post-tsunami recovery project. In addition to essential items, they brought crayons and toys for children, to help
Read more: 10 ways BRAC has been supporting Cox’s Bazar through the pandemic
However, scouring through the villages, Hasina and her team found very few children. “It was like all the children from those villages were taken by the pied piper of Hamelin”, she recalls. It was then when the chilling realisation dawned on them – most children from those villages did not survive the tsunami.
“I still remember the empty stares of the parents who survived”, she said. After returning from that trip, she realised this is what she wants to work with for the rest of her life – to support people through the toughest times of their lives.
As Hasina joins the interview over a video call from the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, her passionate glare becomes visible on the screen. The Rohingya camps and the adjacent host communities had recently been hit hard with heavy rain, sudden floods and landslides from 27 July, 2021, taking lives and leaving thousands trapped in water.
Hasina had been relentlessly working at the site, leading her teams to provide emergency response with food, shelter, and medical support to the affected families. She had not eaten all day, barely managed to get some sleep, and was scheduled to rush to another meeting after the interview, but nothing that held her back to continue working for the people who need help in this crisis.
Read more: Women humanitarian aid workers saving lives in the frontline
Hasina’s journey in the humanitarian sector has not always been smooth. During the early years of her career, she was often outnumbered by her male colleagues at the time of collective decision-making. “Some of my male colleagues could not grasp the necessity of menstrual hygiene items and contraceptives to be distributed as part of immediate relief. ‘These are not essential items’, they would counter. I was determined to change their minds.
“I was eventually able to make them understand that menstrual hygiene and reproductive healthcare items are essential for women, and not luxury goods. It was not that they were insensitive to women’s healthcare needs – they merely lacked understanding of the necessity. Women in communities affected by humanitarian crises are often hesitant to ask for these items, and inadvertently suffer in silence.”
Read more: How do you confront taboos in a humanitarian crisis?
At her role as BRAC’s area director in Cox’s Bazar, Hasina stoutly maintains a gender-sensitive work environment. Women staff in her teams can always avail desk duties if they are on their periods. They look up to her as a mentor, taking her advice on different matters.
upazila (sub-district) development coordinator, BRAC Integrated Development Programme, Derai, Sunamganj
For Parul Akhter, an upazila (sub-district) development coordinator at BRAC, the flash flood of 2017 was a defining moment in her career as a humanitarian worker.
She has been with BRAC for almost 13 years and currently working in the integrated development programme, which reaches people in the hard-to-reach areas of Derai, Sunamgonj, a sub-district in the northeastern Bangladesh, to support them through frequent natural disasters.
When the flash flood hit in 2017, Parul remembers the insurmountable losses she saw. She recalls that in that moment, saving crops and cattle feed were prioritised to ensure food security and income of the people.
Parul says, “To me, humanitarian assistance is not only limited to relief distribution. It is to build the resilience of the people at risk and to promote awareness in communities so that they can withstand similar disasters in the future. People must build resilience, so when disasters strike again, they are unafraid”.
Parul’s management skills, transparency, and effective communication skills have been key to her success as a leader. She says, “With the help of a supportive team and a strong willingness to learn and grow, anyone can become a successful humanitarian worker.”
Riffat Jahan Nahreen
Child Protection and Early Childhood Development
Riffat Jahan Nahreen has been with BRAC for 14 years now. She has been working for child protection and early childhood development in the Rohingya camps of Cox’s Bazar for the last three years, where the majority of the children she works with have endured unspeakable trauma before arriving in Bangladesh.
What came as a surprise to her while working there is the ability of the children to smile, sing and play with other children, despite their traumatic past.
Read more: What do safe spaces in a humanitarian crisis look like?
“When I go to the child-friendly centres and see those children smiling despite their continuous struggles, I feel thankful for the life I lead. It also drives my determination to continue my work. I do not think I would have felt this motivated with my work in any other field.”
Head of Operations, BRAC Humanitarian Crisis Management Programme
Shahana Hayat is the head of operations at BRAC’s humanitarian crisis management programme, stationed in Cox’s Bazar. Her journey as a humanitarian began when she was a student, and she has never looked back.
Shahana has been a humanitarian worker for the past 21 years. After graduating from the University of London, she worked in different capacities with various organisations in Kenya, Jordan, and Pakistan, before joining BRAC.
“My role as a humanitarian worker gives me the kind of satisfaction I want from a job, because it creates a meaningful impact in the society, especially for women and children.”
She says, “It is the fruit of the patriarchal attitudes and power structure. We are only working with the symptoms of patriarchy but in order to improve the structure, we need to address the underlying causes of it.”
Shahana has been tackling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate disasters, besides her ongoing humanitarian work at the refugee camps. Her passion-driven attitude is the driving force behind her motivation to do what she does.
area manager (Dabi, Microfinance), Shyamnagar, Satkhira; coordinator, upazila (sub-district) disaster management team
Ramesh Mistry had been working for BRAC’s microfinance programme for 11 years, until a super cyclone hit, and his role changed.
When Cyclone Amphan struck the southern belt of Bangladesh in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Ramesh took on the responsibility of coordinating the sub-district disaster management team in Shyamnagar, Satkhira. The crisis-within-a-crisis was his first foray into humanitarian work.
One of his roles as a coordinator is to thoroughly assess damages and needs after a disaster, so that people can be supported adequately and on time. The disaster management team identifies people who need the most support for immediate relief – such as the elderly, women-headed households, people with disabilities – reaching households in even the most remote locations such as Golakhali across Kalinji River.
Communities living in remote areas were integrated in the immediate relief distribution after Cyclone Amphan hit last year, creating new earning opportunities for the affected people.
“All communities must be aware. Messages on safety protocols must reach communities in the most remote areas too, so they can better cope with future disasters of the same scale”, says Ramesh Mistry.
Ramesh is committed to stand by people, who are the most vulnerable. He says, “Through consistent communication with all stakeholders, especially at the community level, we can support them in building resilience against climate-induced impacts”.
BRAC district coordinator, Bogura; lead, district disaster management team
Bably’s work always requires immediate action, irrespective of the time and place she is in.
She leads BRAC’s district disaster management team in Bogura, northern Bangladesh. When any disaster strikes, she needs to be the first one to respond. Her work often requires her to travel to remote areas at odd hours to ensure smooth data collection and relief distribution during disasters.
Bably’s journey at BRAC began six years ago. She closely worked with the survivors of the Rana Plaza accident and with the displaced people from the Rohingya community when the influx began in 2017 in Cox’s Bazar. She has an unbeatable track record of meeting all her targets consistently and efficiently.
Read more: A Bangladeshi NGO’s herculean response to a humanitarian crisis
Bably recalls the immediate relief work she did during the prolonged floods of 2020 for rehabilitation of the affected communities is her most memorable experience so far. “During those times, saving lives was equally important as ensuring access to safe drinking water. We provided food and cash grants to families who lost everything to the floods. “In deep crises, just setting up a tap to ensure safe drinking water can save lives. Human needs are universal, and that is the clearest in a crisis”, recalls Bably.
Remembering her idol, Bably says, “Sir Fazle has inspired me to always stand by those who need it the most. As a human, it is my duty to empathise with others and do my part”.
Hasina, Parul, Shahana, Riffat, Ramesh and Bably motivate thousands of staff at BRAC and the communities they work for. Their dedication, indomitable spirit and courage drives their teams to respond to any disaster and needs of people living in marginalised situations, reliably and responsibly. On World Humanitarian Day, we recognise our humanitarians.
Miftahul Jannat Chowdhury is Content Specialist, BRAC Communications. Bithun Tasnuva Mazid is Manager, Communications, Content Development and Documentation, BRAC Humanitarian Programme.
Cover photo: Kamrul Hasan © BRAC