February 7, 2018

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Only love can overcome hate, only compassion and empathy can overcome inhumanity, only the giving of respect can restore dignity.

As you drive down Tekhnaf highway towards Unchiprang, the road takes a slight turn near Leda Bazar. It was just 100 yards north of there that I first saw her. She was sitting in a mud puddle, staring at the horizon. I walked towards her and noticed her two children were curled up next to her with the same vacant look in their eyes.

She was sitting with a blank expression as if nothing mattered to her anymore. Her black veil, muddy and dripping wet, looked pale in the setting sun. She had witnessed the brutal murder of her husband, her house burning, her neighbours running with fear of losing their lives. And then, she fled with her two children. She walked for 13 days through unknown terrain and crossed a river. Leaving had taken every bit of hope and dignity she had.

Even though she arrived safely, the journey defeated her.

Her name is Amina, and she is one of hundreds and thousands of women who have run away from their homes in the Rakhine state of Myanmar since August 2017. One of the hundreds of thousands who have left the villages where they were born, grew up, got married, and lived, often happily, despite having government restrictions looming over them at all times.

As I stepped closer to Amina, she glanced at me for a moment and then looked back to the horizon.  I wondered if the seemingly empty expression on her face was hiding something deeper – perhaps she was overwhelmed by the uncertainty of her and her children’s futures. She was visibly tired, scared for life and for her kids, and dazed by the events of the past two weeks.

To me, Amina put a human face on the magnitude of what was happening in such huge numbers; in her eyes, I could see the real pain of the cruelty and brutality taking place. This is what a truly defeated person looks like. Someone who believes that she and her family have no legitimate right to expect anything from the world. Not even the right to live.

Hunger and thirst were visible on the faces of Amina and her family. But my attention was drawn to the rapid and noisy breathing of the child lying in Amina’s lap. I put my ear on the child’s chest and knew immediately that she had a high fever and was struggling to breathe. She was clearly suffering from pneumonia. One of my colleagues who knew the Rakhine language spoke with the mother. Amina knew that her daughter was very ill and needed to see a doctor, but she did not know where to go. Who would help her? With no money left, how could she pay? She had given up all hope.

The evening was fast approaching. Most of the medical facilities in the settlements were already closed for the day. Fortunately, we spotted a few colleagues from one of BRAC’s mobile clinics, who were returning to their temporary residence after the long day’s work. When they heard about Amina’s daughter, they immediately set to work to help her and shook off their exhaustion.

One of them started examining the child’s chest and back immediately, with a stethoscope. When she finished, she handed me the tool and asked for a second opinion. I also listened through the stethoscope. We were both sure that the situation was dire. I asked, “What do you want to do for her?”

“We need to start treating the child right now,” she said decisively. BRAC’s newly opened health facility was located within walking distance. “If we are quick, we can get one of BRAC’s doctors to treat this child right now.” Without waiting for my response, the two BRAC health workers turned their attention to helping the family move as quickly as possible. One gently helped Amina to her feet and the other picked up the children, as well two small sacks full of everything the family was able to grab before running from their home.

At that point, I was more or less just an observer.

In the fading light, I caught a glimpse of something amazing: Two women, wearing BRAC’s signature pink jackets, determined to give this young girl a chance to live. At that moment, they were thinking about nothing except how to get this family to the health facility in time for a doctor to see her and begin the treatment for pneumonia. Their fatigue, the long day and endless line of patients that they had just finished seeing were all in the past. Their present was this little, fragile patient who deserved their best.

Their attitude was affecting Amina too. No longer alone, she seemed to have regained the courage for the small hope that she would not be defeated again that day. That façade of indifference, stemming from much pain and helplessness, fell away as she too drew herself upright to fight for her daughter’s life.

Overtaken by emotion and anxiety, I asked one of the members of my team, “Will the girl be okay? Can our doctors cure her? Can they give her back the health and happiness that fate has unfairly stolen from her and her family?”

My colleague, who supervises BRAC’s entire humanitarian health response, with 50 mobile clinics and 10 health centres, looked at me steadily and said, “BRAC’s health team treats over 7,000 people every day. Many of them have come from Myanmar and are suffering, both physically and mentally.  This is what we do. ”

The small procession of BRAC colleagues and Amina’s family was a form of a victorious march for hope. Only love can overcome hate, only compassion and empathy can overcome inhumanity, only the giving of respect can restore dignity. Every interaction is a chance to heal, to celebrate the humanity in all of us. This isn’t done in an abstract way. It is done through actions like those of the two heroic health workers. Their silhouettes, with the outlines of Amina’s children standing out against the backdrop of setting sun, are a symbol of the type of compassion and solidarity to which all of humankind should aspire. I felt incredible pride in BRAC’s work at that moment, watching the two women and how instinctively they chose to stand with those who lost their hope.

Watching this procession, I could already see a compassionate tomorrow, a possibility of a brighter future.

As the darkness of the evening was approaching fast, I started to trail back, following the group ever-so-slowly. I wanted the night to hide the tears of pride and gratitude I felt for these colleagues, who serve humanity, day in and day out, with commitment and dedication. Unseen, I bowed my head to them, and to our many colleagues also participating in BRAC’s humanitarian work. Together, we are forging a path to a tomorrow filled with hope, promise, mutual respectfulness, and compassion in a harmonious, diverse world.


Dr Muhammad Musa is the executive director of BRAC.

This post originally appeared on Global Moms Challenge.

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