SpinningTop’s mission is to help children living in extreme poverty. While it’s usually focused on the Thai-Burma border, SpinningTop’s Annie Fischer recently travelled to Bangladesh, to see what it can do to help children in the world’s biggest refugee camp be… well… children.
‘The Rohingya refugee camp just outside of Cox’s Bazar almost literally goes on for ever. It’s like standing at the top of Wellington’s Mount Victoria, looking out, and seeing refugee shelters as far as the eye can see.’
SpinningTop’s manager Annie Fischer has not long returned from three days in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, visiting Camp Kutupalong, where an estimated 1.3 million Rohingya refugees are trying to live, having run, terrified, from neighbouring Burma (Myanmar).
‘I still think of them several times a day. I’ll be eating a nice lunch and think, “I can leave and now I’m here, but they’re still there”. They’re not allowed to leave, so it’s just a massive prison that smells like a Bangkok sewer.’
It’s unlikely any background is required to the humanitarian crisis that’s seen an estimated 1.3 million Rohingya people forced into refugee camps, fleeing violence from the Burmese Government. The Rohingya people are Muslim, rather than Buddhist as most other people in Burma are. That difference has been enough for the government to dehumanise them, to label them as terrorists and illegal immigrants, despite any evidence they’ve inflicted any terror, and that they’ve lived in Burma’s Rakhine State for generations.
Camp Kutualong is now officially the world’s largest refugee settlement. ‘It’s about an hour’s drive from Cox’s Bazar, a beach area where Bangladesh’s elite used to go for holidays,’ says Annie. ‘You drive through really poor areas and you don’t know you’re driving into the camp until you start seeing signage from NGOs. After that it’s just a mass of desperate humanity. There’s no proper sanitation, no one’s picking up the rubbish, there’s no electricity. It’s all dust – until the monsoon comes, then it’s an even bigger disaster.’
It’s desperate humanity kept in the most inhumane conditions Annie says she’s ever seen. ‘I can’t begin to explain how horrific it is. I’m not easily shocked. I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia in areas of extreme poverty, but this is a whole other level. It’s just so, so wrong.
‘I’ve never been intimidated before but the people in the camp are just so, so desperate. The women really affected me. It’s thought a very large percentage of them have been raped; you can see it in their eyes. And through all that they’re trying to take care of their children.’
SpinningTop primarily focuses on the Thai-Burma border area, on the other side of Burma. It builds and financially supports migrant schools in Thailand for children displaced from Burma by civil unrest, and within Burma in areas where there would otherwise be no schools.
Like other NGOs, SpinningTop’s attention was drawn to the plight of the Rohingya, moved by the obvious fact the camp’s children had no access to education or safe spaces to just be children. To that end, the Wellington-based charitable organisation contributed towards building classroom spaces appropriate for the children, thought to be about half the camp’s total population.
‘These children are about as vulnerable as you can get. With the desperation and rife use of methamphetamine in the camp, the camp is very dangerous. There are no spaces for the kids to play and it’s too dangerous to roam. When children are restricted like that they’re going to be affected, and they’ve already been through so much.’
To provide a little space for them to act somewhat like normal children, Children on the Edge (a non-profit charitable organisation, which SpinningTop was formerly a part of, dedicated to working on behalf of marginalised and vulnerable children who are often victims of war) has built 157 classrooms, dotted around the camp. They provide a very welcome patch of normal human life where everything else is mind-bendingly abnormal.
During her visit, Annie went to some of the classrooms, singing songs, looking at art and interacting with the children. ‘You feel like a celebrity because you stand out like a sore thumb. We took so many selfies!’
‘These spaces are just amazing. The classrooms are made from bamboo, a familiar material to the kids. They’ve got these “green walls”, where plants are grown up the classroom walls so when the children look out they see green. That’s emotionally beneficial, and as they come from rural areas, they’re used to seeing greenery, rather than the dust and rubbish they’re surrounded by. Exept for the teachers, adults aren’t allowed in, so they can just let rip and be kids.’
Technology helps. The classrooms will soon be equipped with battery-powered projectors connected to online learning systems. ‘That means the children can sit on a mat and be shown the projection, rather than having to look at books, which are expensive, difficult to access, and there’s no space for storage,’ says Annie.
‘When they’re in these classrooms, the kids are just so cute, happy and laughing. They could be children in any classroom in the world. The funny thing is, every kid I met could point to New Zealand on a map. It’s because of our milk powder – if you get a drink of New Zealand milk powder, that’s luxury.’
Annie is generally appreciative of the Bangladeshi Government. ‘It’s a tricky balancing act for the government. They’ve taken in 1.3 million refugees – how many other countries would do that? But the camp is surrounded by very poor Bangladeshi people, and they see all this aid being directed to the refugees, and they think, “What about us?’”
Annie says the best SpinningTop can do is keep funding what it can and – equally important – keep telling the Rohingya story. ‘The people there feel forgotten. They still see the aid workers but the media has gone, completely gone. One day I walked near where rice rations were being handed out. An absolutely desperate woman thrust a piece of paper in my hand and started screaming at me. I had no idea what she was saying, but I felt strongly it was her frustration and desperation that the world isn’t listening anymore.
‘And if the world’s stopped listening to another human’s suffering, how humane does that make us?’
Children do not ‘live’ in extreme poverty – they merely exist. Supporting SpinningTop with a regular donation helps their efforts to allow children to have more of a childhood when their lives have been thrown off balance through war, oppression, natural disaster and other circumstances beyond their control.
Words by Lee-Anne Duncan. Images by Annie Fischer.