An Unexpected Journey
There I was, being hugged by a young boy not more than 8, his cheek on my cheek. He was a Rohingya orphan, far removed from his land, his community, his family. An orphan whose childhood innocence had been cruelly snatched and was left longing for the care, love and company of his departed parents.
It was four years ago that Sister Sabria and I were in Malaysia visiting many orphanages housing Rohingya children. We observed that some seemed well-run while others gave us reason to be concerned- par for the course when it comes to the life of an orphan.
While conversing recently with Sister Sabria, we reminisced about one of the Fridays when we had cooked all morning; the kitchen setup was very similar to Sister Sabria’s operations back home in Montreal. She had a team busy with various tasks: preparing, cutting, cooking, cleaning. And of course, like a true hands-on general, she was busy at work herself in between giving instructions and overseeing how everyone was faring.
Later that afternoon, we served the delicious meal that we’d prepared in the morning and arranged for live entertainment; it was heartwarming to see them enjoying their lunch and then smiling and clapping while listening to songs.
Once the meal was ready, we cleaned up and went with some Rohingya orphans for Friday prayer service. I chose to sit in the back of the van with the children. There weren’t any seats so I tried to hold on while the van zig-zagged through traffic. The children were reserved at first, but my constant attempts to engage with them eventually worked and I regaled the children with my attempts to pronounce words in the Rohingya language.
Having been aware of the plight of the Rohingya for several years, at the time this seemed to be the only possible way of helping them (given restrictions in both Myanmar and Bangladesh). The stories of what these children had survived at such a young age were extremely disturbing. Our aim then was to either find a suitable partner to set up an orphan sponsorship program, or to establish an actual orphanage.
Little did I know that only six months later, the situation of the Rohingya would exponentially worsen and OBAT would end up on the front lines of a crisis directly helping thousands of Rohingya refugees- including many orphans. From providing hands-on emergency relief to the Rohingya refugees who managed to survive unfathomable horrors to constructing bridges, roads, over 1,500 shelters, community centers and health and education projects, to setting up a sponsorship program for Rohingya orphans.
Today, OBAT Canada is sponsoring 110 orphans in Rohingya refugee camps and we are hoping to eventually increase that number to over 300. We can’t bring back their parents nor erase their pain, but the least we can do is give them some sense of comfort, some love and try to build better memories and a promising future.
OBAT’s solidarity with the Rohingya people is through our service to them. It is an honour to be present with our Rohingya brothers and sisters in the refugee camps, as a reminder and declaration that they are not alone- nor will we leave them alone.