Cox’s Bazar: An Aid Worker’s Journal - Part 1

STORY BY SCOTT J. WILL

Physician assistant Scott Will recently spent a month providing medical care to Rohingya people from Myanmar living in a large refugee camp outside Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. This journal-style article from him offers a behind-the-scenes view of aid worker life as well as offering a small introduction to the Rohingya people. He previously wrote for Culture Keeper about the family he gained while living in South Sudan for five years.

We've added an Editor's Note to guide you through our full four-part series covering the life of the Rohingya people living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

  Photos by Scott J. Will.

Photos by Scott J. Will.

DECEMBER 4, 2017

Ten years ago on this very day I was in the middle of an Ebola outbreak in Bundibugyo, Uganda. Tomorrow I am leaving for a month of volunteering in Bangladesh, having just returned three weeks ago from working in Uganda with South Sudanese refugees.

Today, as I finish Christmas cards and prepare for a very long journey tomorrow, I am thankful to pause and reflect, thankful for Christmases past and present. This will be the fourth year in a row I have been away from immediate family members for Christmas, and the sixth year in the past eleven that I have been outside of the USA for Christmas. It’s been fun for me to experience Christmas around the globe, and to realize in those settings that Christmas is not just about cookie-making and card-giving and gift-getting and bright shiny trees (though I do like all those things!).

I’m not sure what the next few days and weeks will bring as I travel to a place I have never been, but I look forward to finding the holy amidst the ordinary and to experiencing new things in a new place with new people.

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DECEMBER 7, 2017

“You came at the perfect time,” I immediately heard upon arrival. I get to be here for the very start of a diphtheria outbreak within my first 24 hours. Public health 101! Sat in meetings with United Nations personnel today, and making preparations for tomorrow, figuring out what we need to run a diphtheria treatment site! What the heck, how do I get myself in these situations! It’s going to be a learning experience. And here we go!


DECEMBER 10, 2017

Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazar, Refugee Camps. Today I worked at a new primary health center training local staff on diphtheria and seeing about 40 patients of all ages for all kinds of things, the most common ailment being diarrhea.

Tomorrow I’ll be back at the diphtheria treatment center stocking medications, setting up oxygen tanks and suction, and doing the best I can to encourage local staff.

The walk today through the refugee camp was a remarkable contrast of so much beauty in the physical colors and faces, while I was also mentally aware that I was surrounded by squalor and disparity from a horrid situation.


DECEMBER 11, 2017

Most days I think my life is quite ordinary; today was not one of those days. I don’t think I can really explain all that transpired today. Flexibility has been key thus far, as plans change hour by hour, especially in the beginning of a large scale disease outbreak. Today was full of change and adventure and beauty and uncertainty.

At one point I was unexpectedly sent with another clinician to a far away district to examine a suspected case reported by a community health worker. We then presented our findings to the World Health Organization. This was a big deal, as no cases had been suspected in this remote region yet. Several hours later, after trekking through mud and villages within the remote camp, greeting everyone along the way with my three words of Rohingya, we made our way to the home of the sick woman. She lives in a shelter made of big tarps and bamboo poles, like most refugee homes, and numerous people stay there, all sleeping on the floor.

I and my colleague examined the woman and all 14 people she lives with, sitting in this makeshift home in rural, remote Bangladesh. She has the disease, so we arranged transport to the isolation unit and treated all her contacts. Then we hiked out with her, passing by kids playing soccer in rice paddies while other children ran alongside us, the hills in the background, the rain-soaked mud beneath us, and exhaustion setting in. But there was also deep contentment in the sense of the adventure and uncertainty, knowing that it was worth our effort because that woman will get the treatment she needs and be okay.

  Map courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Map courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

 

DECEMBER 9, 2017

“We aren’t going to be there for the first half of the day because of meetings, so we are leaving you to train all the staff on diphtheria,” say the medical and program directors to me.

“What???” I’m thinking.

Well okay then. Welcome to day one of transforming a diarrhea treatment center into a diphtheria treatment center! Time to train 20+ people on diphtheria signs, symptoms, management, and prevention. My colleagues, who also just arrived, were crucial as we taught for hours about all things diphtheria, about personal protection equipment and outbreak control, and then about figuring out patient flow and isolation control. And then we started receiving patients.

It was a very long day, and I’m exhausted but good in many ways. The refugees are lovely, kind people, and the national staff were eager to learn and flexible and hard-working. I need to remind myself (already on only day two at the camps) that I am not here to save the world. Rather, I’m here to do what I can with what I have and to love the person in front of me.

 

 
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DECEMBER 15, 2017

Long days, ever changing plans, meetings galore, tight security, high stress, and moments of beauty and splendor and interactions with wonderful souls. My one day off per week was cut short last week and again today, but I was able to walk on the beach and sit in a coffee shop next to the water for a bit today, and it was blissful.


DECEMBER 16, 2017

From Uganda to Bangladesh, Connie Venuso has been a smiling, affable companion. You will be missed! Safe travels and blessings on your journey!


DECEMBER 16, 2017, continued

Baby blessing parties and rice paddies and kids that ask to be my friend and pharyngeal pseudomembranes. Living the life in beautiful Bangladesh.


DECEMBER 19, 2017

Is this genocide?

(Here’s one article I’ve been reading about this question: “Is this genocide?” by Nicholas Kristof.)

Working with Rohingya refugees here in Bangladesh, I am daily seeing those affected by decades of fighting and never really belonging anywhere.

I’ve learned that depending on whom you ask, you will get a slew of thoughts and perspectives on the Rohingya. Fascinating history of their living in but never really belonging to any country.

I have much to learn from the Rohingya and the local Bangladeshi.


DECEMBER 21, 2017

Tomorrow will be my first full day off in 15 days. I’ve reached the halfway mark of my time here. Every day is full of variety and requires lots of flexibility and choosing positivity. I continue to see so much beauty in the people and in this place.

Diphtheria patients linger on amidst the standard diarrhea, measles, respiratory tract infections, rashes, and gastritis. I saw 44 patients today, and it felt calm and not busy at all to me. Years in South Sudan of seeing 50+ patients per day have me well prepared for medicine in refugee camps.

Security limits my movements here, so my exercise routine has gone awash, but at least I get 10 flights of stairs in every morning and evening!

It is always interesting when people from various backgrounds and ideologies, with varied experiences, are thrown together. My teammates’ ages range from 25 to 72. It can be easy to get jaded when you don’t have all the supplies you want and your days are stressful, but some of my teammates have agreed to “kill them with kindness”—trying to avoid any hints of negativity and choosing to build one another up and help each other out. This recent change has made a world of difference.

Negative attitudes and talk about one another can severely dampen morale, so some of us instead smile and say things like “you're a rock star” while playing the air guitar as we pass each other in the camp and high-five throughout the day. All day long I hear “how can I help you in this moment,” and that makes all the difference.

So today I reflect on two weeks of unexpected happenings, of crazy days, and of beautiful moments. Thankful for the privilege of being here working with Rohingya refugees, an oppressed people group that has long been denied a sense of self and national identity, and thankful for those teammates that choose to smile and encourage and help when moments are tough.

 
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SCOTT J. WILL

CULTURE KEEPER

Scott J. Will has been creating culinary delights, listening with an empathetic ear, and frequenting local coffee shops everywhere he goes. A physician assistant by trade and traveler by heart, with a penchant for serving the underserved, he has lived all over the place, including Uganda and South Sudan. He currently resides on Oahu in Hawaii.