When Syedul first laid eyes on the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in 2018, the Rohingya refugee crisis was at its peak. Tens of thousands of men, women and children were fleeing persecution in their native Rakhine State in Myanmar and taking refuge in Bangladesh.
Syedul had left Myanmar on his own a few years earlier and, with no alternative in sight, decided to settle in the refugee camps, hoping he could one day return to Rakhine and see his family again.
During his time away from his country, he found out that his village was in trouble, which made him worry day and night for his mother and older sister. When he arrived in the camps, Syedul searched for them frantically for days on end, talking to many fellow refugees, hoping to find a clue that would lead him back to his family.
“I couldn’t find my family here. The people from my village told me that the village had been torn apart and that there had been many killings and casualties. They were all in a rush when they fled, so it was hard to tell,” he recalls.
“Only God knows if they survived or not.”
Soon after his life in the camps began, Syedul met his current wife with whom he is now raising a two-year-old boy. Hasina and her family had fled Myanmar in 2017 and often talked to Syedul about the trauma and ordeals they experienced back home.
“Even though I had endured my own sufferings, I felt that there was a huge part of life I had missed out on,” Syedul remembers.
After meeting Hasina and her family, Syedul soon saw them as his own. “There is no day that I don’t think about my family back home, but I am grateful I could find another family here.”
Fluent in Rohingya and later in Bangla, he soon proved to be a pillar for his community, bridging the gap between refugees and neighbouring host communities. Smart and keen to learn, he started to attend community meetings where he found out about the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) Community Advocate programme.
“I realized that I could learn something new from the teacher, so I came.”
IOM is currently empowering Rohingya refugees through its Community Advocate programme as part of its broader activities to prevent and mitigate gender-based violence (GBV). This allows IOM teams to work cohesively with communities to address the root causes of gender inequality and harmful GBV practices, and to promote safe and meaningful access to GBV services across the camps.
When the programme officially launched in 2019, Syedul became a full-fledged community advocate, also known as a Poribortok (change maker). A total of 400 community advocates have been trained so far.
The initiative is led by a group of volunteers who want to lead and inspire positive change in their lives and in their communities. The advocates support community mobilization teams in 100 neighbourhoods in several Rohingya camps. Each neighbourhood has four community advocates comprised of a woman, a man, a girl and a boy.
Along with the refugee community, IOM also recruited 240 community advocates among the host community. Advocates are chosen at the community level to create a level of trust and familiarity among the members and to ensure that each and every member feels valued.
They conduct outreach activities meant to prompt dialogue and reflection within their respective community groups, challenging the social norms that perpetuate violence and power imbalances in the communities.
The activities range from group psychosocial support activities to life skills training, structured GBV prevention activities, and radio listening groups. During the meetings, members have the opportunity to improve their knowledge on different topics, such as hygiene practices, human rights, sexual exploitation or domestic violence.
In the beginning, people didn’t take community advocates seriously. At the time, GBV was not a common topic discussed around the neighbourhood and the advocates had not yet mastered the topic.
“Sometimes they ignored us, other times they mocked us. It was hard for us to convince them to listen,” Syedul says. “But I was patient. After a few sessions, they started listening to us.”
Fifty-year-old Rohingya refugee Shamsul has been attending the community meetings organized by Syedul for over a year now. One agonizing night in 2017, Shamsul decided to take his family in Myanmar and cross by boat into Bangladesh.
“I had no other choice than to leave. We left or we died,” he recalls.
The meetings have given him a sense of community that had been absent since he arrived in Cox’s Bazar four years ago. To provide relief for the anxiety refugees face on a daily basis, community advocates also teach members about stress management techniques, particularly useful during the COVID-19 pandemic. What he learns in the meetings, Shamsul also teaches his neighbours and his family.
“My grandchildren practice every day the relaxation techniques I learned here.”
To ensure the sustainability of the initiative, IOM and its local partner PULSE Bangladesh work closely with community groups and local partners to implement these key activities in both Women and Girls Safe Spaces (WGSS) and during activities targeting men.
Syedul still hopes to one day run into his family, whether in the camps or back home. In the meantime, he says he has a newfound goal.
“I am happy and grateful that I can share different messages with my community. They faced horrible experiences ever since they started fleeing. It makes me feel good knowing that I can do something for them.”
IOM’s community advocate programme in Cox’s Bazar is possible thanks to the support of EU Humanitarian Aid (ECHO).
This story was written by Monica Chiriac, IOM’s Public Information Officer in Cox’s Bazar, Tel: +880 1880 084 048, Email: email@example.com.