Cox’s Bazar, 4 April 2022 – Stranded and with barely any money to pay the boatmen to take them to safety, a raft made of bamboo, jerrycans and rope was Mohammed Abdullah’s only chance to find refuge from the conflict in Myanmar.  

At the height of the violence in Myanmar in 2017, Abdullah mobilized a number of fellow Rohingya to construct a massive float that enabled the group to escape to safety, crossing the Naf River into Bangladesh.

Abdullah’s story is one of many memorialized by the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre (RCMC) in Cox’s Bazar, where the sanctuary provided to the  Rohingya has transformed into the world’s largest refugee settlement of  nearly  1 million people. 

“They are incredibly resourceful,” says Shahirah Majumdar about the Rohingya community. She leads a team at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that has worked with Rohingya volunteers, artists and craftsmen to collect unique objects, music, poetry, recipes and stories – all representing the Rohingya experience.

These symbols of Rohingya culture are now displayed in the RCMC, in response to a 2018 mental health assessment in which Rohingya refugees revealed experiencing an “identity crisis” due to their displacement.

“The objective is to create healing through art and storytelling, and to ensure the continuity of their culture by transferring knowledge and skills from one generation to the next,” Majumdar says.

Creating the physical structure has been a slow and meticulous process, involving extensive consultations with the community on all design aspects. 

Back in Myanmar, Mohammed Shibbili was a teacher. In the camps, he is a respected community leader. Photo: Abdullah Al Mashrif

The result is an elegant display hall made of bamboo and a roof of nipa leaves honoring Rohingyas’ traditional house designs in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. 

The establishment of the RCMC was not a simple initiative. It began with preliminary planning and research, which yielded little useful material. “Most of it wasn’t written by the Rohingya themselves,” Majumdar says.

Therefore, over three years, the joint IOM-Rohingya team got to work, following leads and collecting narratives from Rohingya people which reflected their true voice.

“When we started there was nothing; there was only sadness,” recalls Mohammed Karim from IOM. “They had their Indigenous knowledge, but nothing was written.” 

The team traversed the camps, knocking on doors to consult with individuals. A decision was made early on not to collect personal objects brought from Myanmar since these were prized possessions and family heirlooms. Instead, such items were photographed. The resulting images were later shared with artists and craftsmen who have created model versions that will be exhibited in the RCMC. 

Among the refugees’ most valued items were jewellery, identity documents and clothing. “One woman brought a loda (bronze water pot) which she used to freshen up before her prayers,” says Karim. 

Other exhibits in the RCMC include boats, basketry, pottery and embroidery created from lived memories. The project has identified 23 genres of music and includes tens of ancient futhi – fairy tales told through song  – and 64 sewing techniques, some of which are on display in the centre.

All aspects of the project were designed to maximize healing and mental well-being. Photo: IOM

The centre is seen as a step towards the much bigger vision of a space that connects the past with the present, and the future. This will include hosting regular masterclasses – technical trainings in Rohingya heritage crafts, taught by Rohingya artisans – to pass invaluable knowledge down to the younger generations.

Mohammed Zaber, a wood craftsman who has begun to conduct masterclasses, demonstrates the power of engaging with Rohingya culture creatively. He explains the peace he felt when creating a model of his most prized asset – a mechanical rice mill – that he lost in Myanmar.

Zaber experienced the same feeling when he recreated his favorite place, a junction in Buthidaung township, as part of an interactive game designed for the RCMC to teach Rohingya children the districts and landmarks of Rakhine state in Myanmar. “We always used to go there,” he says.

Such emotional release is of little surprise as, according to Majumdar, a full day of creative work has many benefits to someone who experienced extreme trauma. “There is something therapeutic in building something with your hands. It can be protective against stress, depression and anxiety,” adds Majumdar.

Twenty-two-year-old Kushi is also finding joy in her work as a facilitator for the women’s embroidery group. Her parents left Myanmar in 1992, and she was born in a refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar, where she still lives. 

“When I come here and see all these things, I feel so happy because I’ve never been to Burma . It also gives me a sense of satisfaction knowing that when children come here, they will also get to see these exhibits and learn about Burma,” she says.

Two groups of 22 women are currently involved in creating the embroidery work. “When we take on a new artist, we ask her to bring a sample of her work,” Kushi says. “We discuss and then decide if she can join the group.”

Those with strong skills can teach in the masterclass. In the meantime, Kushi is helping set up exhibits from intricate embroidery products collected over time. 

These initiatives are among many more that have been created in response to commissions on a range of topics meant to facilitate healing. But well-being also takes place in other, more independent ways.

“When Rohingya women feel a little sad they like to decorate themselves – usually with henna – and this gives them inner peace,” Kushi says. 

Since May 2021, the RCMC has also provided an online platform through its website for the Rohingya community to engage with their history virtually – with the music being available on YouTube.

Majumdar details plans for how the refugees will run the RCMC for the benefit of the entire community. Guided tours will be held, with one day a week being devoted to women visitors. The tours will be led by volunteers who are presently in training.

“The task we have taken on is profound and unique, especially within the humanitarian context,” explains Nihan Erdogan, the Deputy Chief of Mission at IOM Bangladesh. “The RCMC represents joy, dignity and the Rohingya’s hope for the future. It combines mental health, protection, skills development, and self-reliance outcomes, and can be a model for other contexts.”

Story by Wilson Johwa, Communications Officer, IOM

In this video produced by the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre, Rohingya folk musician Ustazha Mustafa Kamal sings and performs on harmonium a Rohingya love song titled ‘Komola wrote a letter to Mandalay’. She is accompanied by Shabbir Rahman on the zuri (finger cymbals) and Ahmed Hossain on the dol (drums). The song expresses the pain of a loved one’s (shonai) long absence from home, and a longing for life to return to its familiar ways. 

The Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre (RCMC) has identified at least 23 genres of Rohingya folk music, among them several genres of love songs. Original recordings of Rohingya songs can be found on RCMC’s YouTube channel, performed by Rohingya musicians living in camp. Music is essential to Rohingya life and constitutes a major part of Rohingya oral culture.  Through their music, the community creates joy, healing, connection and meaning.

SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 16 - Peace Justice and Strong Institutions