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Landslides, elephant rampages, and the plight of the Rohingya refugees

On the other side of the world, a million people find themselves displaced, having witnessed the slaughter of their families in a horrific genocide. Faith Purcell, part of our Stockwell service, is taking 6 weeks away from working in the church office to go and help. We sat down to discuss how and why.

Tell me about Bangladesh. What is happening there and why are you going?

In Bangladesh there’s a refugee crisis. There’s about a million people who consider Myanmar their home and they have had to flee across the border to Bangladesh due to genocide and ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military. These are a people group called the Rohingya, who are considered stateless. They’ve been living in Myanmar since the 15th century but Myanmar doesn’t consider them to be citizens; they have no rights at all and they’re the lowest of the low. So almost a million of them, predominantly women and children, have fled persecution, and the Bangladeshi and international community have set up refugee camps for them just over the border from Myanmar, south of a massive tourist destination called Cox’s Bazar.

I’m going to go and support a medical charity who are based in Cox’s Bazar, they’ve been working in Bangladesh for around 20 years and they’re now at the forefront of this crisis. They’ve been working mostly in women’s and children’s health. They have many field hospitals spread across the different camps that make up the area where the refugees are staying, but mostly I’ll be helping them with disaster relief.

What’s called you out there in particular? It’s obviously a very difficult situation, so why are you putting yourself in it?

That’s a good question that I always struggle to answer! I don’t really know why, but I’ve always wanted to work internationally. I’ve always been interested in international affairs and global justice. I’ve spent the last few summers gaining some international development field work experience, and I think I just have always been quite sensitive to injustice. I struggle to unsee the massive injustice between the safety of our Western world, the convenience we have, the comfort and the ease at which we live our lives, compared to most of the people on this planet. I don’t know how to be comfortable with everything I have here when so many people around the world don’t even have running water, or electricity, or can’t do their homework past 6pm because that’s when the sun sets, or die from really preventable diseases… and I don’t believe that that’s God’s heart for those people.

That song we’ve been singing a lot at church recently, Reckless Love, it makes me cry because that’s how God feels about us. He feels that way about the Rohingya, he feels that way about Syrians, he feels that way about all of us on this planet. And I want to go and tell people about that. Actually, no, I want to show people that.

So you mentioned there that you’ve worked in international development before, what have you done previously and how is this different?

So, I’ve spent most of my career working and volunteering in domestic social action so that I could gain the skills I needed to go abroad. Two summers ago I got the opportunity to spend almost 4 months working in Borneo with an international development charity there. We were living in the jungle and we were helping to install water systems for people that had no running water, we were helping to install solar panels for people with no electricity, and we were also helping to rebuild the rainforest, so I got to test my own personal resilience in incredibly uncomfortable and inconvenient situations. I also got to see development in action, and it really challenged me to start thinking about how good development actually is. Where’s the line between helping remote isolated communities access opportunities, but not to the detriment of their beautiful culture? So I was faced with those dilemmas and conflicts.

Last summer I spent my time working in Greece, working with a charity that distributes non-food items: clothing, feminine hygiene products, toiletries, baby products, hats, scarves… they distributed those items across 14 different refugee camps. I got to see different aspects of humanitarian aid, and also to interact with lots of Syrian and Afghan refugees. I guess just seeing their situation was eye-opening, but also realising that they are exactly like us. They had jobs, families, they went on holiday, we’re really no different.

This trip is going to be a massive step-up in terms of inconvenience. It’s a very conservative country, which is going to impact the way I dress. That’s going to be difficult not just because I’ll be wearing things I wouldn’t normally wear, but because it’s incredibly hot there, we’ll be doing quite a lot of manual labour, shifting supplies around, and I’ll be fully covered up. It’s also the start of the monsoon season so it’ll just be raining, there’ll be mud everywhere, and none of my clothes will ever dry! So I’ll be learning personal resilience in a whole other realm. It’s also a much bigger situation; there are hundreds of NGOs involved, some of the biggest NGOs in the world are working there, and they all know what they’re doing! There’s a lot to do and I don’t actually have very much time, so there’s a bit of pressure trying to get my head around the whole scale of the projects. Even just learning the acronyms they use…the other two trips sort of felt like I was playing at it, this one feels real.

If there are people reading this who’d like to help, how can they do that? In London we can often feel so removed from the situation. Not everyone is able to do what you’re doing, take some time out of work and go and volunteer, so what can they do?

Obviously, not just to give a ‘Christian’ answer, but you can pray. It’s a pretty horrific situation. Some of the biggest challenges are that when the Rohingya crossed the border, they just arrived at the first available place where the Myanmar military couldn’t attack them, so most of the refugee camps have been set up on flood plains. We’re at the start of the monsoon season, the waters are rising, there’s going to be mud, not even just mud, torrential rivers knocking down buildings, and that makes the already precarious sanitary situation even worse. Health and hygiene is massively important, especially around a population that’s already incredibly vulnerable.

The second issue is that the camps have had to be expanded due to the arrival of more refugees, but they’ve been expanded up into the mountainsides and the vegetation has been stripped away. This means there’s nothing holding the earth there, so there will be landslides. People’s homes, such as they are, will be destroyed, and people will die. So praying against all of these anticipated issues is something we can be doing. It might sound massive, and we might not think we can help, but our God is bigger than that. Our God is bigger and he says come to me with every prayer and petition.

Another thing that’s going on is that the refugee camps have been set up in an elephant migration route. So there are lots of angry elephants trampling through the camps which are killing people, and they’re having to kill the elephants which obviously isn’t good for the environment and the ecosystem.

The fourth thing is that we’re now 9 months into the conflict, which means that all of the women who were raped at the start are about to give birth. That’s one of the big horrors that happened, not just destroying homes and killing people to assert dominance, but raping the women. And by women I mean anybody over the age of 10 or 11. So those women are now starting to give birth, at the start of the monsoon season, with nothing on their backs but the clothes that they ran with, and they’re about to give birth to children who have been born out of this which they then have to love and care for and look after for the rest of their lives. Please pray for the mental health of the women especially. In 20 years of working with hard-to-reach people groups, this is the most horrific situation I’ve ever heard of. Pray for the NGOs that are providing life-saving support, pray especially for the Christian charities that are there who have an opportunity to practically share the love of God with people who have probably never heard the name of Jesus before.

Practically as well, in these situations one of the best ways to help is actually to give money. I know that’s not necessarily a popular thing to say, but this is one of the most underfunded refugee crises in the world. They have only a fraction of the money they need in order to be able to respond appropriately, so I would suggest finding an organisation that’s addressing need in these camps and give to them, if you are able to.

Finally, what can we pray for you about specifically?

Resilience. It’s going to be really hard! And I really don’t want this to be about me, and the way to make it not about me is to give it up to God. I have the luxury of being able to leave these situations. They don’t. Please pray for real strength and resilience. Also, please pray that I’ll be able to actually get through the border! There’s a 50% chance that I’ll be turned away at the border (at 3.30am on Tuesday morning, to be precise) so I might be back on Wednesday! Also I only have a 30-day visa at the moment which I’d like to extend for 6 weeks, so just pray that all that paperwork goes through. And just pray that I’m able to use this experience well when I get back.

Faith will be interviewed at the Stockwell service this Sunday. If you’d like to find out more about the Rohingya refugee crisis, this is a good place to start, or you can watch this documentary on BBC iPlayer. To explore Christ Church London’s global partnerships, head to our social action page.

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