Can You Still Have Hope When Life Seems Hopeless?

Some 2,000 Rohingya refugee families live in the Balukhali camp in southern Bangladesh, according to the camp's leader.

Michael Sullivan/for NPR

Can all hope be lost?

I used to think not.

I used to think that no matter how tough life gets for people, they always have hope to cling to – to get them through it.

Then I met some Rohingya refugees on a trip to Bangladesh last month. Reporter Michael Sullivan and I were there to report on the latest wave of the Muslim minority group to flee over the border from Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

We spoke with Rohingya living both inside and outside of the refugee camps that have taken root in southern Bangladesh. Working through interpreters, they told us the stories of how they'd fled from their homeland late last year during the latest Myanmar military crackdown against them. How their villages had been sacked and their homes burnt to the ground. How they'd faced a brutal military campaign of torture and mass rape. Tens of thousands of them had been displaced.

After hearing these distressing accounts, I wanted to know: Given all that they had been through, what were their hopes for the future?

A Puzzling Question

We asked about a dozen refugees. And I was shaken by their answers.

I asked one woman, Shajada — a name she chose for herself to protect her identity and her family back in Myanmar — what she hoped for her future. She responded via the interpreter: "Do you mean in terms of food?"

I tried to clarify and re-clarify the question through the interpreter. Shajada, who had suffered an injury to her legs and hips while fleeing the Myanmar army that's left her almost immobile, finally did answer: "I don't hope anything for me. I don't hope for me because I cannot even move from one place to another because if I move, I fall down."

Another young woman, Roshida — also not her real name — flat-out didn't comprehend the question at first.

"We do not understand," Roshida responded, speaking for herself and her cousins. After we asked the question a couple of different ways, Roshida did finally say that if she could eat and Myanmar was peaceful, she would go home and try to get married.

That's an extraordinary hope for the future given what she'd been through. When the Myanmar military came to her village, Roshida was raped by four soldiers. In that part of the world having been raped can ruin a woman's prospects of finding a husband.

We thought perhaps the question of hope was getting lost in translation, so Michael tried asking: "How do you still go on?"

A woman who called herself Zubaida — again to protect her identity — answered by listing the things she needs to do to survive in the camp: sell rice, find a job, learn to speak Bangla (the Bangladeshi language).

What Is Hope?

These conversations made me wonder: What exactly is hope?

"Hope is what we want to happen," says neuroscientist Dr. Tali Sharot, who directs the Affective Brain Lab at University College London and does research on optimism, emotion and decision making.

Hope — and optimism — does not come from any particular part of the brain, she says. Instead, a person's ability to hope and be optimistic is part genetics and part experience.

"So you can be born with a certain way of processing information that makes you more likely to be optimistic and you do learn from things that happen to you, you do learn from the world around you," says Sharot.

In other words: a person's outlook on life comes from both their genetic predisposition and life experiences. If a person has many negative experiences, they may come to believe that negative things are always going to happen, she says. And that would be a reason for someone to just not feel positive anymore — to lose hope.

This could explain why the Rohingya refugees we interviewed had difficulty talking about their future. For decades, the Rohingya have been terrorized and persecuted by the Myanmar military simply for being an ethnic and religious minority — something the military mostly denies. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes in waves. It is estimated that some 500,000 Rohingya refugees live in Bangladesh alone.

"I know that for many, many refugee populations like the Rohingya who've been living for years in situations of great uncertainty there's an erosion of hope," says Pindie Stephen, who works with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to help refugees move out of camps.

Stephen, who worked with refugees for 12 years in Kenya, says it's hard for people to think about the future when they're concerned about immediate needs — identity papers, school for their children and safe housing.

"So I think a question like, 'What are your hopes?' takes them off guard," says Stephen. "A lot of our refugee population lives in this limbo for such a long time that I think they no longer even have the luxury of being able to hope."