One of my favourite descriptions of motherhood is that it’s like watching your heart walk around outside of your body. You take extraordinary delight in your child’s accomplishments. You laugh at their antics and the way they express themselves. You soak up their hugs and kisses. But you also worry constantly about your children and the limited control you have over what happens to them. You feel their pain like it’s your own.
As a mother of a four-year-old and a one-year-old, I am rarely worry-free: Are they happy when I’m at work? Am I feeding them a balanced diet? Are they meeting their developmental milestones? Are they getting enough sleep?
Naturally, I was anxious about leaving them when I travelled as part of an aid mission to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. I went with a colleague who also has two young children, which made me feel a bit better about my decision to go. On the plane we talked about feeling sad to be missing an entire week in our small children’s precious lives and the guilt we felt about leaving our partners to manage things at home on their own. Would our little ones be okay without us? What if something happened to us?
All of these concerns disappeared completely when I saw the deplorable living conditions of children living in the camps. My kids might be missing me, but at least they were safe, well fed and surrounded by love – blissfully unaware of how cruel the world can be.
The same cannot be said of the staggering 36,000 Rohingya children who have arrived unaccompanied at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border since August – their parents either killed or lost along the way. Alone in the world, they face a huge risk of exploitation and trafficking.
While my four-year-old settled into life at her new school, Rohingya children were fleeing unimaginable violence. They spent days walking endlessly through the rain and the mud, and nights sleeping unprotected under open skies. For many, it took weeks to reach the border. Upon their arrival at the refugee camps with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they found no tents, no toilets, no clean water. No hope.
There were children everywhere in the camps I visited. Toddlers the same age as mine walked naked and unsupervised on the edge of the steep clay cliffs. Kids no older than my four-year-old fetched water and carried baby siblings. I wondered whether my own children would be capable of doing these things. It was impossible to imagine how they would survive here. Their lives have been so sheltered and devoid of danger, awareness or responsibility. In contrast, the children in these camps have had to grow up fast and adapt as best they can to their cruel, new reality.
Rohingya kids are traumatized by what they have seen and experienced. They run for cover when they hear helicopters and they panic at the sight of soldiers. They have diarrhea, fever and headaches. Yet, even in the face of unimaginable suffering, many are finding ways to just be kids.
Despite the bleak reality in the camps, I heard rippling laughter as kids ran and played between the tents. Items we would toss in the trash became their treasured possessions: a toy car built from a plastic bottle, a kite flapping in the wind, cobbled together with straws and plastic bags.
I was struck by the incredible strength of the human spirit and people’s ability to persevere, and even find joy, against impossible odds.
Of course, I wondered not only how my own children would cope in these refugee camps, but also how I would fare as a woman and a mother in those difficult conditions.
My Oxfam colleagues and I convened a women-only focus group on public health that soon turned into a group therapy session. Shy at first, the women were soon talking over each other to tell us their stories. Although our lives could not be more different, I felt a deep connection to these mothers who, like me, were just trying to do their best for their kids.
And like me, these moms worry. But what keeps a Rohingya mother up at night makes my own maternal anxieties seem so insignificant. Will her baby die during an unassisted childbirth on the dirt floor of this makeshift shelter? Will her children languish in this refugee camp for years? Will they be permanently scarred by the horrific violence they have witnessed? Will they be kidnapped or assaulted on a trip to the toilet at night?
As I was talking to these women, a little boy no older than 4 walked in, crying. He wore nothing but a tattered red T-shirt. An older woman took him onto her lap. She told us that he had lost both his parents in the violence in Myanmar. She was his grandmother and was now his sole caregiver, but she was visibly ill with a hacking cough. She suspected it was tuberculosis and worried about what would happen to this little boy if she passed away. He had already experienced so much loss and trauma in his short life.
Since my return home, I have thought a lot about all the Rohingya women and children I met in Bangladesh. By a mere accident of geography, they were born with the cards stacked against them, and I was born into a life of relative privilege. None of us had a choice.
It’s hard for me to make sense of this profound injustice, especially now that monsoon rains are threatening to destroy the refugees’ precarious shelters, creating a disaster within a disaster. But one thing I can do is stop worrying about my children’s First World problems and encourage others to do the same. Those of us fortunate enough to be living in Canada must channel our energy into supporting those in need, no matter where they live.
We all deserve a chance to raise our families in safety and in peace.
(c) 2018 The Globe and Mail