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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: How a Vernon doctor is making a difference for Muslim Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

September 02, 2019 - 12:00 PM



What moves us to act on something? A sense of fairness? Outrage over injustice? Words…spoken or written? For Lia Harris - a pediatric physician in Vernon - it was a photo.

Four years ago this very day a visual image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi - a Syrian refugee whose body washed ashore on the Mediterranean near Bodrum, Turkey - changed her life. That child, along with his brother and mother - all refugees - drowned…their inflatable raft swamped by a wave on the final three-mile leg of their escape from Syria to Turkey and then Greece.

That photo of a failed journey toward a better life weighed heavily on the hearts of millions of people worldwide. I don’t know how many people in the Okanagan saw that heartbreaking picture. But I know Dr. Harris and her family did…it moved them…and they acted. They were among many who sponsored a Syrian individual or family here in the Okanagan…and that was just the start.

Today, Dr. Harris is - among other good things - an activist. A humble…almost shy woman…she practically apologizes for what she calls a “late-life discovery” of volunteerism. One thing is sure…she’s making a difference in the world…and the world’s problems reach well beyond Syria.

Dr. Harris has made three trips to Bangladesh in the past 18 months to help the Rohingya…persecuted people who left Myanmar to escape genocide. How bad is life when you escape to Bangladesh?

FILE- In this Aug. 27, 2018 file photo, Rohingya refugees play at Balukhali Refugee Camp in Bangladesh.
FILE- In this Aug. 27, 2018 file photo, Rohingya refugees play at Balukhali Refugee Camp in Bangladesh.
Image Credit: (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File)

The refugee camp - actually a cluster of official and unofficial encampments - is near the seaside town of Cox’s Bazar and is known as the Kutupalong–Balukhali expansion site. It has been expanding for nearly thirty years…when the first group of Rohingya arrived there.

The Rohingya - Muslims - are among the most persecuted people in the world. They lived for centuries in what was Burma, and now Myanmar. But Myanmar not only refuses to recognize them as citizens or even human beings, the country’s military began the latest attacks on Rohingya villages two years ago…kidnapping, killing and terrorizing men, women and children. Myanmar’s recognized citizens…including Buddhists…have often led or participated in the attacks.

How big is the problem of displaced Rohingya? Shockingly huge. The refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar are home - and I use the term loosely - to nearly one million Rohingya…more than half of them children…and more than half of them women and girls.

Think for a moment…about 375,000 people live here in the Okanagan Valley. So, about three times that number of Rohingya are in refugee camps in a small area of Bangladesh…one of the world’s poorest nations.

Another 100,000 Rohingya are displaced in Myanmar and live in Rakhine State camps there. They have no freedom of movement…no access to food and water…no sanitation…no healthcare and no education. Most of the Rohingya villages in Myanmar of two years ago…no longer exist. And it appears the Myanmar state lacks the will to repatriate the Rohingya people living in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The plight of the Rohingya is so wide and deep that it is almost incomprehensible. Not only do they suffer from things most of us take for granted…food, shelter, sanitation, healthcare and education…they lack status almost everywhere.

Bangladesh won’t let them leave for other nations as refugees…the U.N. should but hasn’t voted that Myanmar has and is committing genocide…and countless bureaucratic technicalities affect real people…real children.

There are real fears that the Rohingya will soon lose an entire generation. Virtually none of the children in the camps are allowed education. Earlier this year the relative few that were attending Bangladesh schools outside the camps were expelled.

About 100 Rohingya babies are born into the camps every day. There are nearly 20,000 still births this year. The Rohingya future is in obvious doubt. Medical professionals - like Dr. Harris - educate as well as treat patients. Parents and others are taught how to help babies breathe and learn how to resuscitate them.

Women and girls might suffer the most in the camps…and historically in Myanmar. Many are abused, assaulted and raped. Steps are being taken by a variety of not-for-profit organizations…but it’s a formidable challenge.

Community Partners International (CPI), a nonprofit organization that empowers conflict-affected, remote and underserved communities in Asia, is one of the leaders in trying to bring health, education and dignity to the Rohingya. Visit to find out more about its work…and how you can help.

I encourage everyone reading this to share it on social media…bring it to the attention of your friends. Maybe it will move someone to act. As for Dr. Harris…in a couple of months, she heads out on another mission…this time to Yemen. It seems there is no shortage of people in dire straits.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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