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Zokiya fled violence in Myanmar with her family in 2017. They found refuge in a sprawling camp along with hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, but Zokiya, who’s now 17, swiftly faced a new set of hardships.
Zokiya was born with a disability that affects her ability to stand and walk, and that has made her a frequent target of discrimination and harassment. When her family fled Myanmar, her older brother had to carry her the entire way.
When they first arrived at the refugee camp, it had little infrastructure to support people with disabilities and Zokiya struggled daily to get around.
“The hardest thing about living in the camp is lack of sanitation, space, and monsoons,” Zokiya told the international humanitarian organization CARE. “When I came here, as a person with a disability, the hardest thing to do was going to the toilet.”
CARE, along UNICEF and other partners, assessed the challenges facing Zokiya and her peers early on and began to adapt the camps in ways that made life easier for them.
One of their first projects focused on toilets. Getting to the nearest community toilet was often difficult for Zokiya because of the hilly terrain and the crowded nature of the camp. Once inside the facility, using the toilet was often challenging as well.
John Migele Okech, a WASH coordinator for CARE Bangladesh, said that many people faced similar problems.
“Some people could hardly walk. Some were trying to reach the facilities with walking aids and wheelchairs. Some had vision challenges, mental challenges. It became very clear that we had to prioritize them as we constructed new facilities,” Okech told Global Citizen.
“We built a latrine with a waste commode so that sitting is fairly easy because they can squat, and it has handrails around it, so they get support from both sides,” he added. “Also, within the walkways, we had rails leading to the doorway, and we added a slope that is more friendly as opposed to steps that we promoted in the standard latrines that we were constructing.”
They added ample lighting so the facilities could be navigated at night, and provided functional handwashing stations and cleaning supplies.
These might seem like fairly straightforward interventions, but CARE and other humanitarian organizations struggle to receive funding, construction in the camps requires the approval of numerous stakeholders (including local government regulators who need to ensure safety and feasibility), and space is extremely limited.
Okech’s team also enlisted various volunteers to regularly check in on and help people with disabilities. They engaged the primary caregivers of people with disabilities to ensure they had the support and resources they needed as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further constrained life in Cox’s Bazar. Because camps are so crowded, people are not always able to physically distance from one another, which increases the likelihood of an outbreak. The health crisis also highlighted the lack of potable water in the camps. UNICEF reports that water often has to be trucked in and new wells yield water that has to be treated before use. Water contamination from latrines is also another major problem, especially because it raises the risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera.
“The COVID situation made it very difficult again,” Okech said. “We had a number of volunteers from the host community who basically just withdrew their services out of fear of getting exposed, which meant that it was very difficult to monitor people because we had restricted access.
“This meant that persons with disabilities had to rely on their caregivers,” he added. “We had to recruit more refugee volunteers. The good thing is that we had a lot of engagement with their caregivers who are their family members.”
In addition to helping community members better understand the risks of COVID-19 and best practices for minimizing outbreaks, CARE and other aid groups expanded access to handwashing stations and distributed soap and personal protective equipment. CARE has also distributed food and provided shelter support for families.
“There are thousands of people in very congested camps,” Okech said. “The government and agencies are doing the best they can to provide services, but it’s a huge challenge.”
Even with the COVID-19 pandemic looming over the camps, essential services are being provided. For Zokiya, in particular, her family members and the team at CARE are committed to ensuring that she can live her life with dignity and joy.