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Saving sight in the Rohingya refugee crisis Saving sight in the Rohingya refugee crisis

Saving sight in the Rohingya refugee crisis

Shamsun tugs at the arm of a Fred Hollows Foundation worker, trying to tell her story.
She is one of almost 700,000 Rohingya refugees who has fled Myanmar since August in 2017 and arrived at the overcrowded camps in Bangladesh with just the clothes on her back.

But Shamsun’s is particularly devastating. Blind with bilateral cataract, she could only hear as her husband was shot dead and five of her children were killed with machetes. One of the girls was raped before being murdered. Their bodies were burnt to destroy the evidence.

Her neighbours confirmed to her what her eyes couldn’t: her family was gone.
With the help of her son-in-law and other villagers, she escaped and spent four days in the jungle and hills, and across the river before finally making it to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh.


Shamsun is just one of many blind Rohingya who miraculously made the harrowing journey to safety.

Walking for between four and 16 days through the jungle across mountains and rivers is unimaginable. But for the refugees who are also blind, it’s impossible without the help of family or neighbours.

Sixty-year-old Abu Sayed is another refugee who arrived at the camp. He has seven children - five sons and two daughters. When he left Myanmar they had to leave in hurry and he lost contact with five of his children - one daughter and four sons.

“I didn’t know where they were,” he said. He came by walking for 12 days to cross the border with the help of his 15 and 20-year-old sons.

“I faced great difficulty and my sons helped me and carried me,“ he said.
My mind was very sad to leave the other children but it was very bad situation and I thought we were going to be killed. My body was in Bangladesh but my mind was with my children in Myanmar.
- Abu

The Rohingya tell us they have never been able to see a doctor, or visit a hospital. The resulting health issues are devastating: blindness is one of those most prevalent conditions, with a cataract rate five times that of the local Bangladeshi community.

Like Abu, he said he had never visited an eye doctor before although he was blinded by cataract ten years ago. “I have no money to make the surgery.”

With the enormous emergency needs of the Rohingya people, it’s easy to think blindness is a minor issue that can wait to be fixed.

The Fred Hollows Foundation Hong Kong and ASEAN Chief Representative Laura Lee said up to 50,000 Rohingya people living in the refugee camps urgently needed cataract surgery.

When The Fred Hollows Foundation held its first eye camp in the Balukhali Camp, it was clear there was a dire problem. Almost 600 refugees lined up for help, with one in six needing cataract surgery. 

That is a huge number of vulnerable people who, as well as the many other difficulties, will now have to face the impending monsoon season and its challenges.

Shamsun and Abu are just some of many blind Rohingya who miraculously made the harrowing journey to safety.

They together with 60 other refugees are taken by armed security from the makeshift eye clinic at the camp into the town, to the Baitush Sharaf Eye Hospital, The Foundation’s trusted local partner hospital. The refugees are not allowed to leave the camp without an escort.

Walking through the wards of the hospital there are almost endless stories of brutality and escape like Shamsun’s.

Dr Mohammad Mushfiqur Rahman is the chief surgeon and operates on the refugees – 58 straight surgeries from 4.45pm until after 10.30pm.
I cannot explain my emotions. There are so many patients... it makes the effort worthwhile.

- Dr Mohammad Mushfiqur Rahman, Chief Surgeon
Baitush Sharaf is the only eye hospital at Cox’s Bazaar. Before the refugees came they were doing 400 to 500 cataract surgeries a month and 25 remote eye camps for Bangladeshi patients.

The 50 bed hospital serves a population of 2.5 million people. Demand is already too high. But now they suspect about 50,000 refugees need cataract surgery. The two surgeons will need to double or triple their number of operations if there is any hope of addressing the need.

It led some to say the task of helping the refugees is too great. But Fred Hollows used to say “the alternative is to do nothing and that’s not an alternative”. So The Foundation’s team in Bangladesh pushed on.

Secretary, Director General and Chairman of Baitush Sharaf Eye Hospital MM Sirajul Islam takes a positive view of the crisis: “It is a blessing in disguise that the blind people came from Myanmar because they wouldn’t have gotten services there.”

The Chairman says without The Fred Hollows Foundation being the first to instigate help for the Rohingya, the local hospital would not have established an outreach in the refugee camp.
The Fred Hollows Foundation coming to do this was like a hand came down from heaven. And it has inspired other NGOs to help.
- MM Sirajul Islam, Secretary, Director General and Chairman of Baitush Sharaf Eye Hospital

For Shamsun it’s hard to imagine there’s anything to smile about – displaced from your home and with most of your family killed.

But when the patches come off the morning after her surgery Shamsun is happy to see again. She smiles at the nurse and clasps her hands in thanks.

It was the same for Abu. He was very happy when the doctor took off his eye patch after the surgery.

“I’m very happy to have my eyes fixed but I am sad that I still won’t get to see my other children. I can see through the window and see the green leaves of the trees. I am so happy I can see everything."

Luckily, Abu was relieved to find out his five children made it across the border to another of the refugee camps but he is disappointed he hasn’t seen them yet.

“With the enormous emergency needs of the Rohingya people, it’s easy to think blindness is a minor issue that can wait to be fixed. However, the Rohingya refugee issue is a broad, humanitarian crisis, and it needs everyone to respond in any way they can,” Ms Lee said.

Who are the refugees?
The Rohingya is an ethnic group, the majority of whom are Muslim, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar.

The plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people is said to be the world's fastest growing refugee crisis.

According to reports, risking death by sea or on foot, almost 700,000 have fled the destruction of their homes and persecution in the northern Rakhine province of Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh since August 2017.

Arriving in the area known as Cox's Bazaar, the refugees say they fled after troops burnt their villages and attacked and killed civilians. Many women and girls report having been raped.
Before August, there were already around 307,500 Rohingya refugees living in camps, makeshift settlements and with host communities, according to the UNHCR. Another almost 700,000 are estimated to have arrived since.

Most Rohingya refugees reaching Bangladesh have sought shelter in these areas, setting up camp wherever possible in the difficult terrain and with little access to aid, safe drinking water, food, shelter or health care.

“The task of helping the refugees is great but as our founder Fred Hollows used to say: ‘The alternative is to do nothing and that’s not an alternative’. That’s why The Fred Hollows Foundation decided we must help.”

The Fred Hollows Foundation wants to help more refugees like Shamsun and Abu - and with your help, we can do it.