Five things I've learned as a humanitarian aid worker in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

Humanitarian public health promoter Iffat Tahmid Fatema, 28, stands in front of a solar-powered light installed by Oxfam in Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Oxfam

Humanitarian public health worker Iffat Tahmid Fatema, 28, reports from Bangladesh, where she is involved with Oxfam’s Rohingya refugee response.

I started working for Oxfam last year at the height of the emergency. Rohingya refugees were arriving in huge numbers every day. At that time, I was toiling in a lab at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong pursuing my master's degree in Bio Technology. What's happened to the Rohingya people really upset me. I had never seen people living with so little. It really hurt me.

Fatema trains Rohingya refugees about good health and hygiene in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Oxfam

I knew I wanted to work with real people, face-to-face. Now, I teach Rohingya refugees living in the camp in Cox's Bazar about health and hygiene to help them keep well and to prevent a major outbreak of disease. We discuss the importance of cleanliness and personal hygiene like washing your hands with soap after going to the toilet and before eating. We work with volunteers from the Rohingya community, training them so they can teach other refugees and spread good hygiene messages far and wide. So far, Oxfam has reached more than 11,000 people in the camps.

August 25 marks the one-year anniversary of the mass exodus of Rohingya refugees. Here are the five things I’ve learned during my time as a public health worker in Cox's Bazar:

1. Know what motivates you 

In this job you need drive, good communication skills, and initiative. When it's extremely hot, raining heavily, or you’re tired, you might not feel like spending another long day in the camps. But then you think of the refugees and how you are working for them—that motivates you to keep going.

Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Oxfam

2. Build trust 

Humanitarian work is also about building trust. You have to be sensitive to local culture and traditions. You also have to be able to talk to different groups of people in different ways, from children to older people and Imams, the religious leaders. And you need to be a good observer so you can try to understand how people think.

3. Speak their language

Sometimes the refugees can be uncomfortable with someone who is not like them, so it helps that I can speak a similar language. But language is also the biggest challenge as the regional language, Chittagonian, is only about 70 percent the same as Rohingya. Oxfam has worked with Translators Against Borders to develop a new translation app in English, Bangla and Rohingya, including specific vocabulary about health and hygiene, so this will be a big help.

Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Oxfam

4. Prepare to face challenges

Working in the monsoons has been extremely hard and can be dangerous. When there is a heavy downpour of rain, conditions in the camps become very bad, very quickly. You can sink into the mud and lose your boots. When you climb the dirt steps there is the possibility the whole thing will collapse.

5. Be patient

The most important thing I have learned is to be polite and be patient—even though I might be repeating the same thing hundreds of times, such as how to wash your hands. I am very impatient by nature, but working in the camps I have learned how to control my frustrations.

The most satisfying part of my job has been hearing from refugees what a difference Oxfam’s support has made to them. We run regular listening groups where the community can give us constructive feedback. Recently a grandfather told me: "We are happy that you come and you listen to us. Thank you for the work you do." That made me feel very happy.

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