Dear colleagues,

I wanted to send a quick email about my thoughts and observations from our first full day visiting Rohingya refugees.  I write as we speed through the roads leaving the city center of Cox’s Bazaar on the way to Anjamunpara where several thousand Rohingya refugees have arrived overnight with others reportedly close behind them.

We walked over 7km yesterday and climbed the equivalent of 16 flights of stairs up and down the hills around Kutupalong refugee camp and extension site in the Cox’s Bazaar area of Bangladesh.

We started the day in the UNCHR Transit Center where the most vulnerable new arrivals can stay for a few hours up to three days to rest and recuperate before being relocated to their settlement sites. These are the families needing special assistance before they can continue: the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women, new mothers, malnourished or sick children. We met several families who had survived a horrible boat capsize the day prior. Their trauma was incredibly raw and their pain palpable. Of the 42 people on the boat 22 had been injured badly enough to require hospital treatment and another 9 had been killed: mainly children and the elderly.

I met many women trying the best they could to provide for their scared and clearly traumatized children, when they themselves were clearly struggling to make sense of the last few months. I had to fight back tears as I held hands with one mother who had lost her daughter the day before. She was trying to be strong for her other children who survived but were clearly shaken, their eyes haunted with faraway looks.  I could not bear to see this young mother and her stunningly beautiful children so distraught, bearing the additional grief of losing their beloved sister and daughter after what they described as years of persecution and violence. The children had been unable to attend school, the parents unable to move or work freely. They had lived for too long in fear – well before the violence escalated on 25 August – constantly on edge, never knowing when they might be the next victims of the violence that had taken so many of their relatives and neighbors already.

Several women told me about witnessing young girls abducted and fathers, sons and brothers arrested and never seen again. I cannot imagine the terror of trying to survive, trying to feed your children and maintain some sense of security and comfort for your family when you are perpetually terrified of losing your loved ones, having your daughters and sons snatched from you, or watching your homes being burned – your life going up in flames along with your house. It seemed particularly unfair that after surviving the plight of months and years of violence and persecution they had to survive a boat capsize just as they reached the shores of safety in Bangladesh.

I also met tenacious, dedicated UNHCR colleagues who made me proud of the organization that I still believe in after 20 years. We may not be meeting every single need yet – the needs are simply overwhelming and the rate this refugee crisis is growing at makes keeping up with arrivals and challenges nearly insurmountable at the moment – but our UNHCR teams are out in the field, at the borders, in the camps and transit centers early in the morning and working till way in the night. Colleagues left this morning at 4:30 this morning to get to the border areas and last night I was on the phone getting information until almost midnight.

Although it is nothing compared to the treks the Rohingya families have had to make to reach safety here, UNHCR colleagues are walking, climbing, crossing many kilometers daily to reach the farthest outreaches of the camps and settlements where vehicles cannot go. One colleague told me about one day when he clocked over 18km in a single day. His steptracking app gave him a big thumbs up that night I imagine. He was tasked with identifying vulnerable families and ensuring that everyone with specific and special needs were accessing critical services and assistance. He interviewed almost a hundred families that day and had the sore feet and proud smile to show for his efforts.

I saw colleagues from many different countries and backgrounds – former bankers, teachers, engineers from Buddhist, Muslim and Christian countries – all working together working tirelessly in the rain and later in the day in the brutal sun. They were planning new settlements to house newly arrived families, laying down roads in the transit center, managing a SGBV psychosocial trauma session for a dozen Rohingya women with terrifying stories but who were survivors and finally safe.

These brave Rohingya families brought little more than the clothes on their back and the weight of the trauma, fear and loss that they had endured and memoires of the violence that finally forced them to flee their homes. And yet as the sun set over the latest section of the Kutupalong extension site to be developed, I was surrounded by the sound of hammering, sawing, animated chattering, laughter as families built new homes with bamboo, cord and plastic sheeting that we had provided. I saw children flying kites they’d fashioned from used plastic bags and bits of twig, finding such joy when they finally soared high above them. I smelled the aroma of dinners being cooked for families to share together. And then the sun blushed crimson and pink above a sea of UNHCR-logoed homes as far as I could see.  It felt hopeful and so did I. There is so much work to be done, the needs are so great, but that simply means there is so much we  can do, that there are so many people who  can be helped. So I thank you for all your valiant and impressive efforts to raise both awareness and support for these Rohingya families and urge you to double these efforts. The smiles on the children’s faces show this simple truth: Every effort we make and every donation our donors make count. I hope the faces and vistas from these photos inspire you as much as they did me.


Warmest regards,




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