I’m in the Kutupalong refugee camp of Cox’s Bazar, following a team of community health workers going door-to-door to vaccinate children against cholera. It’s December 2019 and the dry season has just begun. The sun is warming from high above and a gentle breeze sweeps through the narrow passages taking us into the camps.
My brick-sized camera doesn’t go unnoticed. Quickly, I’m surrounded by curious children, some probably as young as my two-year-old son, Benjamin. I sit down, snap a few photos and answer “Isaac,” when they ask for my name. I get big smiles and giggles in return. I feel cheerful, which is something I didn’t expect when we set out this morning.
As we journey further into the camps, I notice how thoroughly the team carry out their work. They stop at every household to ensure that children living there have been vaccinated, and they take time to speak with parents who have questions or doubts about the vaccine. One father, Hashim, greets us warmly and gives me the opportunity to ask him a few questions.
I take off my dusty shoes and step into his home. He carefully rolls out a carpet on the clay floor and offers me a place to sit. The walls are covered in colourful paintings of flowers and the ceiling is decorated with paper garlands resembling trees in an upside-down forest. I imagine that Hashim’s children have made these in the learning centres.
Hashim is 37 years old and fisherman by trade. He comes across as calm and gentle. He has six children, aged 2 to 13. His youngest son, sitting on his father’s lap as we speak, was only two months old when the family arrived in Cox’s Bazar in August 2017.
I ask Hashim about his family’s health and if all his children have been vaccinated. “The block where we live is very dirty,” he tells me. “After my children have been out playing, I always try to wash their hands to avoid diarrhoea and other diseases from spreading.”
His children received their first vaccine when they arrived in the camps. Back home, in Myanmar, Hashim’s family didn’t have access to health services, let alone vaccines. “Whenever someone got sick, we used leaves and herbs as treatment.”
“Since my children were vaccinated, they’ve been less sick,” Hashim says with a sense of relief, proudly adding that he “volunteered with the health workers who carried out the first cholera vaccination campaign in their block.”
I ask Hashim if he one day will return to his home country. He hushes his son who is getting a little impatient and sends him off to his mother before answering my question. I don’t speak Hashim’s language, but I can tell from his change of tone and the body language of our interpreter that this is not an easy question.
Hashim is determined to return, but explains how life was very difficult in Myanmar before they fled and how he was no longer allowed to work. He pauses for a moment. He tries to describe the indescribable. He witnessed brutal attacks on his people that forced him and his family to flee.
I’m trying to hold back the tears, but Hashim doesn’t. For a moment, he buries his head in his hands. I gather that this is something that he needs to talk about. We sit quietly for a moment. I hear the joyful cheers of children playing outside and manage to summon enough strength to respectfully thank Hashim for courageously sharing his story with me.
We take a good moment to shake hands. I ask Hashim if I can photograph his family and if I have his consent to publish their story. “I want it to be told,” he says. I reach for my camera as Hashim’s family joins us in the room. As I compose my shot, take a deep breath and press the shutter, I already know that I will never need a photograph to remember this moment.