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The ‘grown-up’ child

© UNICEF/2017/Lemoyne
Rokeya comes to Nutrition Centre with her dead brother's baby daughter, Rahejan Bibi, who is suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition

By Samin Sababa

Rokeya was covered in dust by the time she reached her destination.

The 13-year-old Rohingya refugee child said she has been walking for an hour inside Balukhali camp.

The camp, spread over thousands of acres, is one of the several makeshift settlements for refugees who crossed the border into Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar.

In her thin arms, Rokeya carried her dead brother’s baby daughter, Rahejan Bibi, who is suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition.

Around 6 percent of newly-arrived Rohingya children from Myanmar suffer this deadly condition. So the child’s tiny aunt has carried her to UNICEF’s nutrition centre.

It was their second admission to the Outpatient Therapeutic Programme or OTP.

“I am raising Rahejan now. Her mother had another baby girl three days ago. They are both still at the camp's hospital,” said Rokeya, wrinkling her brows.

The nutrition workers were showing Rokeya how to feed Rahejan ‘Plumpy Nuts’, a Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic Food or RUTF.

The high-energy, micronutrient enhanced paste will help the one-and-half-year-old recover from her frail state in the next three weeks, said her caregivers at the UNICEF centre.

© UNICEF/2017/Lemoyne

Rahejan cried but her aunt patiently fed her the paste and gave her sips of water in a spoon to help her swallow. Rokeya said they would have to hurry back to her shed because she needs to cook for her family.

She spoke like a grown-up, almost miserable and burdened. “Yes, raising her is a lot of pain. Because we don’t have enough food to eat.”

Rokeya’s family, from Darogapara village in Rakhine’s Buthidaung, now has eight members – her mother, father, an aunt and her baby, the sister-in-law and her newborn. Her brother was killed during the Myanmar army’s atrocities targeting Rohingya villages.
           
“My mother is sick all the time. She gets feverish and has aches all over her body. So she can’t always help me with Rahejan.”

“I used to do some chores back in Myanmar, but I’m always working now … cooking, getting water and looking after Rahejan” said Rokeya.

When asked if she thought of her future, she stayed eerily quiet. Some time passed before she replied: “I feel like studying.”

The Learning Centres and Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) supported by the UNICEF in the refugee camps have been filled to the brim with Rohingya children. But Rokeya’s mother would not allow her to go.

“The CFS is a bit far from our shed. Also, Mother thinks I should just go to the camp’s madrasa (religious school). I go there sometimes.”

Many Rohingya adolescent girls are encouraged by their parents to stay in their sheds. Rokeya said now that she is “older”, she feel “uneasy” under the gaze of “so many strangers”.

Some more children were seen carrying smaller children to the nutrition centre.

“We tell the mothers to come to the sessions themselves,” said Tahmina, one of the health workers. “Some listen but some don’t.”

“They come for the first admission. But for the next sessions, they send their malnourished child with an older child. Because the mothers do chores or stand in line for relief,” she said.

The workers of the nutrition centre handed Rokeya a weeklong supply of Plumpy Nuts for Rahejan Bibi. She took the bag quietly, picked up Rahejan and quickly made her way out.

Looking down on the ground she muttered, “I have to go back fast. I need to cook.”

 

 
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