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Childhood is traded in for daily manual labor which helps Rohingya families in Bengali refugee camps scrape by.  Photo by Mike Kai

Five, six, pick up sticks. The line from the well-known children’s rhyming sequence has a literal truth in Kutupalong Refugee camp where now over 400,000 Rohingya live after fleeing the Burmese surge in violence in late August.  Children even younger than five or six help their families survive by toiling in the sun to chop and pick up sticks in the wilderness beyond the camp boundaries.

I sat in the shade of a tent on the top of a hill in Zone UU on the edge of camp one day, waiting for hours for a man to come meet me to build a school.  The man never showed up, which wasn’t the first of many broken promises I found in camp, but in the time spent lounging in the dirt and twittling my thumbs on a hilltop, I observed an endless line of people coming back from the wilderness with bundles of sticks on their heads.  Most of them were children and walking barefoot through murky waterways and uneven ground with arms held high to stabilize their load. Go anywhere in Kutupalong in the early afternoon and you will see the constant waves of people flow from their morning labor back to the tarp and bamboo structures they call home.


Trudging through waterways, forest, and hilly camp roads barefoot, hundred of people cross all terrain daily to harvest sticks.  Photo by Mike Kai

I spent a few days asking around and then corroborating the story that I heard about these kids: that they walk 8km round trip to sell the wood for 100 taka at the bazar near the camp entrance.  After I decided to follow them out on a day of labor, I experienced the truth of their story.

Human and sex trafficking is a disgusting reality in refugee camps and are especially rampant in large ones with little central authority and low levels of management.  Desperate women are lured away from camp for 1000 taka ($12) and the promise of a cleaning job only to be sold into rings of sexual and other forms of slavery on the Indian border.  Away from the protection of people, vulnerable children going off on their own are also at a higher risk of abduction.  Hoping I wasn’t at risk myself, I naively thought that at least the presence of a foreign adult might safeguard some kids for the day as I ventured out into the wilderness to hack some saplings.

It took about ten minutes of walking before I fully realized the great expanse of nature these kids and men venture into daily.  The area with a full panorama of speckled hills and winding valleys connected by increasingly dirty waterways was a national park and dense forest before Bangladesh committed it as a zone to become the world’s largest refugee camp.  As the recently made footpath split and curved around each small hill, new handfuls of the hundreds of children, men, and a few women scattered around the landscape became visible.  With no clue where to go, the best bet was to just follow where most people were coming from with big loads of sticks on their heads and shoulders.  A left turn at the first fork, then a right. Right, left, right, left, left.

No doubt if I was there alone, it would have taken me a considerable amount of time to find my way back.  But, at the urging of level-headed loved ones back home, I had convinced another random American volunteer and amateur photographer to come along with me. Carrying a machete I bought for 200 taka ($2.45) not sure if it was going to be used to chop sticks with kids or fend off a kidnapping, I definitely found comfort in being with another foreigner.

Carrying our sandals as we waded through cloudy streams of questionable cleanliness, we twisted ankles in mud and stepped on sticks for five hours in total as the sun burned our pasty skin.  My soft feet felt every pebble and stump that jabbed into my unconditioned soles.  It took maybe an hour for me to puncture my right arch on one of thousands of hacked stumps of a sapling jutting up on what was now a trail.

The wise voice in my head told me to not expose my blood to this water or a nasty infection was certainly in my future.  The force of curiosity inside me, however, dictated I move forward through unavoidable waterways, especially after I saw one man carrying another through a water-passage on his pack.  The piggybacked man was bleeding from the ankle and had an improvised t-shirt bandage which at least soaked up his blood, but did nothing to stop his limp. When he got on land, he picked up a waiting bundle of sticks and started hobbling back to camp with them.  Survival accepts no excuses.


Blood trickles down the leg of a man being carried across one of dozens of waterways.  A few steps after this shot, he would take hold on dry land and carry a waiting bundle of sticks back off in the direction of camp.  Photo by Mike Kai

The collection process was pretty straightforward.  Everyone had machetes.  Four year old girls and 70 year old men all wielded the same pieces of cheap iron.  Rohingya families are large and kids far outnumber adults in the camp, with the same being true out in the wilderness extension that would soon be part of camp. Kids know the strength in numbers and so they too group up with other kids, perhaps brothers and sisters and take to hillsides of dense brush to hack away leaves and come out with bundles that exceed their body-size.

The question as to where men still find thick branches, logs and stumps is one that can’t be answered, but what I do know is that they go far.  I am a conditioned athlete who trekked out wearing sunscreen, a head cover, and a backpack full of water and snacks.  I didn’t even do any chopping and after two and half hours of walking past elephant poop in the direction of where all the people were carrying back larger pieces of wood, all I found were macheted stumps of what used to be.

Hoards of fast moving refugees zipped by me, bouncing under the weight of sticks carried on their head with a piece of clothing or bundle of leaves used to absorb the shock. Some stronger men balanced a more sizeable haul on two sides of a whittled bamboo yoke or in the ultimate showing of manliness, just tucked their head down and threw it across their shoulders.


A line of people bouncing under bamboo poles carry bags of miscellaneous objects across a small waterway in Kutupalong Refugee Camp.  Photo by Mike Kai

No one goes out with a day pack.  There is no food or water carried on the trip that takes at least eight hours (to walk and chop) and even in Bengali winter, the burning sun is an oppressive force.  How this persists in the heat of the summer or in the rain of monsoon especially as this surefooted group has to trek further and further for the same haul, I really have no idea.  With a camp growing to 800,000 people, it will not be long until their eight hour sole source of livelihood turns into ten hours and then not long until the sticks are all gone.

I kept thinking about what I was doing when I was five or six.  Learning to read with my mother, the teacher.  Playing with blocks with my father, the carpenter.  Discovering the joy of swimming in a backyard pool.  Playing soccer in the side yard with the family, energetic cocker-spaniel included.  I didn’t have the motor skills to even use a butter knife yet, let alone a machete.  My parents still tease me because as a kid, I wouldn’t get out of the pool since I didn’t like the feeling of grass on my wet feet.  I wouldn’t have lasted here as a kid.  I couldn’t last here now as an adult.  I have never toiled out of necessity as much in my entire life as a six year old does here in a singe day.

So what becomes of these sticks?  Some no doubt get sold off in market for firewood.  Others sit on the tarped roofs of shelters until they can dry out enough to be used for fuel to cook a half cup of plain rice, so a child will have the energy to go out and collect more sticks the next day.


A brother and sister (assumed) team rest up in the midday heat before finishing the long haul back to camp. Photo by Mike Kai

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One of many long lines of patients wrap along the tin sheet walls of doctors’ offices in a field clinic near Balukhali Refugee Camp. Photo by Mike Kai

The army officer lifted his gun he had been using as a leaning crutch and walked off down the road after he told the girl just diagnosed with diphtheria she wasn’t allowed to go to the hospital.  The Prime Minister of Turkey was visiting and the Bangladeshi military had installed new checkpoints, restricted traffic, and called out their soldiers in full force to line the streets all the way to Cox’s Bazar, an hours drive away.  Coughing with low energy, the child and family took the news as if they had heard this line of logic before; they didn’t bat an eyelash as the volunteers around them erupted in protest.  Despite the fact that Turkey has a population of around 3.5 million registered refugees themselves, they are donating funds in mass for Rohingya, compelled like Indonesia by the plight of fellow Muslims.

Around 200 patients a day filter through this makeshift medical center on the edge of a massive refugee camp.  Staffed by doctors from an international placement organization called MedGlobal and run by HOPE, a Bangladeshi hospital, the tin roofed structure does indeed provide hope in recovering from some of the worst conditions imaginable.  Two months ago, people were coming in with fresh gunshot wounds.  Respiratory illness and rape are common reasons for visits as well.  Most wait from 3-5 hours to see one of a handful of doctors and nurses paired up with volunteer interpreters after they are registered by the dozen other volunteers who handle the less technical though still important clerical work and triage.  Everyone gets a prescreen for diphtheria as the camps are on official outbreak status with hundreds of suspected cases and 27 deaths as of December 26.

Today, the number of patients were fewer because the military would not let people up the road to seek medical attention and they also ordered the medical center shut down early, even though the Turkish Prime Minister came and left in the early afternoon.  Because of lower numbers, it was easier to sneak away to do a check-up on a woman the medical team was not sure would still be alive.  She was suffering from heart failure and after an assessment the day before, the team concluded she had little time to live.  With nothing to do, but ease her suffering in the final hours, they literally carried her over a broken bamboo bridge and up a hill to her sweltering hot (it’s currently winter in Bangladesh) tarp and bamboo constructed shelter.

The critical problem is that there could have been something done besides just easing her suffering.  In a country with decent medical care, her nurse told me her heart failure was treatable in many ways.  They could drain the fluid that had built up making her heart weak and unable to pump blood properly.  They could repair her lungs, also filled with fluid.  They could get her a heart transplant.  But here, they could not do surgery. Here, the Rohingya are stuck in a restricted area, not even allowed to travel to nearby Coxs Bazar where there is a hospital I casually walked into at the end of the day to get a diphtheria vaccine with no questions asked or money exchanged.

Instead, the scene this 50 year old woman faced as her ultimate reality was to be clinging on to life and literally to the bamboo beam keeping her tent and her torso upright.  Unable to speak or to even open her eyes, one of her seven daughters spoke for her while holding her tightly and another daughter along with her only son waved hand fans to create circulation in the tent so the medical team would be more comfortable.  The men of her family were presumably killed and a heart condition quite often linked to extreme stress that the western world normally sees around mid 60’s and 70’s according to her nurse, had become terminal…but only terminal because of who she is and where she is.  In the true essence of a mother’s love, her chief concern was for her daughters and wishing for them to get married.

It’s sometimes hard to find hope here.  Surrounded by children literally rolling tires with sticks past the medical clinic where people cough, cry, or internalize their pain; it’s impossible to shrug the reality that pain is all around.  As I was thinking back to my childhood of playing with all the toys a kid could want while watching a child pull a plastic bottle he tied a string to as a play-thing right in front of me, my daze was shook by the thunderous crash of a tuk-tuk into a goat on the road behind the medical center.  Three goats scurried off, but a crowd a men gathered and within a minute had chased down the goat that got hit while another man rushed from a nearby shelter with a curved machete and slit the goat’s throat clean to the neck-bone.  “Life just isn’t fair,” I thought to myself as I stood over the goat and watched it twitch its final movements while bleeding out on the soft sand beneath.

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Eighteen year old Hozaifa closed out Clash of Clans and put his phone away to greet a group of three volunteers on a scheduled check-in. “As-salamu alaykum,” he said in traditional greeting, as he extended his hand to shake while his eyes beamed above a smile of naturally straight teeth.  Despite the discomfort it caused, he leaned up in bed as far as he could manage to show us our presence was welcomed.

Hozaifa is paralyzed from the waist down and as the fresh scarring along his spine indicated, he was still in pain from his third back surgery completed just two weeks prior.  As he told the story of his journey from Syria, his four younger siblings filtered in and out of his room as Mom and Dad sat on the floor rug and filled in the gaps.

In 2011 as violence erupted, Hozaifa’s father fled their home in Idlib, Syria just north of where a chemical attack killed dozens of civilians this past April, to establish a new safe home for his family.  In such a situation, it is typical for the male of the household to move ahead first to sort out all the unknowns.

In 2013, Mom and the four younger siblings moved to reunite with Dad in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon.  Safety was rapidly deteriorating with bombings on the rise which led to items of necessity rapidly inflating in price and life in general becoming much harder.

Hozaifa stayed behind in Syria to continue his education.  As he told this part of the story, his words were saturated with passion over his favorite subjects of Arabic Literature, English and Civics.  He paused from the painful narrative to discuss his love of law, former desire to be a doctor, and tangential joys in the fields of math and physics.  With the emphasis placed on learning and his new desire to be an agricultural architect, it’s no surprise Hozaifa would opt to stay in school and continue learning rather than to run from the only path he thought led to a bright future.

One day in 2016, his hopes and dreams were decimated as he was riding home from school on the back of a motorbike with his cousin and a bomb dropped from a plane blew them off the ground.  He’s not sure if it was the explosion shockwave, shrapnel, or the building that fell on him, but some force of those actions hammered his spinal cord to a functioning halt.

At this point in his story telling, a flat affect hit Hozaifa as he said now there was no more studying.  He had two surgeries in Syria before he could reunite with his family and has since been mostly resigned to bed.  He can’t go to school because he can’t sit up yet or find transportation to get him there and private tutors are cost prohibitive.

His mother desperately wants to provide her son with the good education he thirsts for and offer him a beneficial activity to focus on besides the cell phone that she says now consumes him, but they just don’t have the money.  The barren concrete structure they live in more closely resembles a far from incomplete construction that has been squatted in.  The only decorations of Hozaifa’s room are the smears of excess mortar that oozed over every cinderblock of its construction.  A single thin wire snakes up the wall and from where it is punched in the ceiling, hangs a single light.  There is no insulation or glass in the window frames which welcome in the biting cold of snowy mountain winters. The rotting wood framed threshold is indicative of the water that pours through the roof when it rains.

This half-finished shell of a structure costs the family $150/month which might not be pricey by western standards, but it is half of the father’s monthly salary earned as a gas station attendant, making it an entirely unaffordable rent once the cost of life’s other necessities are factored in.  Hozaifa needs diapers, antiseptics, and nutritional supplements to help combat the weight he is losing.

While the family likes Lebanon, they don’t feel safe or secure here.  They are guests in a country where they are not allowed to work and transient populations are constantly shifting in tents and settlements due to a number of factors including absentee landlords changing rental policies with the wind.  This they will endure for the short term, but their sights remain set on the UK and Norway as the locations Hozaifa originally wanted to go to school.

For now, love is what has been getting the family through tough times.  In addition to the strength derived from the tight knit family bonds, others have been willing to help out where they can.  When the family was unable to pay for the third surgery, a Swedish journalist who had previously heard Hozaifa’s story stepped in to foot the bill.  Hozaifa’s mother, as she poured hot chai for her guests, jubilantly gave thanks for this woman who was even there in the waiting room during surgery hugging, squeezing and comforting her.  She left additional money for some medications and later sent a laptop which is helping Hozaifa learn English among other things.


If you are so compelled, a donation to the GoFundMe posted on the right hand of this tab could help out immensely.  I will be going to visit with Hozaifa to teach English as soon as I can get that off the ground, but here is a summary of what I am gathering together to which you can contribute.  If you have other ideas after reading about Hozaifa and his family please message me and let me know what you would like your donation to go towards.

$150- One month’s rent to ease the family’s financial insecurity
$25- Arabic Lit books so Hozaifa has a constructive activity he enjoys to pursue daily
$10- Diapers and supplies which are essential medical costs

There are many other projects that I will soon post which are seeking funding so if Hozaifa’s story does not speak to you, there are still countless opportunities to change people’s lives with very small donations.  Keep following along.

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I can’t entirely recall how I came to find the organization, Salam LADC that I am working with this summer.  It seems that many friends from Greece were connected with volunteer networks in Lebanon and I just stumbled across these guys on Facebook.  After a fourteen hour layover in Moscow, where I was stuck in the airport because Russia makes it extremely difficult to enter their country, I boarded a plane to Beirut.  I was nervous to be landing in the Middle East well past midnight with no idea how to get to my hotel, but now I’m really just embarrassed that I was so struck by preconceived notions and full of fear entirely surrounding the location.

Beirut is not at all what I thought it was going to be.  It was not nearly as hot as the images conjured up in my head by thinking of the “Middle East.” Nor was there much Arabic at all; English billboards and signage surrounded me and mostly everyone spoke English as well!  When I met up with my fabulous tour guide Mohamad who started Beirut Free Walking Tour and set up a personal tour for me on a Sunday morning out of his own kindness, he told me that’s because formal schooling in Lebanon is all done in English.  Arabic is spoken at home and many people also know French (although my cab driver said it was just the rich people) due to the history of French colonization here.

Despite the concrete blockhouses stacked with sandbags and barbed wire that were occupied by several soldiers fidgeting with assault rifles, I never felt unsafe walking the barricade covered empty streets of Beirut.  Seriously, there were no people around.  In museums, in parks, at ruins, less than double digit humans were in my sight path at any given time.  Mohamad tells me this happened in a gorgeous central square area because the businesses were starved out two years ago once the government who has its offices in the same square closed it.  Close by, people were protesting garbage piles ups and the government’s inability to clear the mountains of trash from the road and officials got nervous they would overtake the government, so they effectively set up a blockade that led to economic stagnation in the area of Beirut with the richest architecture and archaeology.  Now the businesses cannot survive or are fearful the government will do the same thing in the future, and locals have abandoned the area.  I’ve never been in a city with less foot traffic than Beirut.

While my lack of research led to me expect more primitive business structure, I walked through multi-color apartment complexes in an artsy district to a very bourgeoisie souk filled with the likes of Rolex, Cartier, a Cineplex that charged more than a week of meals cost, and upscale fashion boutiques.  I even stumbled upon a farmers market on the edge of a fancy souk, in the shadow of a war-remnant building.  All I kept thinking my first day in Lebanon was the Aldous Huxley quote, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  To travel is to discover that I am wrong about other countries.

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I saw quite easily why some have tried to label Beirut as the Paris of the Middle East, but all the sparkly window fronts still don’t mask the marks of the 1975 Civil War.  Bomb and bullet holes are hard to ignore, especially on towering concrete structures that still stand because tearing them down is cost prohibitive.  The future may involve more pool lounging and yacht clubs but the storied past is not to be ignored.

The one thing that I wasn’t wrong about was how much of a pain in the ass it would be to get to the volunteer house from Beirut which I was to be stationed at for the summer.  I knew from last year’s work that in a small NGO with ever changing situations on the ground, focus sometimes doesn’t channel into prospective volunteer communication.  About 365 days ago, I wandered the streets of Mytilene trying to find the volunteer house only to find no answer at the door when I did turn into Magellan and find it.  Finally the volunteer coordinator who confirmed when I should arrive, woke up with enough knocking, calling, and yelling her name up to the balconies.  The whole process was frustrating and I was determined not to repeat it this year.

I sent several emails ahead of my arrival asking for specific details of how to get to this house, to no avail.  I was told to go to the Cola Intersection in Beirut, ask around to find a bus going to Chtoura, and when it let me off halfway to Damascus, to wait on the street corner where I could call someone from the volunteer house to come pick me up.  Only, no number was given and that plan sounded terrifying.  Despite several emails and facebook posts communicating that I needed someone’s contact info, all I was told was that closer to the date, they would let me know who was around.  It quickly reached two hours before I was going to leave to find this bus to the valley and my Type A personality was on fire from no one responding with a pick-up number I requested in a message earlier that morning… or two days prior…or two weeks prior to that.

Amazingly, it all just somehow worked out.  I got a text at the right moment and stumbled upon two new volunteers on the street who I heard speaking in French and say “Cola” which led me to approach and question them if they were going to the same place as me (turns out in all of Beirut, we had stayed at the same hostel the night prior).  They had not yet heard anything from the organization either, but were put at ease when I told them I had just gotten a text. We grabbed lunch together real quick at one of the many hundreds of restaurants that speckle the streets of Beirut, and then hopped a taxi to catch a bus.

After about forty minutes and at the top of the mountains before we started descending into the Beqaa Valley, a marvelous glow could be seen on the giant rock faces that framed this gigantic, lush, agricultural capital.  Entering the city of Chtoura where I would take up residence for the next month, we passed by a Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, and a couple pizza restaurants…not quite what I was expecting for refugee work, but this is a pretty westernized country after all.

A pickup truck was quick to nab us at the end of the line, and bring us to the volunteer house where we were given a tour that consisted of “so this is the house.”  Any disappointment by the infiltration of western capitalism in an experience I thought would require more roughing it, vanished when I took my first steps into the volunteer house.  The kitchen whose sink was overflowing with dirty dishes even Billy Mays couldn’t clean gave way to the living room where several baby-faced volunteers silently signaled I was a house elder.  Flies were buzzing around relaxed student’s heads, but everyone had a smile on their face. These were people with a sense of purpose.  They may be messier, play louder music, and smoke more than I care to tolerate, but we’re all here for the same cause, and for this I feel great.  I grabbed the only bed left which was a pad on top of two stacked pallets in a partitioned room with no windows.  Dangling an arm off the “bed” in either direction put me in touch with other sleeping volunteers, not that it would matter for that first night as I was destined to stay up all night with diarrhea!

I set up my bed, which I found out later when all my things were moved was actually taken by someone else, and I waited in line for the sole shower that twenty-two people share, as day turned to night and flies changed to mosquitoes.  It wasn’t lost on me that the conditions I found myself in were still leaps and bounds above what many people in refugee settlements right down the street traded in everything for.  I am humbled and excited to be here and can’t wait to figure out all the good that I can help spread this summer.  But first, some Pepto.

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Children drowning, smugglers abandoning those who had abandoned everything, traversing continents to seek refuge; all of these were the life-shattering realities I heard on a daily basis while volunteering in Kara Tepe Refugee Camp last summer on the island of Lesvos, Greece.  The emotional weight of working with displaced persons is heavy, but certainly not even close to the same level of being a displaced person.  Close friends can tell you I was a little bit jarred and distant when I returned.  As my brain struggled to process all the horror stories I heard and saw the entire summer to understand how such cruelty and injustice could exist in this world, I knew the struggle would be eternal.  I wanted to continue helping people who were fleeing situations I previously couldn’t imagine, but I wanted to see a different perspective to more fully understand the complete situation.

My first attempt to work with refugees was a tiresome Google search years ago to go to Jordan or Lebanon.  Both were countries bordering Syria and taking in large numbers of Syrian refugees, but beyond that I didn’t know too much.  I found a UNHCR posting for a manual laborer to dig irrigation trenches, and the idea of turning my brain off after a stressful school year of teaching and just digging a hole in the heat for a good cause sounded appealing.  Unfortunately, the minimum 6 month requirement did not fit in well with my plan to keep my teaching job and that plan fizzled.

As anti-refugee sentiments flared up across Europe and especially with the election of Donald Trump in the US, I began to see hate displayed more openly and advocacy to close borders gain more steam.  Last year, I wrote about the accepting nature of Greeks to extend their resources to their neighbors in need and I had to wonder what the scale of the rest of the world was doing.  My country with so many resources and potential for good had done embarrassingly little, but come to find out, little ol’ Lebanon had done a ton! According to the UNHCR, 1 in 5 people in Lebanon is a registered refugee, but the actual number is likely closer to 1 in 4.  In fact, the number of registered refugees from Syria is greater than the entire population of Lebanon.

Syrian Refugees in LebanonImagine that in America; if in our giant landscape, 90 million people were refugees.  It seems unfathomable, but that’s what Lebanon has effectively done.  Even under Obama, the plan was to let in 10,000 refugees a year, and progress on that target fell way behind schedule from the day the plan was agreed upon.  To take on such a large number of new inhabitants has caused tension and problems for sure, but it has also save lives and offered countless opportunities to families with nowhere else to turn.

I used to have a Doctors Without Borders world map behind the desk in my old classroom that had their slogan, “We go to where conditions are the worst, because that’s where we’re needed most.”  I saw this video detailing the trash problems in refugee settlements in the Beqaa Valley and I looked at the numbers on the UNCHR data chart.

Greece was the sexy focus of the refugee crisis in Europe.  They got the mainstream news coverage, the celebrity visits, the EU funding, but Lebanon doesn’t have any of those things and they have let in more refugees than all of Europe combined.  The Beqaa Valley was a former Hezbollah HQ and currently maintains status as a drug growing region, but the dangers associated with either are minimal now.  Sitting in an office area with a view of the mountains 23km away that form the border with Syria, I know this experience will open my eyes to the problems of the word in a different way and hopefully help me be a part of better solutions.

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