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After a Deadly Fire, a Somber Ramadan for Rohingya Children

March 30, 2021

UNICEF is on the ground assisting Rohingya families devastated by a blaze that swept through four refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Less than four years ago, ethnic Muslim Rohingya fled a military-led massacre in Myanmar. For many, this is the second time they have lost everything.

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The embers were still burning in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh as UNICEF teams rushed to help children and families after a devastating fire swept through four Rohingya refugee camps on March 22, 2021.

UNICEF staff and community volunteers immediately began working to reunite separated children with their families and to support relocation efforts for families whose shelters had been destroyed. The fire is believed to have killed at least 11 people, including 3 children. An estimated 50,000 people — half of them children — were left homeless by the blaze. 

The blaze left an estimated 50,000 people — half of them children — homeless

On March 22, 2021, a massive fire raged through four Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, ravaging homes and community resources like this clinic supported by UNICEF and Partners in Health and Development. © UNICEF/UN0432275/PHD

"The fire yesterday destroyed almost everything," UNICEF Cox's Bazar Communication Officer Nazzina Mohsin said on March 23. "Everything will have to start from scratch now."

UNICEF and partners are treating burn victims and protecting traumatized children

UNICEF and partners have delivered emergency water, sanitation and hygiene supplies and water services to the camps. Mobile medical teams are providing first aid support to people who suffered burns, cuts and other injuries.

A brutal ethnic cleansing campaign drove Rohingya refugees out of Myanmar and into southern Bangladesh in 2017

On November 25, 2017, children look out at shelters in the Balukhali makeshift settlement — one of the camps ravaged the fire on March 22, 2021 — in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. © UNICEF/UN0148170/Brown

In August 2017, 725,000 ethnic Muslim Rohingya refugees fled a military-led campaign of violence in Myanmar, sometimes with little more than the clothes on their backs, and crossed the border into southern Bangladesh. There, they built one of the world's largest refugee settlements, a sea of closely packed — and highly flammable — bamboo and tarp shelters.

In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees were free to observe Ramadan without sanctions for the first time

A family breaks sunset fast during Ramadan in Modurchara Camp 5, part of the sprawling Rohingya refugee settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on June 4, 2018. © UNICEF/UN0219105/Modola

Observing Ramadan without fear of reprisal is a relatively new concept for the Rohingya community. Before they were forced out of Myanmar's Rakhine State, where they had lived for centuries, they prayed in secret or risked arrest. Mosques sprang up in the crowded encampments of Cox's Bazar and refugee families felt free to fast, pray and study the Quran. 

"It feels good to do that," Jafor Alam told a reporter during his first Ramadan in Bangladesh in 2018. "Here we can pray."  

"Here we can pray," said one Rohingya refugee

In Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh in 2017, 10-year-old Rohingya refugee Mohammed clutched two copies of the Holy Quran, the only belongings he had left after he fled mass ethnic violence in Myanmar. © UNICEF/UN0147324/Brown

"In Myanmar, we were harassed a lot. Mosques were shut down. We weren't allowed to recite the Quran or pray," said Rashed, a Rohingya boy living in Kutupalong Refugee Camp. "To be a good Muslim, you have to learn the Quran and all our Islamic rules like giving alms to the poor so that everyone's equal, all the things Islam tells us to do so that we go to heaven."

Homes, learning centers, health clinics and water and sanitation facilities will need to be rebuilt

Some children visit their burned learning center to see if any reading materials could be salvaged after a fire destroyed a large part of Balukhali Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar on March 22, 2021. © UNICEF/UN0433889

But this Ramadan will be unlike any other for the families struggling to survive amidst the wreckage of the fire. More than 140 learning centers were destroyed; water and sanitation facilities sustained significant damage and will need to be repaired. Meanwhile, COVID-19 remains a constant threat in the crowded camps, where social distancing and access to soap and water for handwashing remain hard to come by.

Rohingya children need help more than ever

On March 24,2021, 18-year-old Mohammad Faisal comforts a younger Rohingya refugee whose family went to find help after their house was destroyed in a fire that devastated the Balukhali area of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. © UNICEF/UN0432247/Lateef

“Amidst this latest round of displacement, UNICEF urges the international community to step up its funding support for their immediate as well as longer-term needs," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said. “UNICEF also renews its call on all relevant parties and governments to ensure a long-term solution where Rohingya children and their families should be able to live as full members of society in peace and harmony with their neighbors back at home in Myanmar.”

In this holy month of Ramadan, we are reminded of our responsibility and power to do good. Please donate today to help UNICEF keep vulnerable children safe and healthy.

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Top photo: On March 23, 2021, Sharifa holds her infant nephew in her arms as they stand in front of shelters destroyed by a massive fire in the Balukhali area of the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Sharifa is pregnant with her first child and worried about her immediate future. © UNICEF/UN0431933/Mohsi