A close-up of Melua's family portraits from Myanmar. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

Remnants of home: 6 years on, the lasting mementos of Rohingya families

Once, in villages within Rakhine State in western Myanmar, the Rohingya community lived, raising families and pursuing livelihoods. However, that existence was shattered on Aug. 25, 2017, when a wave of targeted violence and persecution forced the Rohingya to flee their homes.

The Rohingya people are persecuted Muslim ethnic minority from Myanmar. Forced to flee their homes, they sought refuge across the border in neighboring Bangladesh, leaving behind everything they knew and cherished. Today, over 925,000 Rohingya reside in the world’s biggest refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar.

This is the story of four Rohingya families and the cherished fragments of their former lives they carried with them. Amid the chaos of displacement, these possessions stand as profound symbols of memories, dreams, and hope for a better future. Offering a glimpse into the lives they once knew, they embody the resilience and spirit of a community determined to rebuild, even as each family navigates unique struggles and challenges.

Salamatullah, 42.

Salamatullah, 42, a Rohingya refugee, holds a basket that contains all the belongings that he brought from Myanmar during his two-day journey to Bangladesh. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

In 2017, two months before the violence intensified, Salamatullah, 42, found himself making a quick decision. With widespread threats of arrests looming, he quickly departed, leaving many of his belongings behind. However, he managed to bring with him some key items: family pictures, a court document, a blanket, a Tiffin carrier for food, and a basket to carry his things.

A close-up of the basket that Salamatullah brought from Myanmar. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

“These items were all I could gather in the limited time. The pictures, especially, provided a source of strength during those two days,” he recalls.

His court document tells a story of its own. “I had to pay a fine to secure my release from prison” Salamatullah mentions, referring to an arbitrary sentence he faced in the past. “It’s a testament I carry, highlighting the challenges we sometimes endure without just cause.”

Salamatullah, 42, holds a prison release document, a tangible reminder from a time he faced an arbitrary sentence in Myanmar. “I had to pay a fine to secure my release,” he recounts. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

While Salamatullah made his journey alone, his wife, Subitara, undertook a separate journey with their three children. They were reunited at the camp after their respective challenging treks.

Salamatullah, 42, alongside his wife, Subitara, 35, and their son, Mohammad Kawsar, 5, portrays a family bond that withstood separation. Initially embarking on individual journeys out of Myanmar, they found unity once more in the camp at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

Now in the camp, Salamatullah has many worries. He often speaks about not knowing if they’ll ever return home. “With each day, I’m getting older, and everything remains so uncertain,” he says. His biggest concern is for his children. “What keeps me up at night is thinking about my children’s future in these conditions. More than anything, I want them to have a chance at a good education and their rightful freedoms.”

Abdulshakour, 43.

Abdulshakour, 43, a father to seven children, once had a life centered around his family and work. Everything changed after the events of 25th August 2017. In this picture, he sits while his son stands beside him, carrying the bags that hold the few belongings they managed to bring from home. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

In Myanmar, 43-year-old Abdulshakour made his living as a fisherman, casting his nets into the river and selling his catch at the local markets. Father to seven children, life for Abdulshakour revolved around his family and his work until the events of 25th August 2017 changed everything.

When conflict erupted around his village, with neighboring areas being targeted, panic and chaos ensued. “Everyone was scrambling to escape,” Abdulshakour recounts. In the chaos, he was separated from his family for a harrowing 25 days. Their reunion came during their journey to Bangladesh, a path they took by boat.

Abdulshakour, 42, holds a house number from his former home in Myanmar, a tangible reminder of what once was. Beside him, his son carefully holds his father’s fishing net, an emblem of their past life and livelihood. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

Given the constraints of the escape, people were advised to carry only one essential item. For Abdulshakour, the choice was obvious – his fishing net. “I believed it would be useful here,” he shares. However, a physical impediment later prevented him from fishing in his new environment.

“I believed it would be useful here in Bangladesh,” remarks Abdulshakour, as his son displays the fishing net he once used. As a fisherman in Myanmar, selling his catch at local markets. When conflict erupted around his village, with neighboring areas being targeted, panic and chaos ensued. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

Life at the refugee camp presents its own set of challenges. “The camp has remained the same size, but its population has swelled since 2022,” he notes. To supplement their meals, families sometimes resort to selling their vegetable rations to diversify their diet. “We can’t always get fish,” Abdulshakour adds, emphasizing the need for varied nutrition. The birth of one of his children in these conditions amplifies the reality of their situation. 

Amidst it all, a house number from his home in Myanmar remains with him, a connection to a life paused. It serves as a tangible link to the memories and the existence he once knew.

A close-up of the house number in Abdulshakour’s hands, a cherished keepsake he holds onto in the hope of returning to his home in Myanmar one day. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

Connecting with his two brothers-in-law back in Myanmar, he’s updated about the ongoing constraints that limit their movements to safer areas. For Abdulshakour, his heart remains tethered to his homeland. “I deeply miss my land and my family,” he says, echoing the sentiment of many, “and hold onto the hope of returning.”

Melua, 65.

Melua, 65, made the tough decision to leave her home in Myanmar due to increasing violence. Looking back on the hurried departure, she says, “In the urgency of it all, I grabbed a few essential documents and our family portraits: my daughter’s birth certificate and a family photo. I even left behind clothes that I had freshly washed.” Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

At 65, Melua found herself amidst upheaval. As tensions escalated, her family made the difficult decision to leave their home, eventually arriving at the camp on Eid Al Adha in 2017. Facing the pressing decision of what to carry with her, Melua recalls, “In the urgency of it all, I grabbed a few essential documents and our family portraits: my daughter’s birth certificate and a family photo. I even left behind clothes that I had freshly washed.”

Melua, 65, holds dear the few belongings she was able to bring with her when she fled her home in Myanmar. Among them are these photographs of her family. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

Melua ‘s choice was rooted in pragmatism. The documents were not only emblematic of her family’s history but could also have potential utility in uncertain times ahead. This was a stark contrast to the relatively peaceful times they had experienced before the outbreak of violence.

She remembers her earlier life in Myanmar with unmistakable clarity: the pillars of her home, the fence, the stretch of land she owned, the chickens, and her favorite spot for meals. Any mention of her homeland brings forth an emotional response from her. “It’s hard to talk about it without shedding tears,” she admits.

A close-up of Melua’s family portraits from Myanmar. The faded and worn photos show Melua surrounded by her sons, daughter, and grandchildren. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF
Melua holds up a Household Registration Card, issued by Myanmar’s Immigration and Population Department. The card meticulously lists all the details of her family members. It’s a common possession among the Rohingya refugees, kept as a means to confirm their nationality.” Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

Yet, her thoughts on returning are contingent upon certain conditions being met. “For us to consider going back,” she explains, “there has to be an assurance of safety, non-discrimination, citizenship rights, and opportunities for the next generation—especially access to education.” In a place of displacement, it’s this hope for a brighter and educated future for her descendants that drives Melua’s spirit forward.

Melwa, 65, a Rohingya refugee, in MSF’s Kutupalong field hospital in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. She fled her home in Myanmar in 2017 and has been living in the camp ever since. She comes to the hospital to collect her medication. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

Habibullah, 52.

Habibullah, 52, sits, holding a bag with his essential documents: identification, official certificates, and driver’s license. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

In Myanmar, Habibullah, 52, worked as a driver, ferrying passengers from one side to another. Father to two daughters and four sons, he recalls a time when life was stable, “until 2017 – a year that upended the equilibrium.

When violence surged, it was ordinary civilians like Habibullah who found themselves caught amidst the turmoil. “Our villages became targets,” he recalls with a heavy heart. “Staying there was no longer safe. We were left with little choice but to leave or risk our lives.” Given only a few days to make a life-altering decision, and with the intensity of the fighting approaching, Habibullah and many of his neighbors sought temporary safety in the mountains.

Habibullah, 52, wears the only jacket he took with him during his journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

“The journey brought us close to the river on the Bangladesh border, nearly 50 miles away,” says Habibullah. “Hidden and trying to stay safe, the haunting sounds of distant gunshots and the terrifying sight of bullets were stark reminders of the dangers around us.” The chaos separated many, but they were later united at the refugee camp.

Despite the grim circumstances, Habibullah’s foresight saw him holding onto his valuable documents and driver’s license. “In these testing times, these are my proofs of identity,” he says. Knowing the potential hurdles in a foreign place, he realized that these documents would be crucial in establishing his roots and ensuring some level of security in unfamiliar surroundings.

Habibullah lays out a collection of documents on the ground — his refugee ID card, identification, official certificates, and driver’s license. These papers stand as the sole testimony to his identity. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

Looking ahead, Habibullah expresses a deep longing for his homeland. “If the situation improves in Myanmar, I will definitely return. Who wishes to leave their country? Who desires to be stateless, without any recognition?” His voice carries the weight of nostalgia, “I miss everything about Myanmar – my family, my yard, my cattle, my home, and the graves of my parents.”

Habibullah holds his driver’s license alongside a family photo, tangible memories of the life he once had in Myanmar and among the select items he carried during his departure. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF
Habibullah, 52, holds up his driver’s license. In Myanmar, he earned a living as a driver, transporting passengers from place to place. “I brought the documents to prove our origins, thinking they might ask for them,” he says. Myanmar, 2023. © Mohammad Hijazi/MSF

As more Rohingya refugees arrived at the camps, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) continued to offer medical humanitarian assistance. MSF has been operating in Bangladesh since 1985 and in Cox’s Bazar since 2009, establishing the Kutupalong field hospital to serve both refugees and the local community. After the 2017 influx of Rohingya refugees fleeing targeted campaigns of violence in Myanmar, MSF ramped up its operations in Bangladesh to address increasing health needs. By 2019, the focus transitioned to long-term health care, catering to chronic illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes.

Salamatullah, Abdulshakour, Habibullah, and Melua are emblematic of countless refugees for whom a few possessions serve as symbols of strength, resilience, and links to their past. Their journey, laden with challenges, marches on. Armed with treasured belongings and memories, they persevere with hope.