An Advent of dignity: the story of Zahoor Alam

By Minaz Kerawala, Communications and Public Relations Advisor

In November 2022, Caritas Bangladesh invited Development and Peace and other Caritas Internationalis members to an international partners’ meeting to help review its emergency response program for Rohingya refugees. Delegates visited the camps in Cox’s Bazar that house the world’s single largest refugee population. This year’s Advent stories were gathered in and around those refugee camps.

Caritas Bangladesh built a new disability-adapted shelter for Zahoor Alam after he lost his land and livelihood in the wake of the Rohingya crisis.

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:17-18

“I had a small shop and my own little plot of land,” 35-year-old Zahoor Alam recounted. It was not much, but the family got by on the knickknacks that Alam sold and the little he could cultivate.

All that changed drastically in 2017, when the first big groups of Rohingya refugees from Burma (Myanmar) streamed into Alam’s village in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh. It was happening in dozens of villages across the Ukhia subdistrict.

A generous welcome

“We did not have a lot, but we helped them as best we could,” Alam said, recalling his community’s response to the arriving refugees. “We gave them rice if they needed rice. We gave them shelter if they needed shelter.”

That welcoming attitude was reflected in national policy. Speaking at the United Nations about the Rohingya, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that her country’s “choice was to save their lives or to close the border and let them face ethnic cleansing. We chose to save their lives for the sake of humanity.”

The decision was widely lauded, including by Pope Francis, who said, “[The] spirit of generosity and solidarity which is a distinguishing mark of Bangladeshi society has been seen most vividly in its humanitarian outreach to a massive influx of refugees….”

Now, nearly a million Rohingya refugees, over half of them minors, live in Bangladesh.

Early on, Caritas Bangladesh realized that the host community’s needs were no less important than those of the refugees.

Alam said, “You changed the life of a homeless, disabled man. You gave me back my dignity!”

A massive crisis

Long persecuted like many other minorities, the Rohingya, a Muslim people in Burma’s northern Rakhine State, had trickled into Bangladesh in several small spates over decades. The 2017 influx, however, was of an altogether different scale.

In August 2017, violence erupted between a rebel Rohingya militia and the Burmese army. By that October, more than 600,000 Rohingya had fled the brutal persecution that Canada recognized as constituting genocide. Burma is now being sued in and investigated by international courts.

Now, nearly a million Rohingya refugees, over half of them minors, live in Bangladesh.

An overlooked people

It was the sheer numbers that changed the game. Alam and his neighbours wanted to remain helpful, but they were just too poor themselves.

The Bangladeshi government moved in quickly to control the situation. International humanitarian agencies followed close on the government’s heels, and formal refugee camps began being set up.

Caritas Bangladesh was one of the earliest respondents. With grants from Global Affairs Canada and generous contributions from ordinary Canadians, Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada has consistently supported its emergency response program. The program provides shelter; water, sanitation and hygiene; protection; education; disaster risk reduction; and livelihood services to thousands of Rohingya refugees.

“But no one was helping us,” Alam said glumly. It was something many in the impoverished host community began noticing. “We really felt very bad.”

A sharp downturn

Life had never been easy for Alam. Providing for his wife and two daughters aged four and five was a struggle. “I am a disabled person. I need a crutch to get around,” he explained, adding, “Then, my shop and my land were gone.”

The shop was lost when the government widened the road it abutted to improve access to Camp 19, for which Alam’s land had been expropriated earlier. “I lost everything, even my dignity,” Alam lamented.

“There are hundreds of poor people like Zahoor Alam in this host community,” Caritas Bangladesh program officer Mohammed Shariful Islam said. “This crisis hit them hard and strained their patience.”

An effective response

Early on, Caritas Bangladesh realized that the host community’s needs were no less important than those of the refugees. With the support of Development and Peace, they began providing the most vulnerable host-community families with cash-for-work opportunities; agriculture and home gardening training; and training and support for small business development.

These initiatives help augment household food production, nutrition and incomes. They also reverse the resentment that some in the host community had begun to feel against the refugees.

A welcome transformation

Because of his disability, Alam was prioritized for receiving support. “We realized that his most urgent need was for housing,” Islam said, “So we built a shelter for him that is adapted to his mobility needs.”

Gradually, Alam’s life began turning around. Participation in cash-for-work schemes and the cultivation of subsistence crops like corn and vegetables on a small plot adjacent to his new shelter also allowed him to earn a small income. “I can now send my daughter to school,” he said contentedly.

Alam loves his new home, too. “It is very comfortable and convenient,” he reported. He especially appreciates being able to move around in his house and yard unaided. He gushed, “It feels khoob bhalo (very good)!”

“Many, many thanks to Caritas Bangladesh and to your Canadian donors,” Alam said, “You changed the life of a homeless, disabled man. You gave me back my dignity!”

In dozens of countries and hundreds of communities across the Global South, the lives of thousands of people like Zahoor Alam are transformed through the generosity of our supporters and the labour and love of our partners.

In this season of giving, please consider making a donation so that our partners can keep restoring dignity.

Also read:

SEARCH for :


Don’t miss anything about the work of our international partners or our awareness and mobilization campaigns.

Sign up now for our newsletter.