Indy doctor describes trip to devastated, desperate Rohingya refugee camp while alleged genocide case moves forward

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - Physicians and advocates in Indiana are stepping in to help the devastated Rohingya people who are taking refuge at a mega camp in Bangladesh in southeast Asia.

Dr. Adam Paarlberg, the associate director at the Franciscan Health Family Medicine Residency, recently returned after a two-week trip to the OBAT Helpers Inc. health care clinic in one of the camps.

"You sort of feel the despair, the hopelessness, the overall just again, the sheer enormity, anguish of the camp was just surreal," Paarlberg described.

He went over with five other physicians. He said they provided "compassionate" assistance to the refugees by offering help with acute care to chronic care, treating upper respiratory infections to operating on small tumors.

"It's a very desperate situation," Paarlberg said.

Paarlberg said some 700,000 Rohingya people fled Myanmar overnight in August 2017. There was a brutal military crackdown and the Myanmar government decided the Rohingya people needed to leave.

Right now, there's a legal battle going on in the world court charging Myanmar with genocide against the Rohingya. Myanmar leadership said the case is misleading and if violence against the Rohingya did happen, it would be handled in their military justice system. Others serving the refugees said the outcomes of this legal issue are devastating.

"What they described, I mean the women got raped and killed, and you know, Myanmar army came to the village, they put fire on their houses, shooting at them and they slaughtered them," Masum Mahbub said.

Mahbub is the director of OBAT Helpers Inc. which is headquartered in Indianapolis. They help provide services to the refugees in Bangladesh by giving them access to things like health care and education.

"We have learning centers, we have 23 learning centers right now [in Bangladesh]," Mahbub said.

Mahbub said a couple of the centers even give the children access to technology. He said their centers are serving over 2,000 children.

"We are teaching them Burmese language, English and math skills," Mahbub said.

Mahbub and Paarlberg also commented on the educational opportunities they noticed within the camps, especially for girls. Mahbub described a program teaching adolescent girls to sew.

"They're sewing womens dresses and they're selling in the market," Mahbub said.

Though there are glimpses of hope, Mahbub and Paarlberg describe desperate and painful situations.

"They were so traumatized, they were not able to talk when we asked because most of them, they lost their family," Mahbub said.

Paarlberg said he did not realize the "sheer anguish" of the people until he arrived.

"Essentially genocide, ya know, ethnic cleansing," Paarlberg said.

Aaron Welcher, Program and Communications Coordinator for the Jewish Community Relations Council, is engaged in this refugee crisis.

"This is a reminder to us of the genocide we faced during the Holocaust," Welcher said.

The JCRC supports the legislation that is moving through the federal government now. The Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2019 is in the US Senate now as senate bill 1186. Senator Todd Young is a co-sponsor of this bill.

It would authorize aid to address this "humanitarian crisis." If signed into law, it would also place sanctions and restrictions on Myanmar.

HR 3190 passed earlier this spring.

"All of Indiana's congressional delegation voted for," Welcher said.

Welcher said the passage of the senate act would send a message to the Myanmar government.

"When it comes to the international community, the louder we are, the stronger we stand up, the more we're seeing different partners across the globe equally stand up," Welcher said.

If you would like to get involved with the work OBAT is doing here or abroad, please visit obathelpers.org to learn more.

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