TEKNAF, Bangladesh: Sajeed Hassan is spending his school holidays volunteering in a kitchen that provides hot meals to Rohingya refugees, joining an army of ordinary Bangladeshis pitching in as aid agencies struggle to cope with an overwhelming tide of desperate civilians.
About 370,000 refugees have flooded into Bangladesh in the last two and a half weeks fleeing violence in Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country where the Muslim Rohingya minority has suffered decades of persecution.
Aid agencies have warned of an unfolding humanitarian crisis in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh, an impoverished nation of 160 million which is still reeling from devastating floods.
But ordinary citizens have turned out in droves to help their “Muslim brothers”.
At the makeshift kitchen in his uncle’s front yard near the border town of Teknaf, Hassan works alongside about a dozen volunteers packaging hot meals of rice and lentils, stirring bubbling cauldrons of meat stew over open fires.
“They are Muslims, and they are coming from another country, that’s why we are helping,” Hassan, 12, told AFP. “They have come from far away, and they are suffering.”
The Rohingya have centuries-old ties to the Chittagong region over the border in Bangladesh, and images on social media purportedly showing abuses against the Muslim minority have stoked immense sympathy here.
“Sometimes they come to my restaurant, eat, and then let us know they don’t have any money,” said Abdul Khalek at his simple roadside stall with a tarpaulin roof and mud floor. “But I don’t mind. It is a duty from a Muslim brother to another to help in distress.”
Bangladesh already hosted at least 300,000 Rohingya refugees in squalid camps along its border with Myanmar before this latest influx, offering sanctuary for more than three decades to civilians fleeing violence and persecution in neighbouring Rakhine State.
But this fresh wave is unprecedented in its magnitude, pushing conditions at the camps to the absolute limit.
Charities are warning of an unfolding humanitarian crisis as Bangladesh pushes for a diplomatic solution to close the floodgates.
At the congested market near Kutupalong refugee camp, where children bang on the windows of passing cars pleading for food, Bangladeshis are helping out with whatever meagre resources they have.
Some of these freelance relief efforts are shambolic, with tremendous crushes and children knocked down as donated supplies are tossed from moving trucks.
As the crisis enters its third week, patience is also running thin among some Bangladeshis living near the border, where many earn little.
Prices for food and other staples have soared in local markets, which have become choked with chronic traffic and large numbers of beggars.
Kuilla Mia, a tea seller working a street corner amid a chaotic swirl of refugees, said he had nothing to spare. “I would like to give them a discount, but I cannot because the price of sugar is high,” he told AFP.
Bangladesh – which initially ordered border guards to turn back newcomers before the effort became futile – has been praised for taking on the burden despite its own pressing challenges as one of the region’s poorest countries.
The plight of the Rohingya, who are reviled and denied citizenship in Myanmar, has particularly roused emotion across the Islamic world.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina toured Kutupalong, one of the biggest camps, where she was seen consoling a young Rohingya boy.
“I can’t hold back the tears in eyes as I look at this scene … Why should people suffer such pain?” she said, according to private news portal bdnews24.com.
Bangladeshi authorities have said they will register all new arrivals, setting up booths in the camps to collect fingerprints and family information.
Hasina wants the Rohingya returned to what she has labelled their “ancestral homeland” in Myanmar. “Myanmar has created the problem and it will have to resolve it,” she told parliament on Monday.
Dhaka has pointed to a deal with Yangon in 1992 that saw more than 236,000 Rohingya repatriated as “members of Myanmar society”.
Mohammad Hussain, a lentil vendor, said he was giving away what he could, but Bangladeshis alone could not be expected to care for all the refugees. “If aid doesn’t arrive from abroad, then these people will be in serious danger,” he told AFP.
But for young Hassan, the experience has been moving “I feel great helping them, and I want to do more,” he said.