Today I want to share with you a story I just received from one of our staff members, Heidi (I cannot say her last name for security reasons) who has worked in Arakan State with the Rohingya people there. Read the story! It is beautiful, sad and inspiring.
We were short one translator that afternoon, so I decided to spend some extra time with the waiting crowd. I set up my plastic chair in the deep, fine dust a stone’s throw from the clinic. The children quickly gathered close and became my teachers, as they loved to do. “How do you say ‘bird’ in Rohingya?” I asked, miming the wings with my hands. “Hawa! Hawa!,” they shouted, and made little hand-birds of their own. Then they watched me carefully as I tore a page from my notebook, trimmed it into a perfect square, and folded it this way and that. “Hawa!,” they said delightedly as they watched an origami crane slowly take shape. The little white crane flitted about as I sang to the kids a song my parents used to sing to me when I was a child. They laughed every time I remembered to swap in my new Rohingya vocab word.
“Oh where are you going little hawa? Oh where are you going, little hawa?
I am going to the woods. I am going to the woods. I am going to the woods, sweet maid.”
Several years ago when I visited the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, Japan, I saw hundreds of thousands of colorful, folded paper cranes. They were threaded on strings and hung in glass display boxes near the simple statue of a little girl. In her lifted hands, she held the outline of a large paper crane. That little girl’s name was Sadako. She was 2 years old when the atomic bomb exploded in Hiroshima. She survived the blast but ended up getting leukemia 10 years later from her radiation exposure. According to a certain Japanese legend, anyone who folds 1000 paper cranes will be granted one wish. Sadako spent her time in the hospital folding little cranes, hoping for the chance to wish for her life. She might have made it to 1000, but she didn’t get her wish. When she died, her friends buried 1000 paper cranes with her body. Sadako and her cranes have become a symbol of the cost of nuclear warfare and of the desire for peace.
After six months of violence between the Rakhine and Rohingya people, the situation in Arakan State, Burma is desperate. Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have had to run for their lives are now living behind barricades, cut off from the rest of the world. Their access to toilets, rice, fuel, blankets, shelter, education, and healthcare is negligible. Many are malnourished, sick, and dying. Meanwhile, aid organizations stand by, waiting to help until they have permission from leaders who openly despise the whole ethnic group. The actions of many have demonstrated that they consider the Rohingya somehow less valuable than other human beings, less worthy of belonging to the country, less deserving of rights and less capable of taking on responsibilities. Partners has managed to network with some of the local people on both sides of the barricade in order to send in medical relief. As far as we know, we are the first and only team responding to this need.
I tucked the paper crane into my pocket and moved on to other stories and songs. Soon it was time for our team to pack up for the day. The last few triage patients were being seen, and we were starting to think about how many fried potato fingers to order back at the hotel restaurant. Then one of the doctors asked if I could help her with a patient.
The boy looked about eight years old. His feverish frame was draped limply across his uncle’s arms. He had been sick for a week and had recently suffered a series of seizures. He appeared semi-conscious – able to swallow, but not able to open his eyes. I started squirting sugar water slowly into his mouth with a syringe. Then paracetamol. Then more sugar water. His temperature dropped too far and he began to sweat. Still he was unresponsive. We gave him injections of antibiotic and anti-malaria medicine, hoping his body would respond to something. His condition did gradually change, but for the worse. His hands became fists, and his feet became contorted and tense. We laid him gently on a mat on the ground with his body tilted to one side. The other nurses and doctors gathered around to help. Some held flashlights in the gathering dark or searched our reference books for more treatment ideas. Others stood close by and prayed. Our team coordinator got on the phone and began to attempt the arrangement of an emergency transfer to the local Red Cross clinic. The reception was sketchy, and our contacts weren’t able to offer much hope. Meanwhile, the boy was gradually arching his spine backwards, and his breathing was becoming loud and labored. He was leaning toward eternity.
One of the other nurses and I sat next to the child – she at his feet, I at his head. She monitored his oxygen and heart rate. I adjusted his position and wiped the cold sweat from his face. We sat there for what felt like forever, half in shadow. The only sounds were the boy’s efforts to breathe and the quiet crying of others in the room. As I stroked his head, I hummed softly through my own tears – songs of comfort, lullabies. And then came the tune I had sung only a few hours before.
“Oh where are you going little bird? Oh where are you going little bird…” Even without words the song choked me up, and I fell silent.
Just then, the other nurse leaned forward. Though she hadn’t heard the question, she whispered the answer into the boy’s ear.
“Look for Jesus. Go toward him.”
The little boy’s family asked if they could take him home. Our efforts at transferring him for more sophisticated care had failed, and by that point, there was nothing medicine could have done anyway. His breathing had shifted to an irregular, gasping rhythm. We lifted him gently back into the arms of his uncle and sent the family home in one of our jeeps.
I stood apart from the others while we waited for our vehicle to return. The dust had settled with the dew, and the stars were brilliant above us. I wondered about that child – what his personality had been like, if he had been in a lot of pain, and whether he would still be breathing when they got him home. It would be close. Likely, his death could have been prevented if he had been diagnosed and treated days ago. But this man-made conflict, this shameless injustice, this ignorant racism had robbed him of his chance at survival. He was our little hawa, our Sadako – a child whose memory cries out to us, “Never again. Do not let this happen again.”
I pulled the paper crane out of my pocket and unfurled its folded wings. It was small and fragile. It reminded me of hope. I placed it carefully in the dust by the door, a tribute to the child who had been carried out moments before.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31)