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The Healer: In Rohingya camps, a local response reaches untreated refugees

Rajib Mohajan/TNH

There are nearly 100 NGOs, UN agencies, or government bodies working on the massive refugee response in Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps. But only one – a tiny local organisation – is focused on the neglected field of palliative care.

The Dhaka-based Fasiuddin Khan Research Foundation treats people with life-threatening or severe chronic illnesses in their homes – finding hard-to-reach patients who can’t access hospitals or clinics in the sprawling camps.

Proponents say it’s the first palliative care programme in any humanitarian response. The group’s founder, Farzana Khan, says the needs of the dying – or of people with chronic illnesses – are frequently overshadowed in humanitarian emergencies, where responders rush to save lives and concentrate on traumatic injuries like gunshot wounds.

“In a humanitarian context, the patients who need palliative care [are] deprioritised,” says Khan, a doctor and palliative care specialist.

The New Humanitarian’s video series, “Faces on the front lines of local aid”, explores how local aid groups respond to crises around the world. The latest video, “The Healer”, profiles Khan and draws attention to the palliative care needs in the Rohingya camps, which are now home to more than 900,000 refugees.

“The international agencies play the main role. But the local small organisations are left behind.”

Like those working for many local groups, Khan is fighting to keep her own operations afloat. Unable to secure long-term funding, she’s had to cut back her specialised programme. Today, the bulk of the palliative care work is done by a team of three: an assistant and a consultant who roam the camps, advised by Khan herself from her Dhaka base.

The funding struggles mirror many of the problems faced by local organisations in the global aid system. The humanitarian sector has promised to “localise” aid response by shifting more power and funding to grassroots organisations and local leaders. But change has been slow – particularly during the Rohingya crisis, which is largely dominated by the myriad UN agencies and NGOs working in the camps.

“The local small organisations are left behind,” Khan says. “But I think they should [be given] the chance to prove themselves.”

Khan says her team of three has reached 1,000 patients since the crisis began.

It has made a difference in at least one person’s life.

Anjuma Khatun’s family carried her into Bangladesh after the August 2017 crackdown in Myanmar. A difficult pregnancy rendered her nearly immobile and entirely dependent on others. Over the months, she has slowly regained her strength.

“I want my legs to get better, and hopefully I’ll be able to walk again,” she says. “I want to walk to see the world.”

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