Reaching the Rohingya Refugees with Essential Cleft Treatment

1 July 2019 | Smile Train

Erin joined Smile Train in 2013 and serves as Senior Vice President of Programs. She has more than 10 years of experience working with cleft lip and palate surgical programmes around the world and oversees Smile Train’s programmatic strategy and innovative initiatives in education, training, and comprehensive care. In 2019, Erin visited the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh to see the impact of Smile Train programmes in the region firsthand.

Smile Train SVP Erin Steiber

The world is currently facing a devastating refugee crisis, with millions of families forced to flee their homes due to persecution, unrest, and instability. The British-Somali poet Warsan Shire reminds us that “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark…no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land,” and yet millions of refugees are finding themselves in foreign lands with limited access to shelter, food, education, employment, and healthcare. Amongst them are the Rohingya people, who fled Myanmar under the threat of death to take refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh, often leaving with just the clothes on their back as their homes were burned in front of them.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of travelling to Bangladesh to witness the incredible work of various Smile Train partner organisations and to see our inspiring treatment programmes for the Rohingya refugees firsthand. Since 2002, Smile Train has been supporting cleft treatment for patients in Bangladesh, empowering local hospitals and medical professionals in providing more than 50,000 cleft surgeries. With the influx of refugees into the area, I was visiting to speak with families, consult with our partners on the ground, and witness the impact of our partners firsthand. 

Smile Train partners in cleft surgery in Bangladesh

After several days with treatment partners in Dhaka and Bogra, I boarded a local flight to Cox’s Bazar. The flight from Dhaka to Cox’s Bazar was the first time I sensed the scale of the crisis. Unlike my other visits in the country, this time, the plane was more than half-filled with non-Bangladeshi people from relief organisations from around the world. These relief organisations would be working to help the more than one million Rohingya refugees currently living in UN camps in Bangladesh.

Upon arriving in Cox’s Bazar our local country manager, Mostafizur Rahman, and I learned that our trip to visit prospective and already treated patients in the camps had to be postponed: the roads had been closed following an attack on a UN convoy and no one was allowed to travel. The patients in the camp that were scheduled to be treated at Hope Hospital also had to wait to make the journey. While the government of Bangladesh has been welcoming to the refugees, there is still a sense of frustration amongst many local residents that so much land has been permitted to be used for the camps, and that the spirit of Cox’s Bazar, once the country’s biggest tourist destination, seems forever changed. Fortunately, the roads opened by early afternoon and a bus full of patients from the camps were able to make the trip to Cox’s Bazar to receive treatment. 

mom holding her son at refugee camp

The patients and families who arrived on the bus from the camps were absolutely amazing. They had such a spirit of survival and commitment to their families and their children with clefts, despite living in crowded camps, owning virtually nothing and being reliant on refugee subsidies, and everything that they had been through over the past two years. It was an honour to be with them and to see our Smile Train partners providing them with compassionate, high-quality care.

The stories of these patients were often heartbreaking. Jainu, the mother of Nur, a 9-month-old baby boy, told us the story of how she had fled Myanmar heavily pregnant, and had actually given birth to her son shortly after crossing the river by boat into Bangladesh. Her son had received a Smile Train-supported cleft lip surgery months earlier, and he had returned to have his cleft palate repaired.

Two Smile Train patients Cox Bazar refugee camp

Another patient, Nursher, was a 17-year-old girl with an untreated cleft lip and palate. She had lived her entire life unable to speak or eat properly. Her niqab covered her mouth most of the time, but it was clear this affliction caused her great trauma. Her father told us they had not previously been able to access treatment, but as refugees would finally be able to get Nursher the care she needed in Bangladesh.

Group of children playing and dancing at refugee camp

As we visited the camps, I was surprised to see that the families and children there, though they had very little, seemed to have what they needed. Despite the extremely crowded conditions of the UN housing, there were bridges, community centres, and marketplaces in the camps.  Schools had been constructed and children were playing in the streets. Children and adults seemed relatively well-nourished, with the exception of the babies who were unable to breastfeed due to their untreated clefts. Many of these babies were hungrily trying to nurse from bottles not designed for cleft infants. Many of them were severely malnourished and some families told stories of trading their much-needed rations for baby formula in the hopes that their infants with clefts could be fed and survive.

Cleft malnutrition is a global problem that Smile Train has been addressing through nutrition grants for poor patients, including the refugee and local patients in Cox’s Bazar. These grants allow partners to provide nutrition support, including specialty bottles for babies who could not nurse and formula for mothers who could not breastfeed. As I met with families that were struggling to feed their babies with clefts, it was clear to me that these services need to be continued and expanded for the Rohingya people.

Smile Train partner Dr Das

I am always inspired to meet the amazing Smile Train partners who work year-round to provide safe, high-quality care for children with clefts. My visit to Bangladesh was particularly moving: the passion of Dr Das and our other amazing partners in the country was contagious. Bangladesh itself is an incredible place. The way the people of Bangladesh had welcomed the Rohingya population, when so many other countries are closing their doors to refugees, was amazing. It is a poor country by many measures, and highly populous, but the doctors and nurses there passionately treat patients in need and are always eager to do more to help. 

Smile Train is committed to ensuring that all children in Bangladesh, whether born there or forced to take refuge there, are able to access safe, high-quality, timely, comprehensive cleft treatment. I feel so privileged to work in partnership with our local staff and medical providers in service of the Rohingya population and many others in need of essential cleft treatment around the world.

Boy flying kite at refugee camp


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