Former sponsored child is coping with a very different kind of crisis: containing COVID-19 in the world’s largest refugee camp—home to almost 1 million Rohingya refugees.

Containing COVID-19 in the world’s largest refugee camp: challenge of a lifetime for operations director, Atul Mrong, a former sponsored child

World Vision Bangladesh operations director, Atul Mrong, 43, never ducks a challenge.

In his 17-year career, he has managed disaster responses to devastating floods and cyclones in his native Bangladesh. Following the 2015 earthquake that levelled Kathmandu, Atul flew into Nepal to co-lead World Vision’s recovery operations for two years. Today, this former sponsored child is coping with a very different kind of crisis: containing COVID-19 in the world’s largest refugee camp—home to almost 1 million Rohingya refugees.

The pandemic poses problems that daunt even this veteran humanitarian worker. How to distribute food rations to thousands of families safely? What if monsoon rains damage handwashing stations and contaminate water sources? What can be done to stem growing domestic violence among stressed refugee couples confined to cramped quarters? How to keep out-of-class children safe from exploitation and abuse? What if many of our staff fall ill and can’t work? The list goes on.

“In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, we are on the ground delivering critical life-saving services, like food assistance and nutrition, and maintaining water networks,” says Atul who leads a 200-member field team based in Cox’s Bazar, southern Bangladesh. “We’re also helping the refugees to protect themselves by teaching them about frequent handwashing and maintaining social distancing. But it’s difficult because the camps are so overcrowded and congested.”  

The population density in the camps is up to 40,000 people per square kilometer, making social distancing almost impossible. As of 27 May, 26 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the camps as testing continues.

“The Rohingya lack awareness about COVID-19,” explains Atul. “Their mindset is that outsiders will bring it into the camps. They are suspicious of aid workers, even though they know us, because they believe we can spread the virus in the camps.”

An estimated 10,000 Bangladeshi and expatriate aid workers served in the camps before COVID-19 hit Bangladesh in late March. Government precautions and lock-downs reduced that number significantly. Some expatriates returned to their home countries as cases escalated (36,700 reported cases as 27 May among 165 million people). Many Bangladeshi camp staff cannot work due to the country-wide lock-down.

Atul could have returned home to be with family living in Dhaka—nine hours away by road. Instead he chose to stay with his team in the camps where he has worked as operations director for two years.

“Maintaining healthy relationships from afar with my two sons, Arup, 12, and Arnob, 9, and my wife, Jasna, is really difficult,” says Atul. “I miss them badly. It is a huge sacrifice on both sides.”

Atul’s family worries about his safety in the camps as more COVID-19 cases are reported daily. Atul worries about his team healthy and safe, while protecting the refugees.

“When I worked in Nepal after the earthquake, our focus was on the people. We didn’t have to think about protecting ourselves,” reflects Atul. “In the COVID-19 response, we’ve trained all our staff on prevention and provided them with personal protective equipment. It’s like being on an airplane. I have to put on my own oxygen mask first, so that I can help save others.”

On difficult days, Atul’s compassion for the stateless Rohingya keeps him on the job. In 2017, some 740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, escaping decades of religious persecution, human rights abuses and what the UN describes as genocidal violence.

“The Rohingya are people on God’s planet, too, but they have no land, no citizenship, no rights and no hope,” says Atul. “It’s like they are on a boat with no captain.”

Raised in a poor Christian family in predominately Muslim Bangladesh, Atul says he feels a connection to the displaced, impoverished Rohingya. “They remind me of me,” he says. “My family’s financial situation was not good. I had six sisters. I was the only son. My parents were not educated; they were illiterate. I saw their pain and struggle to earn a simple livelihood. It encouraged me to work for the distressed, for the oppressed and vulnerable people.”

Serving with World Vision is more than a job for Atul; it’s a calling. “Coming from a minority myself, three things really prepared me to work with the Muslim Rohingya,” he says. “First, I came from a poor family. Second, I am from a Christian family and I grew up with Christian values at the Catholic seminary I attended. Thirdly, the experience and values that I learned from World while I was a sponsored child.”

Atul’s life changed when he was sponsored at age 10. “The sponsor who helped me came into my life as an angel of God,” he says, remembering his Australian supporter. “My sponsor never met me. He just looked at my picture and based on that, he trusted me and sent generous support. That generosity and confidence in me changed my life… From class three on—my education, tuition, moral education, school fees, tuition—all came from World Vision. They really helped me grow.”

In 2004, Atul joined World Vision’s staff as a Programme Officer. Recognized for his intelligence, initiative and unfailing good humour, he advanced steadily in the organization.

"Atul is a natural leader: high energy, enthusiastic and smart,” says his supervisor, Rachel Wolff, director of World Vision’s Rohingya Refugee Response. “He is relentless in tackling tough problems and refuses to give up hope for Rohingya children and families. But the reason our staff follow him--especially now during this crisis—is his love. They know he loves them, and they know he loves the people God has called us to serve."

As the COVID-19 crisis persists, months of routine 12-hour days can exhaust even the most dedicated leader.

“It is quite tiring,” admits Atul. “You need to rest in order to be physically, mentally and spiritually balanced, and able to move on.”

No one can predict how COVID-19 will unfold in the camps in the coming weeks and months. But Atul is up for the challenge. He and his team revise scenario plans daily, nimbly mitigating the myriad of logistical problems complicated by COVID-19. His faith keeps him focused.

“Can I see Christ amid the COVID-19 crisis in the camps? Easily. Jesus was a refugee who took shelter in a manger in Nazareth. He’s with us here now.”

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