Categories: Health

Fighting to Save Sight in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

How international eye care charity Orbis is tackling avoidable blindness in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

In 2017, around 700,000 of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community fled persecution in their homeland of Myanmar. After arduous journeys, most arrived in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They joined over 300,000 stateless Rohingya already there. Today, almost a million people live in Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp.

As a neglected Muslim minority in Myanmar, the Rohingya community have been routinely denied access to healthcare services. As a result, large numbers of adults and children arrived in Bangladesh with sight loss or blindness, mostly due to avoidable causes. 

Photo of Ambiya at home. Ambiya is mother to 11 children. She received a cataracts operation at Cox’s Bazar Baitush Sharaf Hospital (CBBSH). She can now read the holy Quran and do household work.

Ambiya, along with her children, had no choice but to flee her homeland. Her experience with vision loss mirrored that of many other Rohingya refugees. 

“My vision started getting blurry while in Myanmar and it was growing difficult for me to continue reading the Qur’an. But I could not have my problem treated as I did not have the access to eye care services,” explains Ambiya, “My eye condition got worse with the passage of time. The condition finally reached a point that I couldn’t even leave my house without someone’s help.”

A group of women post-surgery at Orbis partner Baitush Sharaf Hospital.

How Eye Care Charity Orbis is Fighting Blindness in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh 

In 2018, Orbis were the first charity to work with partners to provide eye care services within the camps in Bangladesh at a dedicated Vision Centre. An international eye care charity that believes no one should lose their sight simply due to where they live, Orbis has been fighting avoidable blindness for over 40 years around the world. As well as their projects on the ground, the organisation also operates the world’s only fully accredited ophthalmic teaching hospital on board a plane, the Flying Eye Hospital.

Establishing the Vision Centre in Cox’s Bazar was made possible with funding from The Qatar Fund for Development. Now supported by Qatar Charity, the centre continues today to test for, treat and refer patients for the many causes of sight loss, in particular cataracts, which has been identified as the most common eye condition in the camps.

Cataracts are caused when the lens of the eye turns cloudy and prevents light entering the eye. Over time, vision deteriorates and permanent blindness can result. But sight restoring surgery is often a routine procedure, sometimes taking as little as 20 minutes. In the UK, almost 1,500 NHS-funded cataract procedures are performed every day. 

Around the world, cataracts are still the leading cause of blindness today. According to the Vision Loss Expert Group, 17 million people were blind in both eyes from cataracts in 2020, accounting for 40% of all global cases of blindness.

The Vision Centre in Cox’s Bazar, founded by Qatar Fund for Development, funded by Qatar Charity and run by Orbis in partnership with Baitush Sharaf Hospital.

Saving Ambiya’s Sight

Without treatment, Ambiya was at risk of joining those who have permanently lost their sight to cataracts. However, a friend of her son’s, working for the Vision Centre as a volunteer, told her about the services offered to refugees, free of cost.

“On his advice, one day I went to the centre where the doctor examined my eyes thoroughly and told me I was suffering from cataracts that needed to be removed through surgery for restoration of my vision. And I took no time to agree to undergo surgery,” Ambiya says.

The Vision Centre, operated by Orbis partner Baitush Sharaf Hospital, a specialist eye hospital in Cox’s Bazar, was able to arrange all aspects of Ambiya’s treatment. This included her return travel to and from the hospital, surgery, an overnight stay, food and spectacles at no cost to Ambiya.

Ziaul is able to teach and read the holy Quran again after receiving cataract surgery at Orbis partner Baitush Sharaf Hospital.

The Role of Sight in Religious Observance 

After their flight from Myanmar, life has remained extremely challenging for the Rohingya people in Cox’s Bazar. For many of the Muslim population, good eyesight is not only essential for navigating day-to-day challenges in the camps, but also connecting people to their faith, by facilitating travel to the mosque, and praying and reading the Quran. Sight is even more significant during Ramadan, when the crescent moon signals the start of the month, and the rising and setting of the sun signifying when to observe and break fast.

Ambiya shared how the surgery changed her life; “Now I can see well with both of my eyes. It seems to me that I am blessed with two new eyes. What is most important for me is that I can now read the holy Quran and do all household work as I could before the vision problem.”

Like Ambiya, Ziaul, a religious teacher within the camps, developed cataracts in both his eyes before leaving Myanmar. Unable to follow his calling, he sought treatment at Baitush Sharaf Hospital; “I’m so happy that I can study the holy Quran and teach the students again. The pain of being driven out from my motherland is unbearable. But my pain has subsided a bit after I regained my sight.”

Raju, Community Health Worker, who works in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. We shadowed Raju and her colleagues as they travel door-to-door around the camp performing eye screenings on the Rohingya community.

A Combined Effort

Raju, a Community Health Worker in Cox’s Bazar supporting the project, encounters many refugees like Ambiya and Ziaul with vision problems:

“I help to identify individuals with vision difficulties in my areas within the camps,” explains Raju, “We found an elderly eye patient in the camp area – the Imam of a mosque – who could not go to the prayer place without someone’s help. We arranged cataract removal surgery which has given him a new lease of life. Now, he can travel to the mosque alone and recite the holy Quran.”

In the last two years, Orbis’s local partners have conducted over 100,000 vision screenings for adults and children and performed more than 1,500 eye surgeries. As Rohingya refugees continue to deal with the consequences of their persecution in their homeland, vision services in the camps will play a vital role in helping the refugees rebuild their lives. 

To join Orbis in their fight against avoidable blindness in Bangladesh, donate at:

British Muslim Magazine

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