In November last year Kristin Davis made a three-day visit to Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. The actress and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, best known for her role as Charlotte in the TV series Sex and the City, lives in Los Angeles with her six-year-old daughter, Gemma Rose, whom she adopted in 2011. Here she talks to HELLO! about what she saw there…
I always have a mixed reaction to my trips with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Although I know intellectually that I’m in a place where people are in desperate need, at the same time people show so much resilience. Their work ethic and desire to create a home for their family is intense, and the way people help each other reaffirms the best in the human spirit. This was my experience in Bangladesh.
I have travelled to several refugee crises across the world and spoken to countless people who have fled their homes to seek safety, but the situation of the Rohingya refugees is one of the most challenging and tragic I’ve witnessed. Since violence first broke out in Myanmar in August 2017, over 647,000 Rohingya people have fled their homes and travelled to Bangladesh. It's estimated that 54 per cent of the refugees are children, many under five years old. But their resilience is truly amazing. Their villages have been set on fire, women have been raped, and their children killed or kidnapped. Those who escaped with their lives faced a difficult journey to Bangladesh, some walking for over 20 days, carrying their children.
I visited a special area in the camp run by UNHCR for the most vulnerable refugees most of whom were women who had just given birth or were very ill. There you really see the trauma and the shock. People were quiet and reserved, their faces blank. Tears would run down their face but they cried silently, even some of the children, which I found heartbreaking.
They had suffered different levels of trauma. Some had taken pre-emptive action – one woman told me she’d left her village after people had come and taken all the teenage boys a few nights previously, never to be seen again. She felt she would lose her own children at any minute. Other people had been forced to flee when their houses were burnt down, but many were killed as they tried to escape.
I met another woman with three children, one of whom she had given birth to during her journey from Myanmar. She told her story in a very matter-of-fact way, but her oldest daughter, who was about six years old, was crying, not saying anything or looking for comfort. Her husband was missing, probably dead. I looked at this incredibly strong woman and thought, 'How can you still be functioning?' But there she was. And at least she was receiving some support and shelter from UNHCR and its staff.
It sounds like a cliché but here in the Western world we have so much at our command, so many resources. When you witness these refugee crises, you get this wake up call, 'Ok, what if I had to go on foot for 20 days just to save my children's lives? How would you do it? Could you be that strong?' I always have a sense of gratitude for what I have when I return home from these trips, but I have a lot of guilt too. Our world makes no sense, and it's all down to where you are born as to whether or not you have the basic choices in life.
There is also a protected area in the camp for kids who don’t have any parents or family members, but we didn't meet them because they were too traumatised and don't really understand what has happened to them. But I was so impressed by the energy and vitality of all the children in the camp around me. They'd come up and say, 'Hello, how are you?' They made kites from shreds of plastic bags and carts from sticks and string. They could breathe a sigh of relief because they were safe. There is so much potential there – these people could change the world, look at what they've been through! I’d love to travel with my daughter one day, when she's older. It is such an amazing experience.
The strongest memory I have from my visit is walking through the camp and seeing the children playing and everyone coping, bringing a vigour and intensity of commitment to their new way of life, building new homes for their families, health centres, small schools and toilets. Right now they feel safe and able to have their own space so they can sleep at night. And the impact of UNHCR and its partners' response is clear to see: in a simple blanket that keeps an unclothed child warm; a bucket and soap so that a woman who has been violated can wash herself; a tarpaulin for shelter and privacy for a grandmother while she sleeps.
To donate to UNHCR, visit unhcr.org/donatenow.