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From Rural France to Refugee Camps in Bangladesh
Since 2007, Bibliothèques Sans Frontières (BSF), our parent organization, has worked tirelessly to promote access to information across the world—from refugee camps in Bangladesh to rural areas in France.
Since its founding, BSF has rooted its work in empowering and uplifting the voices of communities in need.
A decade after BSF’s founding, BSF expanded its work to Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. While the nature of the work continues to evolve, BSF remains committed to expanding critical access to information and education to the community living in Cox’s Bazar district, especially in light of the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 2017, Bangladesh has hosted over 860,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority who fled mass atrocities and discrimination in Myanmar. The district of Cox’s Bazar is now home to many of the over one million Rhoingya living in Bangladesh. The majority of these refugees are currently concentrated in the Kutupalong camp (the largest refugee camp in the world) and have little access to informational and educational resources.
In 2017 and in collaboration with the the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and Première Urgence Internationale (PUI), BSF conducted focus group discussions with 86 refugees in three different Kutupalong camps (camps 17, 6 and 8E) along with 26 people within the host communities of Thelikhali in Palongkhali Union. Through these focus group discussions, BSF uncovered large educational gaps and a significant lack of community spaces with relevant cultural resources in the refugee camps and neighboring communities.
In recognition of these gaps, BSF opened their Bangladesh field office in 2018—employing both a program manager and cultural mediator. This office used the focus group research as well as collaboration with the Open Society Foundation to inform its programmatic work in these communities. Initially, and in collaboration with Plan International and Première Urgence Internationale (PUI), BSF hosted two programs; one a theater program for adolescent girls to build confidence and the other, a workshop designed to hone boys’ interview skills and map-reading abilities. As BSF in Bangladesh expands the scope of their work, they consistently strive to design and implement each program based on the changing needs of the community.
Continuing BSF’s work in Bangladesh, in 2019 the team provided 10 Ideas Cubes and installed five Ideas Boxes in the district of Cox’s Bazar – three in Rohingya refugee camps and two in surrounding host populations. The Ideas Cube is an autonomous and ultra-portable digital library that provides wireless access to thousands of digital resources. It effectively creates a WiFi hotspot and is uploaded with children’s stories and educational activities from the “Bengal Boi”, Sesame Street Bangladesh, CODEC, Room to Read, and Bishwa Shahita Kendra. The Ideas Box, founded in 2013, is a portable media center that unfolds to 100 square meters and can accommodate an average of 70 people at a time, with an average of 500 people per day.
In 2019, BSF expanded their Ideas Box program and workshop offerings to surrounding camps and villages, allowing refugees and Bangladeshis to meet and learn together. BSF continued their digital technology programming and writing lessons.
Unfortunately, BSF had to adapt these previously successful programs earlier this year when, like the rest of the world, an unexpected health crisis hit the country. By early March, the deadly coronavirus had made its way to Bangladesh and the refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar district. With nearly 19,000 infections and 300 state-wide deaths, the government implemented a complete lockdown of the district by April, blocking 80% of aid and resources from entering the refugee camps.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vital importance of access to quality information, especially for the most under-resourced populations. For example, a few months ago, a rumor circulated in the Kutupalong camp that a vaccine was ready but only available to local Bangladeshis, increasing tensions and the threat of violence between refugees and Bangladeshi citizens. BSF’s Bangladesh team reacted to this crisis by collaborating with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to conduct workshops on how to detect fake news.
Another critical shift due to COVID-19 and the government’s consequent closure of the camps to all outsiders, in 2020 BSF had to refocus the way they worked with the refugee community. BSF began training those living in the camp on how to use BSF devices and tools in order to access necessary public health information. As an example, BSF trained local Rohingya volunteers how to independently initiate, prepare, and run their own activities using the Ideas Box while the camps remain closed to outside visitors. During a deadly pandemic, education and literacy are critical resources that can help an individual understand and receive the proper medical advice and health care. Throughout this pandemic, BSF has remained committed to using its tools and resources to train, support, and uplift the voices of those hit hardest by the effects of COVID-19.