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Table of Contents
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 17  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 301-304

The story of Salma and Sahar: a Rohingya mother and Bangladeshi baby who bridged two influxes and three family generations

1 PhD, Mental Health, Care Practices, Gender and Protection (MHCPGP) ex Head of Department in Bangladesh, Action Against Hunger (ACF), Canada
2 BA, MHCPGP Deputy Program Manager, ACF, Bangladesh
3 MSc, MHCPGP Senior Program Manager, ACF, Bangladesh
4 PhD (c), Family Medicine, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
5 PhD (c), Education, Université de Montréal, Montreal, Canada
6 PhD, MHCPGP Senior Advisor, ACF, Paris, France

Date of Submission19-May-2019
Date of Decision05-Aug-2019
Date of Acceptance03-Sep-2019
Date of Web Publication29-Nov-2019

Correspondence Address:
Joel Montanez
Health Experiences Research Group, St. Mary’s Hospital Centre, 3830 Lacombe Avenue, Hayes Pavilion, Suite 4720, Montréal, QC, H3T 1M5, Canada
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/INTV.INTV_23_19

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Sahar’s Bangladeshi mom had died during delivery and her daughter’s life was saved by Salma, a Rohingya woman. The 50,000 takas that Salma had saved from vegetable farming and raising chickens gave her the conviction that she could raise a dying child. Even if Salma’s husband and family-in-law did not agree with the adoption, Salma, who migrated to Cox’s Bazar in infancy, had seen in the camps how to sustain the survival of this dying and motherless child. Salma and Sahar’s story represents the interventions that resilient human beings put into effect with the support of key family members and internal resources. This is also an example signalling that in the current lingering crisis, we need to create bridges between earlier and newer Rohingya cohorts as well as to advocate for the Rohingya diaspora to be included in the process of caring for new lives. Ultimately, Salma and Sahar’s story is an illustration of the contribution of the Rohingya to Bangladeshi society.

Keywords: adoption, Bangladesh, livelihoods, Myanmar, Rohingya

How to cite this article:
Montanez J, Uddin MS, Zohra Ft, Ormel I, Gulino N, Bizouerne C. The story of Salma and Sahar: a Rohingya mother and Bangladeshi baby who bridged two influxes and three family generations. Intervention 2019;17:301-4

How to cite this URL:
Montanez J, Uddin MS, Zohra Ft, Ormel I, Gulino N, Bizouerne C. The story of Salma and Sahar: a Rohingya mother and Bangladeshi baby who bridged two influxes and three family generations. Intervention [serial online] 2019 [cited 2023 Mar 23];17:301-4. Available from: http://www.interventionjournal.org//text.asp?2019/17/2/301/271883

  Salma and Sahar1 Top

Sahar’s life was saved by providing her health care, nutrition and livelihood. These essentials were not, however, provided by local institutions, governments or international organisations. The 50,000 takas (160 euros) that Salma had saved from vegetable farming and raising chickens gave her the conviction that she could raise a dying child. Salma herself had not been raised by her biological mother. She had died before Salma could form a clear memory of her. Salma knew that the laws of motherhood had no boundaries, and she had seen in Sahar the link to maternity that an illness had taken away from her. Salma saw the route to happiness in this tiny and weak premature orphan, even if Sahar’s biological family had already considered the life of the child to be in the hands of God. Sahar’s biological mom had died during the delivery, something that resonated with Salma’s own life.

A few hours after Sahar’s biological mother passed away, Sahar’s biological father went to see his daughter, along with eight family members who were contemplating her adoption. As these nine members were convinced that Sahar would die soon due to her fragile state, none of them made the decision to take in the baby. That was the last time Sahar had her biological father by her side.

  The adoption Top

Concerned about the baby’s health, Sahar’s grandmother and maternal uncle recited Surahs and Kalimas (chapters of the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and handed over the baby to the only person nearby who had manifested a desire to adopt a child deprived of hope. That person was a Rohingya woman. With the initial authorisation to adopt a Bangladeshi child and the support of her community, but with limited practical help, she immediately became a caretaker to Sahar. In Salma’s own words, ‘The baby’s mother died in the afternoon, and the baby was given to me the next morning. I never personally met her father and mother’.

After taking Sahar from her biological grandmother’s arms and in full agreement with the baby’s biological family, Salma began what she calls a long, hard road to make Sahar healthy and fit. At the start of this journey, caring for Sahar was in practice hardly a matter for the extended family. Whenever Sahar’s biological family saw her again, they remarked that she was becoming healthy and thanked Allah for the improved health of the child. On the day that they found Sahar fit enough for life, they also promised to never ask Salma to bring the baby back to them. As far as the biological family was concerned, for them it was Allah’s will that Salma and Sahar be forever mother and daughter.

  Meeting the in-laws’ family Top

When Salma went home with Sahar, the judgement of her in-laws’ family with whom she lived at the time was clear:

‘You brought her home by yourself; it will then be for you to take care of her!’

Instantly, Salma said to herself:

‘The Almighty gave her life; then only He may take her soul if He so wishes.

Salma never felt that her in-laws truly accepted her daughter, as later on they pulled back from her because they could not fully accept the idea of nurturing an adopted child. Furthermore, Salma’s husband also did not fully agree with the adoption:

‘I myself decided to adopt this child with all my own cash, and this cash gave me courage to adopt her. I had 50,000 taka … within 8 months, I spent 26,000 on milk alone. When I had spent all my money on my daughter’s food, my husband helped me to buy her nourishment and milk. He was happy at the beginning, but later he got worried about the increasing expenses. So he suggested I move somewhere else.’

  The community’s underlying judgement Top

Salma’s journey had similar tones inside and outside her home, as the shadow of hopelessness and irrelevance had already been cast on her daughter:

‘In the community, people said that the child would die. Why did you adopt this child, they would ask. She will be taken by the Almighty soon (…) Our neighbours used to call my daughter “adopted”, which I didn’t like. So I decided to move, so that nobody knew.’

Salma and Sahar were thus confronted with a difficult everyday reality. In spite of their community members’ good intentions and agreement to the adoption, the community constantly revealed a tough-love attitude towards the unusual couple. First, community members never sufficiently believed that Sahar was out of death’s reach; second, they never stopped reminding Salma that Sahar was an adopted child; and third, they constantly worried about Salma’s ability to care for Sahar:

I feel this child is mine, and there is no doubt about it (…) the community members know about it, but they repeatedly say to me: ‘You have done good work but please take good care of her poor health condition’.

It took Salma’s resolve, the influxes and the circumstances of the camps to find a solution for this impasse.

  Sahar’s genetic and social background Top

Sahar’s paternal family members were all also originally from Burma. One generation ago they had become full members of Bangladeshi society with full working rights. Sahar’s father had been in Bangladesh from a very early age and had fully adopted the Bengali language, identity and nationality. More important in everyday community life than genetic, linguistic and legal opinions, Sahar’s paternal family was ‘treated’ as a Bengali family by their neighbours. After receiving their voting ID card, the paternal family members got access to education and travelled to the Middle East for better economic opportunities.

On the other hand, Sahar’s maternal family was reportedly of Bangladeshi origin, and the child’s uncle was a financially successful person in the Middle East, where he lived and where Sahar’s mother would have lived as well.

Like Salma’s husband, Sahar’s father had got married again, but he would never ask for Sahar, nor want to know where she was or who had adopted her. As Salma honestly pointed out, ‘After twelve days her father stopped worrying about seeing her again or asking about her.’ Salma herself does not think about seeing her husband or Sahar’s father. Nor is she afraid of either of them.

  Salma’s story: a reflection of Sahar’s journey Top

Understandably, Salma’s story matches her daughter’s. She arrived in Bangladesh in 2004, when she was about Sahar’s age today: ‘At the age of two and half, when I learned to sit a bit.’ After her mother’s death in Burma due to complications resulting from high blood pressure, Salma was brought to Bangladesh by her grandmother. She may have no clear memory of her parents, but Salma recalls how her grandmother, whom she calls ‘mother’ to this day, loved her and raised her well. In fact, says Salma, ‘My grandmother is not my biological grandmother; she is the mother of my stepmother. She raised me like her own daughter, and (when the time came) she was also happy to see my daughter.’

Salma had been brought to Bangladesh from Burma by her ‘grandmother-mother-in law’ (which is how Salma calls her grandmother) at an age when she was able to maintain her mother tongue while rapidly learning a new one. She learnt Bengali and kept a mostly passive but sufficient understanding of spoken Rohingya, which would be crucial for her future family and working life. However, Salma never acquired her Bangladeshi ID card, even if she could have, as she wanted to remain Rohingya.

If destiny does exist, Sahar’s fortune was sealed nine months after Salma’s wedding. Forced to get married nine years ago and living in an unhappy marriage, Salma lived at her grandmother’s house during the almost nine months of her failed pregnancy. ‘I had an operation, and I lost my almost full-term baby then … I can’t bear a child anymore.’ She was eighteen years of age at the time. Yet the removal of a tumour in her uterus, the death of her biological child and the loss of her childbearing capacity did not harm Salma’s ability to bond and sustain life. In fact, Salma’s talent to regenerate bonds with known and unknown human beings allowed both her own development and human evolution to continue a parallel course.

  Salma’s genetic father and sister Top

Salma had not seen her father since the time she was learning to sit up. However, they had gradually developed a relationship over the phone. The Rohingya sounds she had heard since childhood were always present and were at the heart of her communication with her father and eventually with her sister.

After what Salma calls ‘continuous torture’ in Burma − to signify the suffering of the Rohingya community − her father and sister, who had lost their belongings but fortunately were not physically hurt, arrived in Bangladesh during the 2017 influx. Salma did not meet her father alone, but she got to know him in the company of Sahar: ‘I felt extremely emotional and I cried a lot when I saw him after long …. Yes, he was very happy to see her (Sahar), he loves her.’

  The solution Top

Salma explains:

‘I realised that I needed to raise my daughter, help her get educated. And, for this, I needed money and better work opportunities. My father lives here (in the camps), my sister lives here (in the camps), and I wasn’t feeling happy there (where she used to live). So I decided to move where they were.’

The fact that Salma’s father and sister were in the camps gave her the conviction that she could produce her own livelihoods again. Her husband’s next assault would be the last. Predictably, he beat her one more time. Unforeseen by all, Salma left with Sahar to the heart of the camps, where a million and two people live today. Contrary to custom, Salma went to the camps to find the means to survive as well as the support of her community.

  Today Top

Currently, Salma lives with her daughter, close enough to the camp where her sister lives, but somewhat away from the area where her father resides. Her father visits her once a week, but now contact with her grandmother is difficult due to the distance to her former living area and the poor network connection.

Today, Salma no longer has a connection with Sahar’s biological family:

‘After adopting Salma I was in touch with them for a year, but after moving to live in the camps, I got totally disconnected from any kind of communication with them. I am worried about her future, as she has no father. It is difficult for me to ensure her proper education and raise my daughter alone, as everyone is busy with their own life. She is very calm, has no major diseases, only random nausea and fever, as I take good care of her and maintain proper hygiene. She is starting to talk and always wants to be with me. And then she smiles a lot. If I am in front of her, she is okay. If I am away, she cries. When she has toys and her stomach is full, she passes her time in a playful mood. My husband ‘left’ me for her, but I still choose to be her mother because I feel that I love her like a daughter. She is the one I will always love. As a mother, I feel successful.’

  ???A long epilogue Top

Salma and Sahar’s story represents the natural interventions that resilient human beings put into effect with the support of their own families and internal resources, including the sense of hope and opportunity that evolution seems to have encoded in us to perpetuate humanity. This sense of opportunity is constantly in the works in the camps, as the source of hope for those who dare cross inhospitable terrain in search of better prospects, and better-off partners who can help ensure a stronger family, thus a more resilient progeny. Unfortunately, predators and traffickers also profit from these natural impulses towards greener pastures, producing large numbers of victims and astronomical sums of money that sustain illegal industries and dangerous illusions.

On the other hand, Salma and Sahar’s struggle is a lesson for humanity, for it shows us that the Rohingya camps can no longer be reduced to places of despair. Contrary to believing that the Rohingya community either stays in the camps or moves away from them, older cohorts of Rohingya in Bangladesh go to the camps and relate in protective and creative ways with newer cohorts, not only to make a living but also to save and sustain life. Love thrives in the camps, and reunification is the order of the day as opportunities to re-establish long lost physical bonds that had been lost or that had remained virtual, if only with the help of all forms of speakers and screens. New hopeful lives, devoid of the horrific experience of rape or domestic violence, are nurtured by the community and live in tiny sheds, sleeping between adults and children.

This is an example for all humanitarians − that in the current lingering crisis, creating opportunities that prompt compassionate behaviours in tune with evolution may also be an option, rather than considering family planning as a systematic restriction on the very human desire to assume and nurture new life. It is also a lesson to understand that alternative foster care may need to include a bridge between earlier and newer Rohingya cohorts, as well as advocating to include the Rohingya diaspora in the process of caring, bonding and taking responsibility for young lives.

The bonding between Salma and Sahar took place when two women − the girl’s biological mom and Salma herself − lost the possibility of bearing new life and when two men − Sahar’s biological father and grandfather − lost confidence in what could be humanly done for the dying baby. Salma got empowered when her sister and father arrived in the camps, and her ex-husband’s last act of violence against her was the proof that she was right from the very beginning. That is, you can actually desire what you cannot have, love the society you do not belong to, assume what the other society cannot care for and share the cost of love with those who once cared for you in order to strengthen all communities. Migration may thus be a solution for migration and the encounter of older with recent migrants may still be a key alternative to extended crises.

  Salma, Sahar and humanitarian work Top

Salma and Sahar’s story is the unveiling of cultural motherhood across Rohingya generations. The encounter and relationship of these two women, the death of their respective biological mothers and the role of their non-biological grandmothers shed light on how large numbers of unaccompanied and separated children in the Rohingya camps found foster families within community mechanisms that were operational and effective. These community mechanisms may be even as effective as the efforts of humanitarian bodies in taking on lost and unaccompanied children. Although not all orphaned children have been adopted by the community, it is obvious in this inter-generational story that the resolve of a woman to assume full and ‘motherly’ care of a non–blood-related child in a precarious state was a key mechanism to overcome obstacles such as low birthweight, family opposition, lack of livelihoods, insecurity and violence.

For us, mental health and psychosocial support and protection workers, this may be a lesson in humility. Current views that prioritise temporary or full adoption by expert organisations, previously identified foster families, visibly well-prepared alternative care and mechanisms that favour presumably competent higher-income families may make us blind to the efficacy of small groups of vulnerable family members and of willing caretakers from host communities. We may also need to be much more alert about and open to spontaneous community childcare mechanisms that may at first glance look weak, insufficient or too improvised to be true or that are put on the shoulders of an already overwhelmed and needy diaspora. The connections between host and displaced community members with family-rearing needs, diaspora involvement, territorial mobility and work capacity within these communities may be key to more dynamic child-rearing strategies. In other words, families or bodies that are stable and have obvious means to care for unaccompanied children may be able to share the task with constantly adjusting care systems. These may comprise a certain level of nomadism determined by work needs and family presence, centralised by caring figures who may not share the child’s origin, but who naturally include the diaspora in their life’s journey, and who need to communicate with other family or caring members both virtually and in person. These informal child care arrangements among the diaspora and the migrant community may indeed be unconventional, yet they may be as effective or even more so than officially established structures.

Finally, Salma and Sahar’s story is also an illustration of the contribution of the Rohingya to Bangladeshi society and of the complex nature of this contribution. More than employing, sometimes illegally, Rohingya workers for trading purposes, Bangladeshi society also provides opportunities to those who accept responsibility for abject misery. That is, Salma acknowledged a life that was considered too painful, beyond human scope and in the hands of spiritual forces. This was a family and community agreement that was sustained in spite of ethnic and cultural origins, the divergent history of the two societies and the evolution of current conflicts. For those working in communication with host and displaced communities, this story may exemplify how religious beliefs interact with community needs, vulnerabilities and forces to provide solutions. These kinds of contributions between societies may need to be identified, brought tactfully into the public discourse and discussed as examples of useful and peaceful tools of coexistence in communities that respect their religious identity and community mechanisms.

  Our job Top

Salma found a job related to the current Rohingya crisis in a place where she could bring Sahar every day. It was clear to her that adopting Sahar would mean giving priority to her strong need for attachment. For the sake of fatherhood, Salma also allowed her ex-husband to visit Sahar after realising the great affection he had for the child. But Salma did not allow her husband to visit her, as her forgiveness did not extend beyond a paternal contribution to raising a child.

‘I had a firm belief in Allah,’ says Salma. ‘He who knows best what will happen next. I spent huge amounts of money to save her life.’ And it worked. That baby is today a healthy three-year-old child.

In Action Against Hunger, we are never surprised when a mother with no progeny learns to breastfeed or when food provided in the absence of a caring context has insufficient effects in a child’s health. Sahar lived well. Her spirits and weight grew in synergy within Salma’s caring intelligence and iron will. And their story suggests that the best intervention may be the one that provides those willing with the opportunities for sustaining life, no matter what the odds at achieving them may be.

Salma came to talk to us when she found out about Action Against Hunger’s work providing support to the families in the camps that adopted lost and unaccompanied Rohingya children. She told us that Rohingya people also adopt Bangladeshi children. When we sceptically asked her to give us an example, she looked at Sahar. As soon as Sahar smiled, she agreed.

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There are no conflicts of interest.

1These are not the real names of the people described in this article.


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  In this article
Salma and Sahar<...
The adoption
Meeting the in-l...
The community...
Sahar’s ge...
Salma’s st...
Salma’s ge...
The solution
???A long epilogue
Salma, Sahar and...
Our job

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