Lunchtime was just over at Balukhali camp 8E. The household of Akhter Hujur officially has four members -- himself, his young wife, her sister and a tiny infant daughter -- but there is always one extra mouth to feed. That mouth belongs to a person with neither mother or father, nor family.
Akhter works as an imam at the Mahadu Loga madrasa, which currently serves as the home for 25 orphans. Every day during mealtimes, the orphans run off to different homes all of whom have the kindness to share the fruits of their hearth. Once the plates are cleared the kids come back to their madrasa. At night, they push aside the handful of worn-out old benches that make up the only furniture in their one-roomed thatch and tarpaulin structure, and unroll their plastic sleeping mats.
“We had rice, daal and bit of dried fish for lunch,” said Akhter Hujur, when asked what food he shared with the orphan, “and that's what we gave him.”
“The rice and lentils were given to as relief by World Food Programme. As for the dried fish, I bought that -- 250 grams of it -- and am hoping it will last a few days,” he said.
The relief given out is meant for Akhter's family of three. What they share with an orphan from the madrasa every day is a cut out of those rations they receive.
“We do not get any extra relief for taking care of the orphans,” claimed Akhter.
In the camps, food given by the relief agencies is the most common form of currency. Relief goods are exchanged for money, which is used to buy other essentials. Or fuel, for example. Hence, it is not as if spare rice and lentils -- however little there may be to spare -- are not needed. In fact, it is just as valuable.
The fact that Akhter, and many other families foster these children just for the mealtimes, means that they are paying out of their pockets for children who are not theirs.
Why do they do it? “I am a Muslim. And in my religion, it is said that we must take care of orphans,” he said.
“When the community came to pray at the mosque we asked them to volunteer to take in an orphan each, just during mealtimes. All of our 25 orphans found willing families,” said Akhter.
But Akhter's madrasa is not the only one taking up responsibility of the orphans -- every other mosque rolls out bed-mats at night for these children to sleep in.
This system grew up in the absence of a proper fostering system for the greater part of last year. There are no orphanages taking complete responsibility of the 10,526 orphans living across the camps. Around half of this population are between 5 and 10 years old, according to the Department of Social Services. There are 68 children living completely alone without any adult present, scattered across the camps.
Most live with extended family who sometimes find it easier to send the boy children off to the madrasas.
Nabi Ouson lost all his family in the Tula Toli massacre last year, except for three grandsons. Withered with age, the grandfather found it easier to send two of his grandsons to the local madrassa in Balukhali.
His third grandson lives with his paternal uncle. His uncle had also tried to pass him over to the madrasa with his cousins, but the child is too traumatised to live alone. He came back to his uncle's house after a week of staying in the madrasa.
“He stays inside the house all day. Even if he steps outside, it is only for half an hour,” says the uncle Junaid Mohammed. The child, Jafor Alam, in spite of being a 12-year-old, barely makes eye-contact. For most part of the interview he looked at the floor, his mouth hanging slightly open.
This is the child's story, as told by his uncle: Around 9:00am, the military came to their village of Tula Toli and started firing indiscriminately. Their parents, along with the other villagers ran for the beach towards the river, while and Jafor and his 8-year-old brother Shamser ran towards the woods. At the beach, the military rounded up all the men and babies and killed them with brushfire. Only a handful of men were spared. The women they took back to the village were raped.
Even though Jafor's uncle told the story, he was not an eye-witness. Jafor was. All this, including the murder of his father and his mother being taken away, happened in front of Jafor and his brother as they hid out in the woods.
“My brother and I started walking. We found some villagers coming to Bangladesh so we decided to follow them. After 2 days of walking, we came to the Naf river,” said Jafor.
In spite of all this, Jafor has not received any mental counselling yet. Nor does he go to the child-friendly-spaces set up all that much since he is too afraid to step out of the house.
“I have 7 children of my own to feed with the relief but I get nothing extra for feeding Jafor and Shamser,” complained the uncle.
The government of Bangladesh has recently started to roll out a stipend program for foster parents. In the first stage 2,872 children, about a quarter of all orphans, have been selected as a part of the programme. Their foster parents would be given Tk 2,000 for their care. The Department of Social Services categorised the orphans according to the level of risk they are in, and the children selected for the first round of funding were all classified as “high-risk”.
“It took us a year to trace the orphans and enlist them all,” said Md Hasan Murad, Team Leader of the project at Unchiprang camp in Teknaf, adding that up to 9,000 such children will be covered by the programme in the next six months.