A Search for Smiles in the World’s Largest Refugee Camps

June 19, 2019 | Smile Train

In August 2017, an estimated 600,000 Rohingya refugees fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine State across the border into Bangladesh according to a United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report. The mass migration was an epic logistical and humanitarian challenge, as aid organizations and government officials would need to quickly distribute food, shelter, and medicine on a massive scale.

A large row of houses at the refugee camps

The stream of the Rohingya refugees continued into September, with most refugees sharing that they had fled from their homes due to violence, with no return possible. With each passing day, more plastic-covered bamboo shelters were built, spreading out in all directions as far as the eye could see. These were the first days of what would become the world’s largest refugee camps — Kutupalong and Balukhali.

Two children living with untreated clefts at the refugee camps

After seeing the international news footage of children arriving at the camps in great numbers, Smile Train’s local partner in Dhaka, CARe Medical College Hospital (CAReMC), knew that there would be children living in those camps with untreated clefts. Soon after the camps appeared, CAReMC received access from local officials to provide Smile Train-supported cleft treatment at Hope Foundation Hospital in the nearby town of Cox’s Bazar.

Nonprofits helping familes get medicine

CAReMC surgeon Dr. Bijoy Krishna Das shared the team’s initial strategy for finding children in need in the unorganized chaos: “We partnered with local NGOs who were attending to the camps’ medical needs, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Health and Education for All. When they identified a child in need of surgery, they would refer them to us.”

A child from refugee camps before and after cleft surgery

The strategy worked, and by January of 2018 Smile Train partners had provided cleft treatment to 60 Rohingya children.

Omar was born in refugee camp with cleft lip

Soon, CAReMC was providing treatment for children who’d been born with a cleft inside the camp. One of the first camp-born patients was Omar, whose father Mohammed shared the family’s harrowing journey to Bangladesh.

On August 28, they came to our village, attacked us, and burned all the houses. We saw with our own eyes how they shot people and how they locked others inside their homes and then set fire to them. My only worry in that moment was to take my pregnant wife and my family to safety. We watched what was happening in the distance; we gathered food and belongings and immediately fled by boat.

Mohammed, his wife Nurjahan, their one-year-old daughter Amira, and parents Fatima and Habiram hid from the attackers for two days. They were then left with nothing when they were robbed of all their belongings. When they made it to the Neff River, they were taken in by members of the Bangladesh Army.

Omar held by Nrujahan before his surgery

Only a few days after this traumatic event, Omar was born with a cleft lip, which Nurjahan confessed was a tipping point that nearly broke their spirits completely.

Omar held by Nrujahan before his surgery

When Omar was old enough for surgery, he received his forever smile, and a visible weight was lifted from his parents.

Smile Train Van takes children to cleft surgery

Smile Train’s local partners have been consistently working in the camps ever since. A silver minivan, bearing the image of a child before and after cleft surgery, is a common sight around the camps.

Refugee volunteers to find cleft patients

Another method of finding patients in the camps is through volunteers handing out flyers. Nurul, a Rohingya man in his late twenties, helps Smile Train in part as thanks for his nephew’s cleft surgery. He shared that he doesn’t have a job in the camp, so spending his days in a meaningful way has given him purpose.

Refugee Nur at camp before her cleft surgery

One of Nurul’s referrals was nine-year-old Nur. Back in Myanmar, Nur had endured years of bullying and was referred to by the derogatory nickname cut-lip.

Refugee Nur smiling after her cleft surgery

Her strongest memory is when Dr. Das handed her a mirror after her cleft lip surgery. “When I looked at myself in the mirror, I was so happy. Just thinking about it brings a big smile on my face. Now, I have friends here in the camp, and no one calls me cut-lip anymore.”

In a 2019 visit to the camps, Smile Train’s Senior Vice President of Programs, Erin Stieber, shared her thoughts after meeting with patients and partners:

Rohingya Refugees smiling at camera

It shouldn’t be forgotten how welcoming the country of Bangladesh has been. Despite its own large population and own needs, they’ve opened their border to take in two million refugees, when other countries are closing their doors.

Rohingya school

While I saw some inevitable issues in camps the size of major cities; I ultimately left with a sense of hope. Children were going to school. There were bridges, community centers, and marketplaces. Families with children born with clefts were receiving specialty bottles and formula though Smile Train nutrition grants.

Erin Stieber poses with cleft patient

I was very heartened to witness the work Dr. Das and his team are doing to provide essential treatment for cleft patients at the appropriately named “Hope Hospital”. The patients and families I met had such a spirit of survival, despite what they’d been through the past two years.

I feel so privileged to work in partnership with our local staff and medical providers, and in service of the Rohingya population and many others in need of essential cleft treatment around the world.


Smile Train is proud to join the United Nations, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and civil society groups around the world to raise awareness and galvanize action for the millions of refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide this World Refugee Day.

If you would like to help us enable forever smiles and second chances at life for children like those at the Kutupalong and Balukhali camps, and around the world, please make a gift today.