More Than Numbers: Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh


This is Part 2 of a series titled “More Than Numbers.” In this series, we will share personal stories and photos from people who have worked in the humanitarian field. We are doing this in an effort to highlight humanitarian action and to humanize those receiving aid. Too often we get bogged down with the statistics, money, and numbers involved in the humanitarian sector and forget the “human” part of being a humanitarian. If you would like to contribute your own photos or story, feel free to reach out on social media or email


Stories and information shared by Andrew Strunk, Rescue and Logistics Manager for Backpacker Medics Inc, and Jessica Olney, RVAN Manager for Center for Social Integrity.


Aid organizations have struggled to provide humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have fled Myanmar amid the military crackdown. Due to the drastic influx of refugees fleeing to Bangladesh in 2017, there have often not been enough medics to provide basic healthcare in the expansive camps near the border with Bangladesh. Kutapalong is a mega-settlement which is on the border and located in Cox’s Bazar.



In response to the need for a localized medical response efforts, a growing number of refugees are being trained in basic medical and rescue skills by the Australian voluntary organisation, Backpacker Medics Disaster Response Group, and Center for Social Integrity and the Rohingya Ambulance Network.


To give a quick background, the settlements in Kutapalong are incredibly vast and spread across terraced hillsides. While medical clinics were being constructed, Backpacker Medics identified access as a major obstacle for many Rohingya seeking the treatment they required. As a pre-hospital care organization, Backpacker’s primary focus is early response, which utilizes initial operations to allow the bigger organizations time to organize their response. Initially their mobile medical team would rove the far reaches of these settlements and treat individuals onsite or transfer them. However, as the project came to an end, the idea of the RVAN (Rohingya Volunteer Ambulance Network) came to life. One thing to note is that the name isn’t currently 100% accurate due to the fact that all staff ended up being paid and were moved from volunteer status, although initially the RVAN was planned to be for volunteers.


A team of Backpacker Medics sourced and trained Rohingyas to work as first aiders within their areas of the settlement, providing them with the tools to stabilize and transfer a patient to a medical facility. This provided a type of ambulance service within their blocks of Kutapolong, while also providing employment for those involved with the program. After six months of financing the program, Backpacker Medics was able to successfully pass the project along to be overseen by another NGO, the Center for Social Integrity, and the RVAN project has continued servicing the original blocks of South West Kutapolong.


The Center for Social Integrity (CSI), is a community-driven, Rohingya-led organization working in the camps. Since March 2018, the RVAN team has been treating more 500 first aid cases and referrals to clinics/hospitals provided per month. Additionally, the RVAN volunteers have felt a sense of pride in helping to refer serious patients to life-saving care. As a long term accomplishment, CSI was able to get training for the RVAN workers to become Community Health Workers and secured long-term employment for them under a partner organization, Community Partners International.


When asked about his experience in Kutapalong, Andrew Strunk recalled treating an elderly gentleman with full thickness machete wounds to both upper thighs and buttocks, after having been attacked as he fled for his life. The Backpacker’s team did what they could and cleaned and dressed these wounds for him. During this same trip a refugee identified himself as Dr. Ayub, a Rohingya doctor who began working with the medics during their time in country. When Backpacker’s turned over the RVAN project to CSI, they left their surplus medical supplies with Dr. Ayub so that he was able to continue providing care for the 20,000 plus people within his settlment. He went on to play a coordinating role with RVAN and, during one of Strunk’s follow up trips to country, Strunk was able to come across the patient with the machete wounds again. The patient showed off his now-treated wounds proudly, displaying how well they were healing after having been under the ongoing care of Dr. Ayub.


The work of these organizations emphasizes the importance of localization, while also generating jobs and growth in a place that desperately needs positive outcomes.


Like what we posted, or think we missed something? We would love for you to leave your feedback with a comment!





  • Stephen Vaughan

    This appears to be an innovative, appropriate response which overcomes many logistical, security, and bureaucratic impediments encountered by larger INGOs. Hope it keeps on working.

    12/10/2018 at 6:54 pm

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