Persecuted for decades in their native Myanmar, where they’ve been denied citizenship and face violent ethnic cleansing, the Rohingya people fled to bordering countries in waves, with not much but each other.
In Cox’s Bazar, the tourist town in southeastern Bangladesh that’s seen 655,000 refugees pour in since August 2017, aid organizations have been overwhelmed–meaning that many Rohingya must make their own way, fixing plastic sheets to bamboo poles for “housing.”
The conditions in the overcrowded camps are dire; food is limited, drinking water scarce, and the lack of proper toilets increases the spread of infectious diseases like cholera and tuberculosis. But even amid such desperate circumstances, the refugee Rohingya children find humble and often heartbreaking ways to remain children.
Many resort to scavenging for discarded objects along roadsides and in dumpsters–a plastic bottle cap here, a syringe there. The rudimentary toys caught the eye of photographer Ed Jones, who had initially traveled to Cox’s Bazar to photograph what families had brought with them from Myanmar. But as he would soon discover, few had time to pack belongings. Toys? Furniture? Clothes? All would have slowed them down on their dangerous journey; even without these items, many Rohingya have been intercepted and killed trying to make their way out. The photos he took of his trip were published on Getty Image’s FOTO site.
By January, Bangladesh had registered nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees. The stateless Muslim minority group is currently experiencing what the U.N. has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” at the hands of Myanmar’s military and Buddhist extremists. Of the escaped, 60% are children.
Even facing such a crisis, childhood imagination is hard to suppress. Bottle caps become water jugs and boats; a torn piece of paper is fashioned into a spade that can whip up a sandcastle in minutes.
The toys, no matter how basic, are treasures in the kids’ eyes. “They were often protective of them if other children showed interest,” Jones says.
Once, Jones saw a girl playing with a small yellow plastic cylinder she’d adapted into a whistle, a toy many children have in the camps of Cox’s Bazar. “When I asked if I could photograph her holding it, she opened her hands to reveal a double-edged razor blade,” Jones says. “As a father, I found the imaginative ways that the children kept themselves busy was both endearing and saddening.”
But even if they can stay in the relative safety of Bangladesh, refugee children, who have suffered severe trauma, face a mental health crisis and a long road ahead for integration with local communities.
This story originally appeared on Getty Images’s FOTO site.