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The Tragic Brilliance Of The Toys Rohingya Children Have Invented From Trash

After fleeing persecution in Myanmar, nearly a million Rohingya are refugees in Bangladesh, where children turn broken, everyday objects into toys.

The Tragic Brilliance Of The Toys Rohingya Children Have Invented From Trash
[Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images]

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.

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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.”

Rohingya migrant boy Khairul (6), who arrived in Bangladesh in September, holds a piece of plastic that he uses as a spade to play in the sand at the Thankhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on December 2, 2017. [Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images]
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.

Rohingya migrant boy Mohhamad (10), who arrived in Bangladesh in October, holds a discarded syringe that he was playing with at the Thankhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on December 2, 2017. [Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images]
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.

Rohingya migrant boy Abi (3), who arrived in Bangladesh in October, holds a spinning toy at the Shamlapur refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on December 1, 2017. [Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images]
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.

Rohingya migrant boy Abdul (5), who arrived in Bangladesh in September, holds bottle tops that he uses to play a game called ‘Medakhela’ at the Thankhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on December 2, 2017. [Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images]
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.

Rohingya migrant boy Mohammad (4) holds a battery that he was playing with by dismantling it at Thankhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on December 2, 2017. [Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images]
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.

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Rohingya migrant girl Halima (6), who arrived in Bangladesh in October, holds a whistle and a razor blade that she uses as toys at the Shamlapur refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on December 1, 2017. [Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images]
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.”

Rohingya migrant boy Mohammad (5) holds a plastic ‘fidget spinner’ that he found discarded, at Thankhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on December 2, 2017. [Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images]
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.

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