Nestled in the northeastern most point in India, the state of Assam has been plagued by ethnic conflict since the 1970s. Life in the isolated region is already difficult — people earn less than $2 a day, with minimal opportunities to break the cycle of poverty.
That made it even harder for people to cope when a series of devastating floods and a new wave of violence both hit in 2012. More than half a million people were displaced by the natural and man-made disasters.
In this month’s staff profile, meet Hasina, who joined the Mercy Corps team to help her community rebuild.
My motivation: I live in Chirang, a beautiful district bordering Bhutan in Assam in northeast India. This was a safe place until conflict shook us. People were simple, depending on each other for livelihood. Now, everything has changed.
In 2012, when my community [Bengali Muslim] and the Bodos started fighting and more than 40,000 families had to flee their homes to take shelter in crammed relief camps set up by the government, I was witness to unprecedented fear and hardship. Many people had lost their houses and property, and the camps didn’t have enough facilities. Often, a toilet had to be shared by 100 people or the same set of utensils was used by many families in turns.
When Mercy Corps came for initial discussion about an emergency response project in Chirang, I realized this was an opportunity for me to contribute to the needs of the communities and decided to get involved.
What we do: The goal of the program is to help people get back to normal life by restarting their farming and other activities. With no savings and loss of all assets in the conflict, most people are idle now. With no income, children and women will suffer most. The livelihood recovery project will give the households opportunities to restart their occupations. This will also help in rebuilding trust among the communities.
A typical day at work: I visit villages or relief camps almost everyday. Up until March, I was part of Mercy Corps’ education support program in the relief camps and was spending most weekends with the children in the camps, organizing play and learning activities, and camp cleanliness drives. I identified students for scholarships and visited schools for re-enrolling the students who had dropped out due to the displacement after the violence.
I was also regularly involved in helping women cope with gender-related discrimination and violence.
Now, as part of Mercy Corps’ livelihood recovery project, I am visiting camps and returnee villages in Chirang to assess the situation and map the needs of the affected households.
One of the most rewarding tasks for me was distributing goods to displaced families. We were the first to hand over the basic materials like mattresses, utensils and blankets to more than 30,000 families in the relief camps in Chirang. The gratitude of the people was heart rending.
Why I love what I do: People had lost faith in each other after the conflict and were living a life of fear. But now we have documented and shared many instances where a member of a particular community saved the lives of the other community. We have continuously counseled the people in the camps to think about peaceful co-existence. This, along with efforts of the government to curb violence, has brought back hope to a certain degree.
I have gained a lot of respect from community leaders and local administrators and they now approach me directly for negotiation meetings and family and intercommunity counseling. I get the impression that people who approach me think, “Hasina is genuine, can be trusted and will help.”
Past challenges, future plans: I dropped out in high school and started to volunteer with a local organization called Action Northeast Trust. I participated in their youth work, and they re-enrolled me in my studies. I completed Class 12.
Then I got married. My in-laws didn't like my work. My husband divorced me. I experienced the tribulations of being a woman. I can understand how women suffer, and my effort is to give them courage to stand up for themselves in their homes. I encourage young women to come out of their homes and be active in the community.
My dream is to reduce gender discrimination in our communities. Working in Mercy Corps supported projects have helped me to have a more profound voice in tackling social evils like domestic violence and early marriage.
Hopes for my country: I hope there is unity...I hope there is peace and development. I want to be a leader for women in our communities. I want to be a voice that is heard and protect women's rights.