Snazzy software applications are built to track and manage refugee numbers, document their origins, and to screen and train some for resettlement in a land often culturally unknown to them, but shrouded from view are the real people, their stories of persecution, and their hopelessness manifested in the wrinkles on their foreheads that make up the backbone of these applications.
As if the intense pain of leaving their homelands were not enough, the lucky ones even have to go to great lengths to learn the foreign culture and language of their would-be countries.
Unable to go back to their homelands, most do not make it to that point, and spend generations in cramped camps, while some long for repatriation. The software captures all the pertinent details efficiently, but not the depth of human suffering that takes its toll on individual souls.
The Rohingyas have lived many years in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, often in harmony with other ethnicities. Although they have been in their own land for some time now, they are now being driven out in large numbers as part of an ethnic cleansing. As a member of a team dealing with resettlement of refugees, I can relate to today's crisis through my own experience.
I recall my recent trip to eastern Nepal as part of a team dealing with the global refugee resettlement programme. My venture beamed me down to Nepal, and my mission: to hear stories in person, to isolate the subjects from mere pieces of data, to know about their origins, and to provide a face to all that seems so inanimate.
Systems may be infallible and impassive, but their subjects often are not. Ebullient at the prospect, I took my hands off the systems for a few days, to be an eye for all that goes into the design.
These refugees were persecuted because of who they were, and go through organisations such as UNHCR and International Organization for Migration (IOM) to get into our systems. I worked at the central body to facilitate their smooth transition from one state to another, the last state being the ultimate resettlement. Our central body would oversee all the processing entities in the field that come face to face with them every day.
During my stay, I was stationed in Eastern Nepal. We flew from Kathmandu. Originally, Bhutanese people of Nepalese descent, these refugees – the Lhotsampas – were being harassed in southern Bhutan. Their predecessors had migrated to Bhutan in the 1800s for a better life. They had been there ever since, contributing to the agrarian economy of Bhutan. But over the years, they had retained their native Nepalese language and had clung to their cultural traditions and values.
Never accepted into the Bhutanese society despite their contributions, they had been harassed, threatened, or driven out of their homes, their possessions plundered.
The ethnic Druks started forcing them out in droves in 1991. I heard from the field that women were being forced to wear traditional Bhutanese outfit 'kira' which is very uncomfortable in the hot Southern Bhutan.
Bhutanese language was being imposed on them. Nepal does not grant them the right to free movement and work. Local integration is possible only through marriage. Nepal says they don't belong there either. Although many seek repatriation, Bhutan has not accepted any of them.
My tour of the Beldangi refugee camp revealed that many refugees had been living there for as long as 18 years. Many children had grown up and gone to schools set up in the camps. Some had worked in the camps. I got to sit as an observer in a number of interviews to hear their stories of persecution.
They were two siblings who narrated their stories of abuse. Their father had been killed in Bhutan. Many jittery moments of sharp interrogation later, when the officials accepted their stories, the sisters burst into tears of joy. She had been a teacher in the camp. While I thought they all awaited a resettlement to a third country, my conversations with some revealed their desire for death in the camps if they failed to return. Such was the sense of belonging to the land they had been evicted from, that all these years of hardship could not dampen their patriotism.
I followed a tiny cherubic girl into her hut. She now lived with her mother, aunt, and her grandfather. There was this clean bed, adorned with a colourful cover, on which, her gaunt grandfather was seated with a blank stare, sanguine of a greener pasture. I could feel his pent-up desire to vent as they posed for photos with alacrity. I knew they were mere numbers in our systems and they belonged to a mundane case.
The little girl, being shy, often tried to hide behind her mother, her eyes exuding a world of curiosity. Did she know what life might be like outside these camps? I found warmth even in statelessness. That's all they could offer.
The camp had been gutted by a bad fire a few days earlier. The trail of destruction was ubiquitous, but I saw the pearls of labour in rebuilding.
Bamboo huts were being worked on by the camp as if they were the last straws they were desperately clinging to. Many did not know how long they would stay there. They had bet their entire lives on the efficacy of our systems to ferry them out. I popped into a cultural orientation training class where I realised how novel, small things – that we take for granted — could be for people so deprived and indigent.
They were being briefed about toilet seats and switches, the use of silverware and toilet papers, the signs and pedestrian crossings that they might one day find to be so daunting in their newfound homes in many western countries. There were pictures of celebrities, without the knowledge of whom, their Western lives would be incomplete.
It's one thing to deal with the technical aspects of a project in a centrally air-conditioned location where people are mere entities, and horrific details of their lives are just numerous attributes, it's quite another, however, to have an up close and personal look at what these entities are like and what these attributes mean.
Often, we design systems that are devoid of the feelings of their subjects, and the impact of their powers. People are efficiently transported through the systems, regardless of the emotions involved in the separation of hearts and homes. Neither the smell of the cramped quarters, nor the resignation of a man who once so dearly clung to his soil can be captured accurately in a design.
I mull the architecture of new features of the application, one being the conversion of their age into our systems from theirs. I contemplate more new interfaces. But I know now the most spectacular aspects of my application are those innocent people who remain mute and who don't know where they will wake up the next day. They are now “sweat and emotion,” not just numbers.
The writer has been with the Federal Government for the last nine years in the United State, working as an Information Technology Professional