- Associated Press - Monday, June 25, 2018

ANDOVER, Mass. (AP) - After traveling to Bangladesh this spring with their teenage daughters, two Andover mothers are on a mission to help Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh.

It began this winter when Tracey Haslam stumbled across a Time Magazine photo on Instagram of Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in recent years. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have fled Myanmar since an ethnic cleansing came to a head in August 2017, according to BBC reports.

Haslam had been planning a trip to Mozambique over the April school break with her daughter Belle Haslam, 16. When Haslam saw the photo of Rohingya refugees, however, she decided to help.

“The picture was very graphic,” Haslam said. “I said, ‘Let’s go to Bangladesh instead to help these people because it is horrible what is happening.’”

According to UNICEF, it is estimated as of April 2018, there are 693,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Haslam said that despite their past, many refugees want to return to Myanmar, but until ongoing violence in the region subsides they will remain in a limbo-like state in Bangladesh refugee camps. In Bangladesh, the government views the Myanmar refugees as temporary migrants - therefore they don’t have the rights that citizens or even refugees typically have, Haslam said. They cannot hold jobs or go to school. Instead children congregate at “youth centers” that are very similar to schools.

When Haslam asked friends at a birthday party if anyone wanted to join her trip to Bangladesh, Melissa Nelson volunteered to come along with her daughter, Tatum Nelson, 14.

“Military came in and just went through and destroyed all their villages,” Nelson said, “raped women, killed men, threw children in the fire. These people have heartbreaking stories: how they fled, survived in the wilderness for weeks, and luckily Bangladesh let them in.”

The pair knew very little about refugee camps and what kinds of aid might help, however.

“We had no skills in this whatsoever,” Haslam said. “We knew nothing. We went over there just praying this would all work out - and it did.”

“Even before we left, it all started coming together,” Nelson said. “It just gave me a lot of hope.”

Before their trip, Haslam and Nelson were able to raise enough money to pay for the installation of two deep tubal wells which service 500 families each. The pair were also able to give chickens and seeds to a village, hand out school supplies, and provide baby formula.

Nelson’s daughter, Tatum, said the trip was eye-opening.

“This trip to Bangladesh was such a humbling experience and has given me new perspective on how grateful we should be for everything we have,” Tatum said. “It has become evident to me that our government needs to do something to help these people who are being denied basic human rights, and we need to find ways to get more involved.”

Their work didn’t end after they returned to the United States, however. The women founded Compassion Takes Action, a nonprofit already recognized in the state of Massachusetts. Haslam and Nelson are still working to to file paperwork for federal recognition, however.

As of June, Haslam and Nelson have raised $10,000, some of which paid for the work they did on their April trip. According to Nelson, the pair can build an educational youth center through the Human Relief Foundation for $5,000, which they already have enough funding to do. The monthly cost to keep the educational youth center open for 150 students will be $1,500.

Haslam and Nelson said the camps, although they are run well by the Bangladesh government, are plagued by child and human trafficking, as well as possible ISIS recruiters.

Neslon said she believes by creating educational youth centers that function like schools for refugee children, she and Haslam hope to educate and protect children in the camps.

“The schools.it keeps them off the street,” Nelson said. “We just want them to be safe and learn and teach some life skills too.”

Since returning to the United States, Nelson and Haslam have undertaken several fundraising initiatives. The pair partnered with Andover Public Schools for an end of the year supplies drive, collected donated sports equipment at the soccer jamboree at Andover High earlier this month, operated lemonade stands, and have continued to grow their team as more people step forward to help.

About ten people are involved in the nonprofit today, and between 10 and 20 people have expressed interest in joining Haslam and Nelson on a second trip to Bangladesh this November to prepare for the building of the school.

“I feel like the biggest thing I learned is if you want to help, you can,” Nelson said. “I have always wanted to help internationally. I kept saying, it’s not time. I just had a baby.we made a goal. Do it.”

“Anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it,” Haslam agreed.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2tpVArA

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Information from: Eagle Tribune (North Andover, Mass.), http://www.eagletribune.com

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