Rohingya artists from Myanmar document life in one of the world’s largest refugee camps
Washington, D.C. (August 23, 2022)—A new photography book by three ethnic-Rohingya artists from Myanmar will be published on August 25, five years after the Myanmar military-led genocidal attacks on Rohingya that forced more than 700,000 to flee their indigenous homeland, triggering international outcry. The book is available today for pre-order.
“A Chance to Breathe,” published with support from media organization Doha Debates and human rights organization Fortify Rights, is a new book of exclusive photography and poetry by three Rohingya refugees living in one of the world’s largest refugee camps located in Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh. The book is published by FotoEvidence, a leading publishing house dedicated to documentary photography focused on human rights and social and ecological justice.
“A Chance to Breathe” features the work of Omal Khair, Dil Kayas, and Azimul Hasson, three survivors of genocide who were forced from their homes in Rakhine State during the Myanmar-military-led “clearance operations” of 2017. Beginning on August 25, 2017, the Myanmar military razed hundreds of Rohingya villages in Rakhine State, Myanmar and killed and raped untold numbers of men, women, and children. The U.S. and other governments, U.N. officials, and nongovernmental organizations determined the attacks to be genocide.
For decades, Myanmar authorities have denied the existence of the Rohingya, forbidding them from owning smartphones, cameras, or otherwise documenting their lives. Today, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh face similar restrictions on their fundamental freedoms, making this new book an especially rare glimpse into the daily lives of Rohingya refugees and genocide survivors.
In 2018, Fortify Rights, in partnership with Doha Debates, began providing on-the-ground photography and social-media training for these three young refugees. Azimul Hasson, 20, dreams of pursuing higher education; Omal Khair, 22, believes that empowered women are agents of change; and Dil Kayas, 28, a young mother of three, has a strong passion for photography.
Equipped with smartphones, the photographers sought to document their lives and engage the outside world by offering an intimate look at Rohingya life.
Omal Khair, co-author of the book, said: “I hope, when you see this photo book that you will come to know the Rohingya’s daily life and see their suffering…We must do this to end the Rohingya refugee life and daily suffering.”
Dil Kayas, another co-author, said: “I am very thankful to [the project] because our Rohingya photos and Rohingya history will now be published to the world. I hope to keep uploading photos to Instagram so our Rohingya history doesn’t disappear.”
Omal Khair, Dil Kayas, and Azimul Hasson have amassed thousands of followers online, and in 2021, the trio, along with Fortify Rights and Doha Debates, won a Shorty Award in recognition of their work. They were also featured in the 2021 film “Exodus,” directed by Fortify Rights Senior Multimedia Specialist Taimoor Sobhan, which follows the three photographers through their training and offers a look into their lives in Cox’s Bazar.
Amjad Atallah, Doha Debates’ managing director, said, “This new book of compelling photography and poetry offers a unique look at the challenges faced by Rohingya refugees and, most importantly, hope for the future. Doha Debates is honored to partner with Fortify Rights and FotoEvidence to release this important book to the public, and we congratulate Omal Khair, Dil Kayas, and Azimul Hasson for their achievements in bringing this work to life.”
Matthew Smith, co-founder and CEO of Fortify Rights, said: “This book is a beautiful testament to Rohingya freedom. It shows what Rohingya artists can do when they can exercise their right to freedom of expression. Our team is honored to have worked on this project with Omal Khair, Dil Kayas, Azimul Hasson, and everyone at Doha Debates and FotoEvidence.”
Svetlana Bachevanova, co-founder and director of FotoEvidence, said: “‘A Chance to Breathe’ fulfills FotoEvidence’s mission to support photographers documenting humanitarian crises, social injustice and the denial of rights. These three young photographers, living in the world’s largest refugee settlement, have created a document that belongs in the canon of humanist photography. We are honored to publish the work of Omal Khair, Dil Kayas, and Azimul Hasson.”
Featured in the book are a collection of original poems as well as images capturing moments in the daily lives of refugees in camps in Cox’s Bazar District as they play sports, prepare food, read Burmese inside the camp’s learning center, and receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
Other photographs depict more subtly or overtly devastating scenes: a young man praying for his deceased parents in the camp’s graveyard; makeshift shelters destroyed by heavy monsoon rains; and residents selling goods on the streets after Bangladeshi camp authorities shut down and demolished their shops and markets.
Omal Khair, Dil Kayas, and Azimul Hasson also document the fires that swept the camp in spring 2021, burning thousands of shelters and killing hundreds of refugees.
The book’s final images contain a rare self-portrait of the three photographers, as well as artwork by the photographers calling for basic human rights for the Rohingya.
The trio continues to document life in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, posting photographs regularly on Instagram at @dilkayas, @omal_khair, and @azimulhass.
The European release of “A Chance to Breathe” is scheduled for September 2022 at the Visa Pour L’Image festival for photojournalism. The book can be pre-ordered online through FotoEvidence. All of the proceeds from sales of the book will go directly to the Rohingya community.
About Doha Debates
Doha Debates believes the world will be a better place if we make room to listen to and understand all sides of an issue and seek consensus together. As divisions on social, geopolitical, scientific and other issues become more entrenched, people retreat into echo chambers and refuse to listen to a spectrum of perspectives. We believe that positive, meaningful change only happens when we build bridges among a diversity of viewpoints.
Even on the most complex and divisive problems, with the right tools, empathy, and determination, we can learn from each other and walk away with a more robust and nuanced understanding of an issue. Inspired by Majlis-style debates, which creates a welcoming space for discussion of diverse views, we engage with young people from every region and country who are invested in solving urgent global issues. Through our programming and content, Doha Debates provides intellectual and practical tools to empower a new generation of leaders who can bridge divides and resolve differences.
About Fortify Rights
Fortify Rights is an award-winning human rights organization that works to ensure human rights for all. We bring laws, policies, and practices in line with human rights standards by combining three commonly separate strategies of the international human rights movement: we (1) investigate human rights violations; (2) engage people with power on potential solutions; and (3) strengthen human rights defenders and communities through technical support. We are a team of human rights defenders who believe in the influence of evidence-based research, the power of strategic truth telling, and the importance of working in close collaboration with individuals, communities, and movements pushing for change. Our work has exposed genocide and mass atrocity crimes, ensured justice for survivors of human trafficking, prevented the arbitrary detention, and forced return of refugees, and improved protections for at-risk human rights defenders. Fortify Rights is an independent, nonprofit organization registered in the United States and Switzerland. You can find us at www.fortifyrights.org.
The FotoEvidence Association is a non-profit publishing and educational organization. Our mission is to draw attention to injustice, oppression, and assaults on human dignity through the lens of photographers working in the humanistic tradition. We fund and publish the work of the FotoEvidence Book Award and the W award winners in high-quality, hardbound photo books. FotoEvidence books focus on the most pressing social and environmental justice issues of our time, from genocide to global warming. They are published to expose injustice, to create evidence, call for accountability, and to inspire social change. To display and distribute the work of dedicated photographers, FotoEvidence works with advocacy organizations working in the field on the issues addressed, providing visual resources for their work and a visual story that provides access, evokes empathy, and moves people to action.