“On behalf of 460,000 refugees, I would like to thank you.”

September 8, 2022

Hello! Today is the day to hand over 100,000 gas stoves to the Rohingya refugee camp.

At eight in the morning, we packed all our luggage at the hostel and headed to the Rohingya refugee camp in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) vehicle. Bokwang, Hyeok Lee, and Eunhee Kim, executive directors of JTS in India, who procured the 100,000 gas stoves by traveling to and from Bangladesh, were also present.

As we drew closer to the Rohingya refugee camp, a barbed-wire fence began to appear.

“What is this fence for?”

“The barbed wire fence was installed to separate the Rohingya refugee camp,”

Oh my gosh … it’s just the same land …”

The barbed wire continued along the roadside. After an hour, the car arrived at the regional base of the International Refugee Organization (IOM), where the 100,000 gas stoves donated by JTS were being stored.

The IOM representative guided Ven. Pomnyun Sunim to the storage area. 

“This is where we store the gas stoves. There are 20,000 in this warehouse, and the rest are in the other warehouse—1,500 have already been distributed.”

A banner was hung in front of the storage warehouse and the handover ceremony began. First, the IOM representative expressed her gratitude to Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. 

“IOM and UNHCR have worked together to provide LPG gas and the gas stoves to the refugees. As you will see when you visit the refugee camp in person later, all the forest here has been revived and it has become very green. In the past, when there were no gas stoves, woman and children had to go into the forest to find firewood and cut down trees for cooking. After JTS donated the gas stoves, there is no longer a need to go into the mountains or cut trees anymore, so the forests have been saved.

Since the gas stoves were distributed, health and safety issues here have improved significantly. In the past, there were many cases of people going out to find firewood and being exposed to various crimes, kidnapped, or being trafficked. After receiving the gas stoves, those problems have been greatly reduced. In particular, women and children were easily exposed to such problems, but that has been resolved. Now that we have gas stoves, no more worries.

I would like to sincerely thank you again for your donation of 100,000 gas stoves today, in addition to 100,000 in 2019. With the gas stove donated by JTS, 460,000 refugees have benefitted. I would like to express how grateful we are by bringing all of the 460,000 refugees, but I’m here to express my gratitude on their behalf.”

“You asked for 200,000 stoves, but I’m sorry that I could only supply 100,000. For the remaining 100,000, we put a lot of effort to have the Korean government supply stoves, but it was not successful.”

“JTS already donated 100,000 in 2019, so if you add today’s 100,000, it is correct that you have provided total of 200,000 that fulfilled our goal” (laughter)

Sunim then stood in front of the banner and took a commemorative photo of the handover.

IOM, UNHCR, and KOICA staff expressed their gratitude with a big round of applause. After the ceremony, the IOM CEO gave gifts to Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and JTS.

“This is a heartfelt gift made by Rohingya refugees.”

Inside the paper bag were a hand-embroidered a cloth and mask.

“Thank you!”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim entered the car and went straight to the next stop. The UNHCR kept a tight schedule until his scheduled flight to Dhaka at 4pm.

The next visit was Camp 14. Here, the gas stoves were distributed directly to the residents, who were instructed on how to use them.

Before entering the training room, the IOM representative first talked about the changes brought by the gas stove.

“I will show you the changes from four years ago and now. This photo was taken in the same place. If you look at the old photos, it looks like a wasteland. Before using gas stoves, refugees cut down trees and made fires. After four years of using the gas stove, looking at the picture now, it is very green. That’s why I set this banner in green.”

After listening to the explanation, Sunim entered the training room.

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The women, with only their eyes uncovered, were learning how to turn on the gas stove. It was shared that less than 1% of Rohingya refugees have used a gas stove before. So they were being educated on how to turn the stoves on and off safely.

Sunim gave a demonstration after seeing someone have difficulty keeping the stove alight even after opening the gas valve.

“If you open the valve like this and press the lighter, the fire starts immediately.”

Eyes twinkled like gas fires in response. 

In the back room, there was a training video on how to look after the gas stoves. Although gas stoves were first distributed four years ago, the people using the stoves for the first time did not know how to clean or maintain them, so they often broke down. To compensate for that, education was now being provided with the distribution.

At the warehouse outside, gas stoves and lighters were being distributed to the refugees.

After inspecting the warehouse, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim handed out gas stoves himself.

Sunim left the education center and went into the refugee camp.

Passing through a narrow alley where the houses faced each other, he visited a family raising two daughters. Although it was called a house, it was just a bamboo frame covered with vinyl and tent fabric.

Although the sun shone brightly outside, the house was dark inside. There was not even a lightbulb.

A gas stove was placed on one side of the room in which the family of four lived. The old woman skillfully turned on the stove. She has been using it for four years since the first distribution. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim asked her:

“It’s good that you use it well. Do you have any problem while using it?”

“There is none. It’s very good. In the past, we had to gather wood to cook rice, but using a gas stove is so convenient.”

“That’s great. I considered donating automatic gas stoves this time, but when I asked the activists for their opinions, they all said that the manual stoves are safer. I’m glad you said it works well.”

When Sunim came out of the house, children had gathered in the alley.

“Wait, isn’t it time for the children to be in school?”

“There is no school.”

“Oh no …”

“We are negotiating with the government right now, and I think we can get an education permit. Right now, we are just teaching without grades.”

“It’s better than nothing.”

The children continued to laugh, looking at Sunim, even though they couldn’t communicate in words why they were so joyful. 

When Ven. Pomnyun Sunim asked if they knew any songs, the children started singing together.

“Good job!”

Sunim applauded the children. Even after leaving the alley, the children followed.

“We want to see your face!”

Sunim took off his mask and smiled broadly.

“What else do you need?”

“Soccer ball!”

“OK! I will definitely get you a soccer ball.”

The children clapped and loved Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s promise. The children followed Sunim all the way to the vacant lot in front of the camp.

“I have to go now.”

The children reached out to him. Sunim held each child’s hand tightly.

 One child asked.

“What is your name?”

“My name is Pomnyun.”

The children imitated “Pumnyun, Pumnyun.” And said.

“Thank you so much.”

Before leaving Refugee Camp 13, Sunim said goodbye to the IOM representative one last time.

“I’ve had a good look around. But when I asked the children, they said it would be nice to have a soccer ball. There are so many children but there seems to be no place to play. I will donate soccer balls to entire camp.”

“Thank you so much.”

The children waved cheerfully until Sunim’s vehicle departed.

“Even in this harsh environment, the children were as bright as sunlight.”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim said in a sad voice.

“Most of all, the problem is that the children cannot study.

The refugee camps enclosed by barbed wire were getting farther and farther away. Next, we moved on to Camp 4.

At Camp 4, we went to the EcoShed to hear how the entire camp was designed and maintained in an eco-friendly way.

In addition to handing over gas stoves, the UNHCR has been making efforts such as continuously planting trees and creating drainage channels to allow water to drain using natural environment. 

“The role of the gas stoves in this process was very important. Even after we planted new trees, they were cut down, so the trees couldn’t grow.”

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 Sandwiches were handed out for lunch while listening to explanations and asking questions.

“Since there’s no time for a proper lunch, we prepared some sandwiches.”

After the Q&A, we moved to the next place and had a conversation with the women living in the camp. There were no electric fans, so homemade hand-held fans were given out to everyone. 

First, after taking time to share how many people there were in the family, Sunim asked the women several questions:

“What is the most difficult thing about living here?”

The women took turns talking about the difficulties one by one. The most talked about issue was the education of their children.

“The hardest thing is not able to provide education for our children. The children have not received a proper education since they came to the camp.”

“It is difficult for parents and children to stay together for a long time because the shelters are so small. It is also difficult for a growing daughter, father, and brothers to live in the same space.”

“There are no streetlights, so going to the bathroom at night is scary.”

“There are a lot of mosquitoes, so dengue fever is widespread.”

“The shelters are very humid and hot because the roof is made of vinyl. Skin diseases are common and many suffer a lot.”

In addition to this, the women expressed their desire to return home as soon as possible several times. It was comforting to know that the gas stoves made women’s lives better. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim got up after asking everyone not to lose hope, despite their difficulties.

Finally, we went up to the high ground overlooking the refugee camp and filmed a video for the following week’s liturgy.

“Sunim, you must leave now to catch your flight.”

As soon as we finished filming, we went straight to the airport and boarded a flight from Cox’s Bazar to Dhaka at 4pm. The aircraft was supposed to land at 5 o’clock, but due to the prime minister of Bangladesh coming to the airport, the plane circled in the sky and did not land at Dhaka until 5:45 pm.

Dhaka is famous for its traffic jams, so Ven. Pomnyun Sunim went straight to the Bangladesh Embassy without stopping by the hotel. In the evening, he had an appointment with the ambassador to Bangladesh.

It took 20 minutes just to leave the airport. After an hour-and-a-half drive, we arrived at the embassy, and the ambassador came and greeted Ven. Pomnyun Sunim warmly.

“Thank you for visiting the embassy.”

We went into the official residence and chatted.

“I am very happy to see Sunim helping the Rohingya refugee issue. I am very proud of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, who is not a government official but a civilian who is contributing to this international issue from a religious organization. It seems that the leaders of other religious organizations do not show any interest nor want to get involved.”

“I have a little bit of regret. This tragedy happened in a Buddhist country. Our efforts seem to show that not all Buddhists are like that. (laughter)

“From now on, instead of supporting a large number of new stoves all at once, we are going to provide a system in which broken stoves are repaired and unused stoves are exchanged for continuous improvement. Then we only need to provide stoves to refugees who are new to the camp. They can be replaced when needed on demand. Then, when setting a budget, we can allocate a certain amount for maintenance and repair costs and continue to support.

“I talked to a gas stove distributor yesterday, and it doesn’t seem like it will cost much in the beginning. There are a million camp residents, so demand is huge. And so the distributor is also interested. The distribution company is responsible for fixing the gas stoves by connecting the stove manufacturer to operate a service center for free, and the work space is provided by the UNHCR and the IOM. JTS pays for it, so how about proceeding in this way?

“The old stoves can be collected for recycling. If they don’t function anymore, the parts and materials can be recycled to make new stoves instead of being thrown away. In that way, we would like to continue our support business in a way that is constantly improving.”

By the time the conversation was over, it was close to 10 pm.

Tomorrow morning, we will have a pilgrimage meeting in the dormitory and take a photo of the 1,000-Day Practice, then travel from Bangladesh to India, and then from India to Korea.