Eight-year-old May has a necklace with several keys around her neck. We ask her what they are for.
Her eyes cloud over: “It is the keys to our house in Myanmar. My parents asked me to hang onto them for safety when we were separated. I do not know if we will make it back there.”
Soon afterwards, an older woman sees my Red Cross T-shirt and comes to ask me for help. Through a translator she tells me her daughter is in labour in the tent nearby.
I’m a nutritionist; I am not the right person to be helping with the labour and I nearly faint just thinking about it.
Thankfully our midwife arrives on foot in 30 minutes. During the wait I keep the mum-to-be cool with a fan and offer her clean water to drink.
The midwife suspects it’s a breech birth and the woman is referred to the nearby Red Cross field hospital for a safe birth.
Tourist trap turned refuge
I arrived at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, last week.
Near the Myanmar border, this tourist area lays claim to the “third longest beach” in the world. It now also lays claim to the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world.
More than 610,000 people from Rakhine State, Myanmar have crossed the border in just three months.
Having worked everywhere from Syria to Chad, I thought I would be prepared for what I’d see.
But these are the worst conditions I have encountered. This is a sentence I hear time and again from the most experienced aid workers here.
Inside the camp
We head to nearby Kutapalong camp. Steep hillsides are covered in makeshift homes closely packed together like a jigsaw and built with pride from bamboo and tarpaulins. There is no space left untouched, as far as the eye can see.
There are people everywhere. Three out of four are children and women. Endless streams of people walk in all directions trying to find supplies to build a new temporary shelter to call home.
We do our best to help with aid and point people in the right direction to seek what they need.
There are no roads in the camp, but steep muddy tracks wind precariously up the embankments. We keep climbing and reach one of our mobile health clinics.
We see more than 150 patients a day in each clinic: malnourished children and adults; people suffering from dangerous diarrhoea and respiratory infections.
We hear that thousands more are flooding across the border and we rush to a nearby transit centre to provide health care.
A young mother is ushered to the front of the line with two small children under two years of age, both listless in her arms.
They are nearly dying of thirst. We slowly drop water into their mouths with sugar and watch as they revive.
It is heartbreaking to see so many young children and mothers in this state.
One child starts screaming and we breathe a sigh of relief: he’s OK for now.
The line of people keeps coming and we are working until after dark.
The last of the new arrivals is seen and the skies open up with torrential rain.
We huddle under tarpaulins in the mud with hundreds of families in the dark waiting for the rain to stop.
Many more wait outside in line to get their tent and food. It is a surreal scene and no-one speaks.
The worst we’ve seen
No-one speaks much in the car on the two-hour drive back to base.
Between us, we have more than 35 years’ experience working in emergency response — these are still the worst conditions any of us have ever seen.
And still we find courage and strength amid the fear and uncertainty. I am in awe of the families we meet and the journey they have survived to be here.
The incredible jobs volunteers are doing, taking time to listen to each person, offering support and safe places for women and children to stay and play in incredibly tough conditions.
We’re providing the essentials for life: industrial-strength tarpaulins so people have a roof over their heads, food, clean water and access to safe toilets and health care.
As most Australians get ready for the festive season, people here just want to survive with the basics and some dignity. It really is a matter of life or death.
The sadness, courage and strength of these people will stay with me for a long time.
I hope my fellow Australians can open our hearts and stand up for our neighbours.