NYU Steinhardt Professor of Environmental Education Raul Lejano and his team have created risk prevention workshops to help Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh better prepare for extreme weather events.

Photo of Rohingya encampment
Rohingya encampment in Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of Raul Lejano.

In Bangladesh, a few miles from the border shared with Myanmar (previously Burma), more than one million ethnic Rohingya people have encamped on what is now one of the largest refugee communities in the world. The land in which these people have sought refuge is also one of the most disaster-prone on the continent. Researchers from New York University’s Steinhardt School are working with the Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) of Bangladesh and NGO, Bangladesh Disaster Preparedness Centre (BDPC), to design and implement a series of empowerment-based risk communication workshops to help people in this community better prepare for extreme weather events that may put their lives in danger.

“It's hard to imagine what the Rohingya people have gone through,” said Raul Lejano, professor of environmental education at NYU Steinhardt and lead researcher on the project. “Many have lost almost everything fleeing Myanmar and it would be tragedy upon tragedy for them to lose everything again in a cyclone. I hope that by working with the Cyclone Preparedness Programme of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Disaster Preparedness Centre, we can develop disaster risk prevention workshops to help them, in a small way, gain some control over their lives.”

Reality for Rohingya Refugees
Bangladesh has previously experienced major cyclones and other disasters that have devasted settlements and destroyed the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. The threat of cyclones and torrential monsoon rains continue to create hazards of mudslides, landslides, and flash floods along the denuded hills where refugee homes have now been built.

Similar to many lower-income communities in the region, these communities are more at risk because they often live in less secure areas, have lower-quality housing, are less likely to be connected to channels of information, and have fewer resources for evacuation or other emergency response. This challenge is compounded by the fact that these families have already faced recent displacement – fleeing the ethnic, religious, and political persecution they experienced in nearby Myanmar. With this added element there are feelings of uncertainty on how to cope, of what the future holds, as well as feelings of disempowerment. In these cases, there is a great need to raise people’s level of confidence to act in the face of extreme weather.

Rohingya encampment in Bangladesh.

Lower-quality housing within Rohingya encampments in Bangladesh. Photos courtesy of Raul Lejano.

Rohingya encampment in Bangladesh

The Workshops
There are two kinds of workshops developed by Lejano and his team. The first is created for residents that live in the Rohingya camp and the second, the “train-the-trainer” workshop, is for CPP volunteers stationed at the camps who are trained to prepare residents to lead the workshops in their communities. The workshop for the residents is limited to 20 people at a time and welcomes women, men and residents who might be elderly or disabled. The first workshop is separated by gender. This to ensure women who many not feel comfortable speaking to men about personal issues have a supportive learning environment. Their sessions are also led by female teachers from the Rohingya community.

Each session has three parts: an experience sharing section, a sandbox exercise, and training in warning message construction.

Experience Sharing
The experience sharing section encourages participants to take a step back from their immediate situations, reflect on reasons people may feel disempowered and unable to act, and offer ideas about how to motivate people to take more control over their safety and health. One example of how a facilitator might prompt discussion during this section is by asking something like: “Imagine you talk to a family who just feels helpless. The parent says that there is nothing they can do, and if the cyclone damages their home, there is nothing they can do… What can you tell this family to encourage or convince them to be more active and to take action?” This section is a discussion focused on empowerment.

Sandbox Exercise
The goal of the sandbox exercise is to offer a visual representation of extreme weather and its impact. For this exercise, in either a plastic bin or directly on the ground, participants will place sand or dirt shaped to look like hilly terrain (or coastal terrain, depending on where the workshop is) in a pile. Afterwards, participants will add small plastic houses or pebbles to represent homes to the pile. Next, they will slowly pour water on the top until some of the pile gives way and lower areas get flooded. Participants are able to note that channels and low elevation areas can be flooded quickly (flash flood), damaging homes and other property, and that after extended rain, the ground underneath the house can give way or the rain, mud and earth from uphill can carry the house away (mudslide). This helps to make extreme weather more than just an abstract idea.

The hope is that this exercise may also give ideas about how to sense impending danger by looking at the surroundings (e.g., mud starting to flow), and give residents a feeling of control.

Terrain at Rohingya encampment

Terrain and hilly area at Rohingya encampment. Photo courtesy of Raul Lejano.

Photo of Raul Lejano

Raul Lejano at Rohingya encampment in Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of Raul Lejano.

The Warning Message
The final section of the workshop focuses on warning messages and risk. There is a discussion about warning flags, which are used to designate different kinds of risks, a conversation about different kinds of risks a resident should prepare for depending on where they may live (e.g., the danger of a mudslide if a resident lives on a slope), and a longer discussion on how to communicate the risks – in case a participant may have to persuade a neighbor to get to safety during an emergency situation.

The second workshop follows the same format as the first, including all three sections, but the discussions focus on how the CPP volunteers, as facilitators, would guide residents and new volunteers through coordinating a workshop themselves.

The workshops operate as an additional element to ongoing training and programming on early warning systems and emergency preparedness done by the CPP. They add a focus on residents training themselves to understand and communicate risks. Before and after each workshop, participants are asked to complete a survey. The surveys assess participants level of preparedness to encounter and deal with an extreme weather event.

Rohingya people completing their post workshop surveys

Rohingya residents completing their post-workshop surveys. Photo courtesy of Raul Lejano.

Learn more about this at www.environmental-communication.space.  

Similar Work in Brooklyn and New Jersey
Lejano, along with NYU Tandon colleague Debra Laefer, also received grants from the National Science Foundation and NYU to adapt and tailor the risk communication workshops he developed in Bangladesh and others he has developed in the Philippines to local communities here in the New York/New Jersey metro area that are most vulnerable to storm surge.

For the local project, NYU researchers are developing a communications toolkit and prototype virtual reality goggles that allow residents to visualize different levels of flooding outside their homes. Researchers will then look at the toolkits’ effectiveness in preparing local communities for such weather events.

The toolkit will respond to key problems experienced by communities during previous disasters. It is understood that while the national weather agency generally forecasts cyclones and storm surges to a reasonable degree of accuracy, such information does not reach or register with the most vulnerable communities. Through this project Lejano hopes to develop a communications toolkit that can be used in communities across the United States.

Learn more about the local project HERE.

About the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
Located in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village, NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development prepares students for careers in the arts, education, health, media and psychology. Since its founding in 1890, the Steinhardt School's mission has been to expand human capacity through public service, global collaboration, research, scholarship, and practice. To learn more about NYU Steinhardt, visit steinhardt.nyu.edu.