“Einstein was a refugee but could still do great things”
A photo essay by young Burmese refugees

Produced by Mark Belinsky and Emily Jacobi

“Yesterday night I dreamed that when some people went to the town for market, some police came and arrested them. My father was sent to the police and beaten. I woke up crying.” – Zafor, age 13

“[I like morning because] the weather is good, sometimes it feels cool. When I get up in the morning, I wash my face, brush my teeth, pray, and then I prepare to go to my private study. At that time I read my books, because at that time my brain is still cool and can absorb everything.” – Khaleda, age 13

Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Eastern Bangladesh Rarely do those living in refugee camps get to tell firsthand their stories of hardship. Least heard are the perspectives of children, for whom a refugee camp may be the only home they know.

In winter 2008, WKCD sponsored two young American media makers who traveled to Bangladesh to capture the lives of youth in a Burmese refugee camp there. At the Kutupalong Camp, Mark Belinsky and Emily Jacobi helped eleven Rohingya (Burmese) children share their world through their own photographs and words. Most of the children, ages ten through fourteen, had never seen a camera or tape recorder before. It took them no time, though, to organize themselves into teams, master the equipment, and gather eloquent testimony to the hardship and hope that mark daily life as refugees who are unable to return home.

The children decided on topics like “happiness” and “unhappiness” as themes for their documentation. Noor, 10, took a close-up photo of four children looking up at the camera. “If we have peace, we will be happy,” his caption reads. “If we can study, we will be happy. If we get rations here, well, we will be happy.” Ten-year-old Hasina captured against the sun the silhouettes of a group of barefoot women sweeping the dirt. She writes: “We are in great difficulty. We can neither eat or take it well. We are in distress. If we earn something, the villagers take away from us. Unhappiness is always with us.”

As their work drew to a close, the youth chose a title for their project: “Project Einstein.” They explained, “Einstein was a refugee, but he could still do great things.”

Like young people everywhere, Project Einstein’s members dream big—even when their hearts are sad.

“My name is Mohammed Salam. Last night I dreamed that I was taken back to my country along with you. I boarded into the plane. Whoever among us want to study, some of them want to become engineers, some doctors and some pilots. After study we are working in the field of pilots, engineers and doctors. We hope that we will become like that in reality.”

For Mohammed and these young Burmese exiles, the audio slideshows they created and share here are proof that they exist, testimony to their thoughts and dreams.

Project Einstein, Part I: The Background (1:45 min)
Project Einstein, Part II: Our Stories (6:45 min)


A few more words about the Rohingya from Mark and Emily

The thought of not being able to return home is unbearable to some, a stark reality for others. We have spent more than five years with people who face this truth: refugees, illegal migrants and other people whose lives are dictated by countries whose laws exclude them. Working with Rohingya living in Bangladesh, we encountered a people for whom the very idea of home is elusive.

For generations, the Rohingya people lived in what is now western Burma, building mosques, raising families, and tilling fields. As their country transitioned from a British colony to a fledgling democracy and then to a military dictatorship, their existence became increasingly tenuous. A 1982 law stripped them of their citizenship, codifying discrimination, denial of civil and human rights, restriction of movement and marriage, and persecution of their Muslim faith. Burma’s military regime claims the Rohingya are not “originally from Myanmar,” rendering them stateless by denying their history.

Illegal in the only home they have known, many flee to Bangladesh—more than 250,000 in the past two decades. Some 26,000 officially registered refugees live in two government-run camps, but the rest are undocumented, unprotected by any laws or governments. Living on the fringes of an already impoverished society, they struggle for daily survival.

Mark Belinsky has worked on interactive media projects for the past five years, as well as consulting in the non-profit sector. While making films in the Caucasus he helped to found and develop Bem, a youth progressive action center serving as a platform for Armenian youth to build an active civil society through art, media and free-expression. Since January 2007 he has been researching and developing media and online strategies for a globally displaced coalition of Burma-related groups. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University.

Emily Jacobi has worked internationally on media, youth development and social justice issues since 1996, when she traveled on a reporting trip to Cuba with the Indianapolis-based youth journalism program Y-Press. Since then she has worked on media and research projects in Latin America, West Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as “En Los Campos,” a multi-media exhibit highlighting the lives of teenage migrant farm workers in the US. Her work experience includes Internews Network, AllAfrica.com and Y-Press Assistant Bureau Director.  Since January 2007 her work has focused on supporting Burmese populations, producing multi-media projects, reports, and programming to support these underrepresented populations.

Mark and Emily are currently developing a nonprofit initiative called Democracy Without Borders, creating a virtual platform for Burmese civil society.



Burma Fast Facts

Estimated pop.: About 55 million (last census was in1983)
Area: 678,500 sq km
Location: Southeast Asia, bordering Bangladesh, China, India, Laos and Thailand
Government: Military junta
Major religions: Buddhist (89%), Christian (4%), Muslim (4%)
Life expectancy: 62.9 years


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Burmese refugees

For decades refugees have been fleeing from civil war, forced labor and other human rights abuses inside Burma, particularly against ethnic minority groups. Conservative estimates say over 295,800 refugees from Burma live in border camps in Bangladesh, Thailand, and India, with the majority being Rohingya, Kayin, and Karenni.

Refugees worldwide

Worldwide, there are currently
33 million people uprooted from their homes. Of these, 12 million
live in refugee camps in countries other than their own.


New Words Burma Border Project

Refugees International/Burma

Open Society Institute’s Burma Project

The Thai-Burma Border Consortium

Burma Global Action Network

US Campaign for Burma

The Burma Campaign

Burma Bloggers Network

Burma News International

BurmaNet - Aggregate of Burma news

Irrawaddy - Burmese magazine