For anyone who is forced to leave their country, home-style cooking is a balm. When your life has been uprooted, the recipes passed down over generations can tether you to your culture and home. Sahat Zia Hero, the founder of Rohingyatographer magazine and a Rohingya refugee living in exile, knows this all too well. For him, eating traditional Rohingya food is about more than just nourishment. “It’s a tangible link to our past, a way to preserve our heritage and a testimony to our strength,” Zia tells Broadsheet.
Zia and 29 other photographers showcase that strength in Rohingyatographer, a print and digital publication that shares the work of Rohingya photographers and refugees living in Cox’s Bazar in south-eastern Bangladesh. The region is home to the world’s largest refugee camp, which has almost one million Rohingya refugees – a long-persecuted Muslim minority from western Myanmar. Many fled their neighbouring home country after the Rohingya genocide of 2016 and ’17.
Zia and his family were among some 700,000 people who were forced to leave. In the wake of losing so much – including all his belongings during the frantic escape – he turned to documenting life in Cox’s Bazar. The self-taught photographer, poet and editor took photos for the Danish Refugee Council and posted his own shots online to highlight the poor living conditions. In 2021, he and other photographers documented an enormous fire that tore through a camp, which killed 15 people, left 50,000 homeless and destroyed Zia’s family’s shelter. The photos raised awareness and aid for refugees in the process. Despite losing everything again, that year Zia self-published his first photo book, Rohingyatography, with help from Spanish photographer David Palazón.
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Soon after, the duo started Rohingyatographer magazine to give more Rohingya people a platform to tell their own stories. For Zia, it was about creating a magazine about refugees, by refugees – and focusing on the positives in the process. “It’s not just a portrayal of hardships endured, but a vibrant celebration of life itself,” he says. “It’s about reclaiming the power to narrate our story, shaping our own representation, and fostering a circle of admiration and pride.”
The photographers in the collective showcase life in Cox’s Bazar, run workshops for young people and women, create income for refugees, and recently published a photo book led by women Rohingya photographers. And they’re also about to release the third issue of Rohingyatographer magazine, focusing on celebrating Rohingya food culture. “Our food culture is disappearing due to the displacement, the food crisis and the humanitarian crisis here in the camp,” Zia says. “We’re doing this to preserve our food culture and show the world how Rohingya people like to eat.”
Many Rohingya recipes revolve around fish, vegetables, rice, milk and chilli. A mainstay is gura fira, a sweet rice noodle pudding that’s eaten in the morning before prayer or during religious celebrations like Eid. Yet the most important Rohingya dish might be durus kura, a whole fried chicken curry that’s prepared for special occasions, such as weddings. “The new Rohingya bride and groom send a chicken roast to each other,” Zia says. “Now in the camp, most people can’t afford to buy this chicken roast or prepare it, even during the wedding.”
Beyond sharing recipes, the issue will highlight stories about the difficulties in accessing ingredients, how recent ration cuts have affected refugees, and the determination to create traditional meals despite it all. Zia says the team has received more than 700 submissions from people living in Cox’s Bazar, including many young people. “Through the art of photography, we provide them with a tool for self-expression and a means to amplify their stories.”
The upcoming issue, which is currently being crowdfunded, is even more important following recent cuts to food rations. Earlier this year, the World Food Programme reduced individual rations from $12 to $8 a month. Today, many refugees in Cox’s Bazar are surviving on a limited diet of rice, onions and oil. “It’s a really severe food crisis that Rohingya people are now facing in the camp,” Zia says. “[Some] people can eat only plain rice for the whole month.”
Despite this crisis, Zia is determined to continue showcasing the strength of Rohingya people and culture. “Our goal is to expand our reach, empower more Rohingya youth and create meaningful dialogues,” he says. The upcoming food issue will not only provide a tether to home and culture, but signify Rohingya people’s ongoing survival and resilience. “Rohingya food culture will be preserved and alive in our magazine at least.”