The Korean Seon (Zen) master and engaged Buddhist Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, founder and chairman of the international relief organization Join Together Society (JTS), led a delegation of volunteers on 9 September to deliver 100,000 gas stoves to a refugee village in Bangladesh that is home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution and violence in neighboring Myanmar.
This latest donation follows the earlier success of the relief project when, in January 2019, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim led aid representatives to deliver a consignment of 100,000 gas stoves to a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, a district of Bangladesh’s Chittagong Division.* Since then, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN refugee agency International Organization for Migration (IOM) has committed to oversee stove maintenance and to supply LPG as a fuel.
During the handover ceremony and visit to the refugee village in Cox’s Bazar earlier this month, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim led the JTS team, which included BoKwang, secretary-general of JTS India, along with Kim Eun-hee and Lee Hye-Ok, who facilitated the procurement of the gas stoves.
“This area [around the village] had become a wasteland because so many refugees [needed to] cut down trees for firewood,” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim explained. “While gathering firewood, women and children were often assaulted or trafficked. To protect the forests and the human rights of the Rohingya women and children, JTS started providing gas stoves in collaboration with UN agencies. Four years have passed [since this project began], and we can see that the forest is already growing back thick and green.”
IOM Bangladesh deputy chief of mission Nihan Erdogen received the JTS delegation at the camp. She offered heartfelt thanks for JTS’ efforts to support the lives of Rohingya refugees, underscoring that conditions at the village had improved significantly as a direct result of the donated gas stoves.
“Because of these gas stoves, health and safety issues at the village have improved significantly,” Erdogen emphasized. “With these new stoves we will be able to support approximately 460,000 people—I wish I could bring all 460,000 people here so that they could tell you how grateful they are!. But on their behalf, I am one person thanking you. We are really, really very happy. Thank you!”
JTS Korea was established by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim in 1993 as an expression of the compassion of engaged Buddhism and the belief that helping others is the best way to enrich one’s own life. Headquartered in Seoul, JTS operates program offices in South Korea, Germany, and the United States, along with field offices in India and the Philippines. The relief organization has also earned Special Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Charged with bringing hope, empowerment, and self-reliance to underprivileged communities in developing countries, JTS is run and manned by unpaid volunteers, who ensure that all donations benefit the marginalized communities with which the organization works. JTS carries out relief work in countries suffering from humanitarian disasters, with the aim of “solving the problems of poverty and pain in Asia by the efforts of Asian people,” and has already completed humanitarian projects in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.
In October 2017, JTS Korea provided 15 tonnes of rice and 700 mosquito nets to Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. In January 2018, they brought a further 30 tonnes of rice and 2,000 blankets. It was during these visits that the WFP, the UN organization overseeing the relief camps, first proposed that JTS Korea also provide gas stoves.
The combined donations of 200,000 gas stoves facilitated by JTS at Cox’s Bazar in 2019 and 2022 mean that close to a million lives have directly benefited. This project has helped to decrease malnutrition, allowed the local environment to recover, and reduced the workloads and dangers to the lives of women and children who would typically have had to forage for firewood, and are now at a much lower risk of violence and sexual assault. The stoves also enable Rohingya families to cook meals safely inside their homes, significantly improving their living conditions and quality of life.
Religious tensions between the Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims in neighboring Myanmar have simmered for almost half a century. Myanmar’s government classifies Rohingya Muslims as stateless foreign migrants, even though many communities have lived in Myanmar for generations. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled military clearance operations and attacks by Buddhist mobs in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, seeking refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, in what the United Nations has described as the “world’s fastest growing refugee crisis” involving “the most persecuted people in the world.”
More than 900,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have crossed into Bangladesh since August 2017, according to UN agencies, joining some 200,000 refugees who had fled there in previous years. The desperate plights of these refugees have been compounded by frequent annual monsoon rain and flooding, coupled with the tragedy of a massive fire that swept through one camp in early 2022.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim is a widely respected Dharma teacher, author, and social activist. He has founded numerous organizations, initiatives, and projects across the world. Among them, JTS Korea is active as an international aid organization working to eradicate poverty and hunger, while Jungto Society is a volunteer-based community founded on the Buddhist teachings and dedicated to addressing modern social issues that lead to suffering. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim also works closely with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).
In October 2020, The Niwano Peace Foundation in Japan presented the 37th Niwano Peace Prize to Ven. Pomnyun Sunim in recognition of the revered monk’s international humanitarian work, environmental and social activism, and his tireless efforts to build trust and goodwill between communities of different faiths and cultures, toward the goal of world peace.**
* UPDATE: Buddhist Relief from JTS Korea Transforming the Lives of Rohingya Refugees (BDG), Korean Buddhist Humanitarian Organization JTS Brings 100,000 Gas Stoves to Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh (BDG), and Buddhist Relief Organization JTS Korea Sends PPE to Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh amid COVID Fears (BDG)
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