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  • Writer's pictureSahat Zia Hero

Asom's story: From being seen to being heard representing the Rohingya community

Updated: Apr 30

2022 © Sahat Zia Hero

Md Asom (or Asom as his friends know him) was featured on the cover of the first issue of Rohingyatographer Magazine in May 2022. The portrait photo taken by Sahat Zia Hero shows Asom at 14 years of age, holding a mobile phone displaying a picture of Asom 5 years earlier, crying desperately for food while climbing on an aid truck. The picture was taken in 2017 by Canadian photographer Kevin Frayer while covering the Rohingya exodus into Bangladesh escaping the genocide perpetrated by the military in Myanmar.

'I was once a young kid crying for food, but I am now happy and keen to tell the story of my community. People will know that I am not voiceless.' —explained Md Asom.

The photograph was shortlisted by Time Magazine as one of the 10 best photographs in 2017. The image was part of Kevin's remarkable portfolio that led him to the 2018 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Feature Photography for profoundly moving, historic pictures that portrayed Rohingya Muslims with dignity and grace as they fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.

Kevin's image of Asom was used widely in the international media becoming an iconic representation of the suffering of Rohingya people.

Watch the video below with photographer Sahat Zia Hero and Asom discussing the story behind the unique photo.

Asom was born deaf-mute. His mother passed away the day she gave birth. He was raised by his aunt and uncle, and in 2017 due to persecution, the family had to flee to Bangladesh. In the refugee camp, Asom spent most of his time in and around learning centres in the camps where he used drawing to convey his memories of what happened in his village during the military attacks.

2019 © Md Asom

In 2019, David Palazón, the former curator at the IOM's Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre (RCMC) recognised Asom as the child from the famous photograph during a community consultation session. Asom was introduced to the RCMC team and became a regular at the centre. It was here that he meet Sahat Zia Hero, who saw the talent beyond the young boy's disabilities and trained him on basic photography.

'As the youngest member of our Rohingyatographer collective, we provided him with a small camera and one android phone so he can experiment with the medium of photography and develop his skills and self-expression. Perhaps one day he might become a famous photographer.' —explained Sahat.

Md Asom's story has appeared in the media several times:

Besides having no access to special education for his condition, he developed his own remarkable language of gestures to communicate with others. His playful and creative way of expressing himself makes him very popular among his friends. Asom would benefit from an education tailored towards children with special needs, however, opportunities for those with different abilities are extremely limited in the refugee camp.

'Some people bully him and say he is dumb, but he is very smart, so I help him to learn English whenever I can.' —Abdul Hafez, a friend of Md Asom said.

As Asom yearns for the opportunity to pursue a brighter future beyond the refugee camp's confines, his story serves as a poignant reminder of the systemic barriers faced by individuals with disabilities in humanitarian settings. It prompts a sobering reflection on the urgent need for inclusive education initiatives and comprehensive support systems to empower individuals like Asom to realise their full potential. Ultimately Asom wishes to travel abroad and have a better future.

Sahat and Asom collaborate on a portrait every year. Through their ongoing photo series, they not only document the passage of time but also shed light on the enduring struggles faced by the Rohingya community, whose future remains uncertain.

2022 © Sahat Zia Hero

2023 © Sahat Zia Hero

2024 © Sahat Zia Hero

Similar to Asom, there are many individuals with disabilities and special needs in the camp who rarely receive support in education, medical care, and skills development. For instance, Asom always requests a hearing aid for his deaf-mute condition. Similarly, he is seeking an institution to further his education as a sharp, brainy boy. Today, Asom is well known as a talented boy in the camp among those with disabilities. If there were skills development programs for individuals with disabilities, many would receive the help they need.


This feature is part of The Rohingya Experience, an exhibition in St Helier, Island of Jersey during July 2024, developed by Rohingyatographer, a collective of Rohingya refugee photographers in partnership with Jersey Overseas Aid.



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