One Way Rohingya Refugees Hold Onto Their Identity: Traditional Makeup

Rohingya girls and women continue wearing yellow-paste thanaka makeup—a small token of normalcy amid life in the camps.

Some girls in Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh maintain a sense of normalcy through a familiar routine: applying traditional yellow makeup.

Used elsewhere in Asia for its medicinal properties, thanaka paste is also used by Rohingya Muslim girls and women as makeup due to its vibrant color, Reuters reports. The paste is made from the bark of thanaka trees, which grow in the dry climate of central Myanmar. The bark is sold in the camps and ground up by the women and girls into a milky paste using a stone called a kyauk pyin.

When the girls apply it to their faces, they help maintain a piece of their culture inside the refugee camps. Many of these children fled the military crackdown on their villages in Myanmar over the past couple of years, the latest development in a long history of tension and conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and throughout the rest of the country.

The United Nations estimates more than 800,000 Rohingya people have left Myanmar, escaping to the camps in Bangladesh to avoid torture and death at the hands of Myanmar’s army.

Girls who wear the paste tell Reuters it helps protect them from the strong sun and biting insects in the camps. It is also believed to keep the skin cool and prevent acne.