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Safe in School

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In Bangladesh, many Rohingya children are going to school for the first time. Image by Jaime Joyce. Bangladesh, 2018.

In Bangladesh, many Rohingya children are going to school for the first time. Image by Jaime Joyce. Bangladesh, 2018.

Just as the last little kid walks single-file out the door, about 30 very eager 7- to 10-year-olds burst in to take their place. Quickly, they claim spots around the perimeter of the lively one-room Golap Child Learning Center.

“Good morning, students!” Muhammad Alam Khan says. All together, the children shout their response: “Good morning, Teacher!”

A similar routine plays out multiple times a day here in southeastern Bangladesh. The students, Rohingya refugees from Myanmar (see “A Dangerous Journey”) attend class in two-hour shifts.

“These children have faced violence in Myanmar,” says co-teacher Muhammad Jaber Ahmed through a translator. “But after three or four months at the learning center, the children have become happy. They have come back to their normal life.”

In the region’s vast refugee camps, now home to some 900,000 people, UNICEF—the United Nations Children’s Fund—and partners run 888 learning centers to teach English, Burmese (Myanmar’s official language), math, and life skills to nearly 95,000 kids ages 4 to 14. The centers are an uplifting and stabilizing force for children who have been touched by tragedy.

Who Are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Myanmar, which is mainly Buddhist. Myanmar’s government denies them citizenship even though they have lived there for centuries. Human-rights groups say that of all the world’s peoples, none faces greater discrimination than the Rohingya.

A little over a year ago, on August 25, 2017, the Myanmar military carried out deadly attacks on Rohingya people. The United Nations (U.N.) has accused it of genocide.

Ahmed, the teacher, escaped. So did his students. “There were fires, and shooting,” 8-year-old Gulbahar tells me. For eight days, she and her nine siblings sheltered deep in the jungle before reaching Bangladesh.

Soon, Bangladesh saw an influx of more than 700,000 Rohingya people. They now live in temporary shelters made of bamboo and plastic tarps on rolling hillsides cleared of nearly all vegetation.

A Path Forward

In August 2018, the U.N. said it was not yet safe for the Rohingya to go home. For now, aid workers do all they can to keep people safe and healthy in the camps. Dirt roads are being paved with brick to prepare for monsoon season, which brings heavy rains. On steep hillsides, shelters are anchored against high winds and cyclones by steel pegs and rope.

Steps are being taken to improve access to education. By the end of 2018, UNICEF and partners hope to open an additional 565 learning centers. This would allow another 107,000 Rohingya children to attend classes.

Despite tough circumstances, children stay positive. At the Golap Child Learning Center, they expressed this through song: Deep in my heart / I do believe / We shall overcome someday. The lyrics are from the American civil-rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” “They call it ‘World Song,’” UNICEF education officer Iffat Farhana says. “It helps them feel motivated to overcome this situation.”

A Dangerous Journey

After military attacks, thousands of Rohingya people fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State for Bangladesh. They crossed the Naf River and the Bay of Bengal in fishing boats and on rafts. “A lot of people can’t swim, especially in these rough seas,” says UNICEF emergency field coordinator Peta Barns. In Cox’s Bazar, aid workers met them on the shore with food, water, and blankets. “Imagine streams of people,” Barns says. “We didn’t know when it was going to stop.”