Close to 1,100 learning centres provide informal education to Rohingya children aged 4-14 years [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – It is a hot and chaotic morning at Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp located on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Women, men and children, uprooted from Myanmar, form long queues outside the offices of various aid organisations and wait to receive clothes, food and medicines.
There is a rush to collect stacks of bamboo to protect weak settlements from the upcoming monsoon. Children help out too, lifting heavy bamboo poles as they balance boxes of aid material on their little heads. Some children run around and play in groups, while others attend temporary learning centres where English, Burmese and mathematics are taught.
Rohingya Muslims have faced brutal persecution and discrimination at the hands of the Myanmar government, which refuses to recognise them as citizens and has killed or forced out large chunks of their population in repeated, barbaric acts of ethnic cleansing.
Following the most recent cycle of violence in August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, taking their population in Bangladesh to about a million now.
Children and youth between 3-24 years comprise nearly half of the Rohingya refugees, who are not allowed to pursue formal education in Bangladesh.
Only informal education is available through temporary learning centres and religious schools or ‘maktabs’ which impart Arabic language and Quranic learning.
‘Maktabs’ are separate from the network of temporary learning centres and are funded by private Bangladeshi donors or countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
In the backdrop of any religious practices by Rohingya Muslims oppressed in the Rakhine state, the ‘maktabs’ are viewed positively by the refugees in Bangladesh camp. The ‘maktabs’ also allow the children to remain busy since any movement outside the camp is not allowed.
Informal education their only option
Set up by UNICEF, Save the Children and local Bangladeshi organisations, the centres, now numbering close to 1,100 provide informal education to Rohingya children aged 4-14 years.
|A view of a ‘maktaba’ or religious school at Kutupalong camp [Urvashi Sarkar/Al Jazeera]|
Bengali, however, is not taught since the Bangladesh government does not plan to integrate Rohingya refugees with the local population.
It is past noon and the temporary learning centre at the camp has wound up for the day. Children scamper out of the small room made of tin, sticks, and coarse cloth.
A blackboard, bearing the words ‘beard’, ‘buttocks; and ‘abdomen’ in English, rests in a corner. The teacher, Mohammed Abdullah, an 18-year-old Rohingya refugee, rubs the blackboard clean.
As Abdullah explains the curriculum to me, he is joined by Janatullah, also 18 and a Rohingya refugee.
Janatullah appears restless and angry – he was unable to appear for his matriculation examination because of the violence that broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017.
“I would have appeared for the examination this year. I was the best in my class. But the violence drove us out. The Myanmar government murdered our families and prevented us from education. I wanted to study in a university and learn English. I do not know if it will ever happen. Now, I can only live on charity,” Janatullah told Al Jazeera.
Staring at a bleak future
Janatullah speaks in English, which he says he learnt after arriving in Bangladesh. But since he is 18 years old, no form of education – even informal – is available for him in the refugee camp. While Abdullah could get work as a teacher in the refugee camp, Janatullah was not as fortunate.
His despair is echoed by Sanjib Sil, a resident of the adjacent Hindupara camp. A Hindu Rohingya in his early 20s, Sanjib said he had both fertile land and his own business in Myanmar. Now, he has nothing.
“I do not have even five rupees. I have to stand in line and beg for charity. I cannot step out of the camp. My future is ruined and I am condemned to an unproductive existence. No girl will be willing to marry me,” said a distraught Sanjib.
The tribulations of Janatullah and Sanjib are shared by hundreds of young Rohingya people in Bangladeshi refugee camp, who have been abruptly wrested from formal education and any chances of employment.
Moreover, they have been forced to deal with the added trauma of being denied citizenship.
|Maulana Abdul Majid teaches the Qoran at a ‘maktaba’ or religious school at Kutupalong camp [Siddharth Adelkar/Al Jazeera]|
There are no formal jobs available inside the camp for Rohingya. According to a recent report, nearly 62,000 refugees have been given cash for various works they do at the camp.
There is also a small number of Rohingya who managed to escape Myanmar with some money and have been able to set small shops where they sell vegetables, fruits, and clothes to the other refugees.
Nizamuddin, 32, is a Rohingya teacher at a temporary learning centre in Balukhali camp. Nizamuddin is a graduate – a distinction not possessed by most of his fellow refugees because of the discrimination against Rohingya Muslims in schools and universities in Rakhine state.
“It was not easy to complete graduation. I ignored the insults and humiliation of Muslims and tried not to get into fights. I passed out of Rakhine state’s Sittwe University before 2012. That was the year fighting broke out between Muslims and Buddhists and many Muslims were killed. It became almost impossible for Muslims to get admission in Rakhine colleges after 2012,” he said.
Nizamuddin worked as a private tutor and taught in small rural schools in Rakhine state and was satisfied with his earnings. In Bangladesh, he earns 8000 taka ($96) a month and can teach only Burmese, English and mathematics, whereas in Myanmar, he could teach more subjects.
“My prospects have reduced here. I remember how I struggled to graduate. Has it amounted to nothing?” he asked.
Rohingya girls’ situation worse
If boys and young Rohingya men are staring at a bleak future as stateless refugees, the situation is possibly grimmer for girl children and adolescent females who, apart from being forced to pull out of formal education, face additional threats of child marriage and sex trafficking.
Nine-year-old Kasmin Fatema goes to both a temporary learning centre and a ‘maktab’ at the Kutupalong camp. Gultaz Begum, her mother, has yet not decided how long she will permit Kasmin to go out.
Gultaz herself dropped out after third grade in Myanmar. “As I grew up, my family was scared that I would be harassed by Rakhine men,” she said.
She, however, is relieved that Kasmin is learning English at the temporary centre. “Despite attending school in Myanmar, my daughter could not even write her name.”
“Muslims faced a lot of discrimination in schools. Now she can write her name in English and read too,” she said, hoping against hope that Kasmin will become a teacher one day.