Young Rohingya refugees strive to keep dreams of an education alive
They don’t have desks or chairs. But in a bamboo-built room decorated with posters and paintings, 30 female Rohingya teenagers aged 15 and older are sitting on the ground, bent forward and writing intently into their workbooks, as a mathematics formula is posted on a blackboard.
These are some of the lucky ones. Few girls are able to continue their studies once they reach adolescence. In addition, there are only a small number of temporary learning centres in the sprawling refugee settlements in south-eastern Bangladesh that provide any learning opportunities at all for children over 15.
Some 55 per cent of refugees in the Rohingya settlements are under 18. All are barred from following the Bangladesh national curriculum.
Shehana, a bright but shy 16-year-old, knows she is better off than many, but still longs to be admitted back into formal education. She is one of the girls studying in the bamboo hut, known as the Diamond Adolescent Club, set up by UNHCR’s partner CODEC nearly two years ago.
“Back in Myanmar, I was in grade 6. I wanted to be a teacher and to be able to go to college. I love teaching. And I’m happy to be here,” she said.
“We learn new things almost every day. I think I’m lucky, but I try to tell others why education is important and to convince them to let girls study – how it can help with better opportunities in the future. Some of our relatives have listened to me and they now send their daughters to school.”
Shehana comes from a family where education has always been highly prized. Her brother, Mohammed Sharif, 17, studies at the same adolescent club with other boys in the afternoon, while one of her older sisters, 21-year-old Jannat Ara, teaches children aged four to five at a home-based learning centre, bringing along her own five-year-old daughter.
It soon becomes clear where this passion for education comes from. Shehana’s father, Nur Alam, 43, was a former senior teacher at a school of around 450 pupils in Maungdaw, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
"I miss my students very much."
When the family fled the violence in Myanmar two years ago and arrived at Kutupalong refugee site, Nur Alam volunteered to teach youngsters at a mosque set up in the settlement. He picks up his phone and shows me a photo of his former students – a group of boys and girls – at his old school.
“I feel like crying when I see this,” he said. “I miss my students very much. Many of my old students who completed grade 6 are in the camp here. Many have positions as volunteers working with organizations in the camp… when they see me, they greet me. They tell me that because they listened and learned, it helped them get these opportunities and they are better off now.”
Younger children can take part in informal learning activities, with learning centres offering three shifts a day and providing instruction in English, maths, Myanmar language and life skills.
This learning stream is not linked to any government curriculum, however, nor is there yet age-appropriate education for older students -- even for those who were enrolled in school in Myanmar before they fled to Bangladesh.
Shortages of qualified teachers are another problem, despite efforts by UNHCR, sister agencies and partners to boost teacher training.
The net result of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children in Bangladesh being barred from following the national curriculum is that the Sustainable Development Goal 4, to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” is not being reached.
“The education system in the settlements is not really focused on proper education, but more on keeping children busy and safe,” said Nur Alam.
This story is featured in UNHCR's 2019 education report Stepping Up: Refugee Education in Crisis. The report shows that as refugee children grow older, the barriers preventing them from accessing education become harder to overcome: only 63 per cent of refugee children go to primary school, compared to 91 per cent globally. Around the world, 84 per cent of adolescents get a secondary education, while only 24 per cent of refugees get the opportunity. Of the 7.1 million refugee children of school age, 3.7 million – more than half – do not go to school.