When Abu Sayed, father of six, thinks about the future of his children, he breaks down and weeps.
“My life is almost gone. If they cannot have an education, they will be ignorant,” he says, sitting in his family’s bamboo shelter in the vast Kutupalong refugee settlement, the largest in the world.
“I can see with my own eyes that their life is becoming meaningless because they do not have enough education and skills to have a good career. (It) is about their future,” he says. “If I die tomorrow I will die with a pain in my heart and a regret.”
Abu Sayed is among some 745,000 Rohingya refugees who fled a military crackdown in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state since August 2017 to seek safety in Bangladesh. More than half – 55 per cent - are children.
His three younger children receive a basic primary education at the Sunflower temporary learning centre, a short walk from the family’s shelter. Painted red and yellow, the centre is supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and run by its Bangladeshi partner, BRAC.
Students at the settlement receive just a few hours of education per day, learning English, Burmese, life skills, and maths, with learning centres operating three shifts per day. However, the centres have no fixed curriculum. Going forward, there is no secondary education available to students.
“Young people require, and desire access to meaningful education."
“Young people require, and desire access to meaningful education that offers clear pathways to progression and is officially recognized by state agencies,” says James Onyango, UNHCR’s education officer in Cox’s Bazar.
“People will need skills and recognized qualifications to help them develop their communities. We’re only too aware of the dangers of a lost generation of youth,” he adds.
The outcomes of a recent learning assessment indicated that majority of students are only able to participate in the first three grades of basic education. As a result, organizations working in the education field are now grouping learners together according to their assessed levels rather than their age groups, to facilitate more structured learning.
However, the education programme does not address the needs of older learners who have never been to school, or those whose education was interrupted at upper grades when they fled Myanmar. There is no standard, accredited curriculum, no defined pathway to recognized qualifications and few opportunities to study beyond the age of 14.
While some progress is being made toward providing access to quality primary education, older children are missing out. While he is happy to see his younger children being able to study at the two-storey centre, the first of its kind at the settlement, Abu Sayed worries about his older son Mohammed Ayaz and daughter Anu Ara, who are among thousands of children of secondary school age without access to education.
“My elder son studied until sixth Grade in Myanmar … but the [older ones] cannot continue studying while coming here,” he said. “We are worried. I wish we could have the opportunity for our children to receive education.”
A keen student in Myanmar, Mohammad Ayaz, 15, dreamt of becoming a doctor, until the violence forced him to quit school and run for his life. These days, he says, he passes the time in the sprawling refugee settlement trying to keep busy, but too often he simply hangs out with his friends.
“We wander aimlessly in the camp,” he sighs. “People my age have no good jobs here. I help at a small grocery stall and some of my friends are volunteers with organizations. I wish I could continue studying, so that I could keep on learning new things every day.”
"I wish I could continue studying, so that I could keep on learning new things every day.”
Improving education is a priority for UNHCR, Onyango says, noting that the Refugee Agency opened a first teacher training facility for the settlement last October.
“In collaboration with other humanitarian agencies, we’re also looking at strengthening the capacity of teachers and improving the overall quality of educational services,” he explains. “We’ve also been piloting some literacy learning sessions for adolescent boys and girls, we nonetheless remain deeply conscious that this is inadequate.”
Improving services is supported by dedicated teachers at the settlement. At the Sunflower temporary learning centre, Rohingya teaching facilitator Umme Habiba is working in a packed class of around 40 children, alongside a local Bangladeshi teacher.
Just 18, she studied until 8th grade in Myanmar, and used to be a private tutor. She welcomes any chance to expand her skills. “To become a good teacher, it is important to have a good education.
“Some of my friends were eager to study in Myanmar but there was no chance. Without education, there is no future,” she says. “Our future, and our present, are at risk.”