It is two in the afternoon and the sun is beating down hard on a group of Rohingya boys playing soccer in the dirt yard of the Child Friendly Space (CFS) at the Balukhali Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Beside the yard, in a classroom-like structure made from bamboo and tarp, younger children sit on woven straw mats, chattering and laughing as they play carom, stack building blocks, draw, colour or sing popular English nursery rhymes under the supervision of social workers.
“A year ago, you wouldn’t have heard any laughter from these children or seen smiles on their faces,” says Unicef social worker Jannatul Ruma, who oversees the children at the CFS.
“They used to be very quiet. They wouldn’t talk to each other or even play. Their drawings were of violent images … houses on fire, soldiers firing bullets and people being killed. These were images that they’d witnessed in Myanmar.
“But over time, their mood has changed and now, they enjoy coming here as it is a space they can feel safe and make friends. Their drawings are different too … cheerful images of flowers, children playing and happy homes in bright colours,” explains Jannatul.
More than half of the almost one million Rohingya refugees at Cox’s Bazar are children under the age of 18. About 61% (305,000) of these children are aged between three and 14 and a majority of them have witnessed their parents, siblings and neighbours being tortured, killed or burned by the military in Myanmar.
Monjur Ali was just 10 when he fled his village with his parents and five siblings in September 2017. For the longest time, he was haunted by the memories of helicopters shooting at him and his friends playing soccer, his village set on fire and burning bodies all around him.
But these days, Monjur hardly thinks about home or the violence he saw.
“I wasn’t happy being here at first. I wanted to go home. But now, camp is home. I go to the Madrasah (for religious classes) in the morning and then I come here (to the CFS) to play football with my friends. I hope that one day, I can continue my studies and become a doctor,” says the 12-year-old who speaks a little English but prefers to speak in his Rohingya dialect.
Monjur shares that he longs to come to Malaysia, where his older brother, Soffar Ali, lives.
“My brother didn’t follow us to Bangladesh as he wanted to find work in Malaysia. He plays football for a Rohingya (football) club in Malaysia. I saw a photo of him holding a trophy that he sent to us,” says Monjur, whose striking green eyes light up as he talks about his brother.
There are about 100 CFS set up by Unicef and their partners at the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. These, along with the 1,600 learning centres that the agency has set up, provide a sense of normalcy for the refugee children and give them a chance to learn and to play.
They are also an escape for the children from the the crowded living conditions in the camps where there is barely any open space for children to kick a ball or run around.
“So far, Unicef has reached 160,000 children with psycho-social support to help them deal with and overcome the trauma that they experienced or the violence they witnessed in Myanmar.
“We conducted a needs-assessment exercise to determine the children who were most at risk and through our art, music and play programmes at the Child Friendly Spaces, they have slowly begun to forget their worries and just be children again,” explains Unicef spokesperson, Karen Reidy who is based at the Unicef field office in Cox’s Bazar.
Life in the camps
The refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar are sprawling and densely populated, with endless tents made from bamboo and tarpaulin crammed with families trying to eke out a living with little money.
The terrain is muddy and flood-prone and access is difficult. Refugees have to walk on narrow paths and cross flimsy bamboo bridges.
There are a few roads but they are extremely congested.
The Bangladesh government, with the support of the United Nations and other aid agencies and civil society groups provide lifesaving support to almost a million Rohingya refugees who now live mostly in the Kutupalong and Balukhali camps (and their extension sites) in the Ukhiya district.
Support and aid are also being channeled to the host communities in Cox’s Bazar, already one of the poorest areas in Bangladesh.
Though the people of Cox’s Bazar welcomed the Rohingya refugees into their land (and homes before the shelters were set up), they too have been severely affected, both economically and socially, by the influx of the large number of Rohingyas who arrived seemingly overnight almost two years ago.
Refugee families receive food rations from the World Food Programme but only the basics: rice, pulses and cooking oil. Some families plant vegetables around their tents while others who have money buy fruits and vegetables in the markets both in and outside the camp area.
Some of the men go out to sea with local fisherman to catch fish, either to sell in the camps or to add variety to their otherwise meagre meals.As refugees, the Rohingya aren’t legally allowed to work.
However some enterprising ones have started small businesses inside the camp premises to earn some money. Some even sell their food rations to others.
Although health, nutrition and sanitation of the refugees remain the main focus of humanitarian work at the camps, there are also efforts to provide education for the Rohingya children, who are not eligible to study in local schools in Cox’s Bazar.
The learning centres set up by Unicef and their partners provide children with non-formal education, particularly in Maths, English, Burmese and their own Rohingya dialects.
Children are also taught life skills and hygiene, and given school supplies.
“The Bangladesh government does not allow us to use the national curriculum to teach the Rohingya children as the goal is for the Rohingya to eventually go back to Myanmar once the conflict is resolved.
“But the crisis isn’t going to go away anytime soon and so, we have developed our own curriculum for the children so that they can continue their education while they are living in Cox’s Bazar,” explains Reidy.
More than 170,000 Rohingya children are now enrolled in the learning centres on camp and the goal, explains Reidy, is to “scale up” and also improve the rudimentary syllabus.
The learning centres currently provide early education for children aged three to six and non-formal primary level education for those aged seven to 14.
Eleven-year-old Rehena whose schooling was scant in Myanmar says that she enjoys “everything about school” as it gives her something to do other than housework.
“I want to be a nurse so that I can help people get better. In school, I learn the importance of staying clean and washing our hands,” she says, speaking a mix of English and Rohingya dialect, translated by education officer Anika Tanjim, 24.
Her classmate Mohd Alom, 13, says he has learnt “many new words”. Before enrolling in the learning centre, he used to work in one of the makeshift shops in the camp to earn some money.
“Learning is much better,” he says.
The learning centres, explains Anika, do much more than educate the children in the camps.
“The biggest achievement of the centres has been getting these children to smile again and giving them hope. They have dreams now … some want to be doctors, some teachers and some want to be aid workers!
“When they first came, they didn’t see a future. Even up to last year, these children were just loitering around outside their shelters. They had nowhere to play, no space where they could sit down and learn or interact with others.
“Now, they can speak English a little. They look smart and they have the confidence to interact with anyone who comes into the camp. They will say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ at the very least. They are smiling and laughing and they want to learn … for me, this is a huge achievement,” says Anika whose job is to coordinate and implement the learning programmes at a cluster of five learning centres located at Camp 18, within the Kutupalong refugee camp (dubbed a “mega-city” for being the largest refugee camp in the world).
The children, says Anika, look forward to come to the learning centre as it provides them a refuge.
“They are here every day before the teachers come to open up the centre,” she says, proudly.
The real challenge, says Reidy frankly, is catering to adolescents as the learning centres currently only provide basic primary-level education.
Adolescents attend life skills-based programmes to make them less vulnerable to social issues like child marriages and gender-based violence that are prevalent in the camp environment.
“There are adolescent clubs and programmes that teach them about health and hygiene, confidence building and other life skills to help them cope deal life in the camps. But there isn’t a curriculum for them yet.
“We are currently developing a curriculum that is appropriate for them which will hopefully be ready in June this year,” says Reidy.
It’s welcome news for 15-year-old Saifullah Ali whose proficiency is well above the present curriculum being used at the learning centres.
“It is frustrating. If anyone can tell me how I can get educated, it will be exceptional. I come to the CFS every day and play football with my friends but I want to study,” says the young man who is keen on Science.
Saifullah dreams of going back to Myanmar, but like most of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh, he will only go back if his community is assured of their safety and their citizenship.
“The crisis in Myanmar has killed so many of us, It has prevented me from being able to study. I dream of going back. It is our mother country … my family have lived in Myanmar for generations but we are being denied our rights,” says the impassioned young man.
Unicef needsUS$152.5 mil (RM628mil) to meet the lifesaving and humanitarian-development needs of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi host communities. This includes the provision of essential nutrition, health, WASH, protection and education services. Unicef Malaysia hopes to raise RM1 million throughout the month of Ramadan to support the agency’s work in the refugee camp To contribute or to learn more, go to http://bit.ly/RohingyaStarAppeal