School a rare sanc­tu­ary for trau­ma­tized Ro­hingya kids

‘Vil­lages were the­atres of war, with bul­lets ev­ery­where’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

LEDHAPARA: Hol­low-eyed and de­tached, 11-year-old Ro­hingya refugee Sayed Nul be­trays lit­tle emo­tion as he re­counts why his fam­ily fled Myanmar: “The Rakhine Bud­dhists burned my house. Killed peo­ple with bul­lets. And raped the women.” For the aid work­ers in Bangladesh deal­ing with the cur­rent ex­o­dus of Ro­hingya es­cap­ing sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, it is a fa­mil­iar and up­set­ting sight as they try to put young lives back to­gether.

Of the 520,000 Ro­hingya who have ar­rived in re­cent weeks, 290,000 are chil­dren, many haunted by the hor­rors they have wit­nessed, now crammed into teem­ing refugee camps with min­i­mal fa­cil­i­ties to deal with trau­mas em­bed­ded deep in­side so many young­sters. Aid groups are hur­ry­ing to set up schools and safe zones for chil­dren in the grim camps as part of the an­swer. The few schools that have sprung up of­fer a brief respite.

At the en­trance to the packed Leda camp a hand­ful of learn­ing cen­ters have been set up op­po­site a brick fac­tory with a smoke-black­ened chim­ney. In­side one of the classes about 30 chil­dren sang, the tor­ren­tial rain beat­ing down on the can­vas roof al­most drown­ing out their lit­tle voices. But mem­o­ries of the Rakhine vi­o­lence is never far away. “These are chil­dren, they do not un­der­stand what has hap­pened,” Ro­hingya teacher Sham­sul Alam said. “We are try­ing to make them for­get what hap­pened so they are not dis­turbed,” he added point­ing to a buck­et­ful of toys.

UN work­ers say many of the young ex­iles never went to school in their coun­try of birth, where the Bud­dhist ma­jor­ity treat the Ro­hingya with dis­dain. The Myanmar au­thor­i­ties say the mil­i­tary have only tar­geted Ro­hingya mil­i­tants in their crack­down in Rakhine since Au­gust 25. But many of the kids in camps around the Bangladesh bor­der town of Cox’s Bazar re­count scenes of mas­sacres, tor­ture and rape. “Their vil­lages were the­atres of war, with the noise and the bul­lets ev­ery­where,” says Shamail Das, 22, an­other teacher at the hastily set up school.

‘Ease their pain’

Alam, Das and the other teach­ers de­lib­er­ately do not dis­cuss the Rakhine hor­rors in class. “If we talk about the atroc­i­ties with them, it could dam­age their minds at first. But in time it could help ease their pain,” said Mor­sida Ak­ter, a Bangladeshi teacher. There are cur­rently 200 learn­ing cen­ters in the camps teach­ing 17,000 Ro­hingya. But those schools are just a drop in the ocean com­pared to what is re­quired the UN chil­dren’s agency, UNICEF, says it needs to build 1,300 schools.

The cur­ricu­lum is also starkly dif­fer­ent from Bangladeshi schools in the re­gion, a re­flec­tion of how the Ro­hingya are far from wel­come even in the com­par­a­tive safety of Bangladesh. The only per­mit­ted sub­jects are English, the Burmese lan­guage, maths and health ad­vice such as wash­ing hands. The Ben­gali lan­guage used every where in Bangladesh is de­lib­er­ately off lim­its.

Be­fore the cur­rent ex­o­dus, Bangladesh al­ready hosted some 400,000 Ro­hingya refugees from pre­vi­ous up­surges in Rakhine’s long his­tory of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence. The Dhaka gov­ern­ment has let the new Ro­hingya refugees in, but it does not want to do any­thing that could fa­cil­i­tate their in­te­gra­tion. Their free­dom of move­ment is strictly limited and mar­riages be­tween Ro­hingya and lo­cal Bangladeshis are banned. “They don’t need Ben­gali. English is an in­ter­na­tional lan­guage,” said lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment of­fi­cial, Mo­hammed Zakara. “Any­way they are go­ing back to Myanmar.”

Bangladesh has re­peat­edly said that the Ro­hingya must re­turn to Myanmar. But Myanmar, which has al­ways re­fused to give them ci­ti­zen­ship, has made vague prom­ises. Few of the Ro­hingya ex­pect to re­turn to their vil­lages in Rakhine. Some of the ear­lier in­flux of Ro­hingya have al­ready spent more than 20 years in the Bangladesh camps. And that means chil­dren like Sayed Nul may have to live with their Rakhine trau­mas in squalid camps for decades to come.

Chil­dren haunted by the hor­rors they have wit­nessed


UKHIA, Bangladesh: A Ro­hingya child uses his food bowl to shelter him­self from the sun at the Palangkhali refugee camp in Ukhia district yes­ter­day.

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