Rohingya refugees tell Dubai education summit of lost generation of pupils

Ahmed Ullah and Zainab Arkani called on the global community to end the dire crisis their people face

Zainab Arkani at Opening Plenary at the Global Education & Skills Forum 2019. Courtesy: Global Education and Skills Forum
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Young members of the Rohingya people have called upon on the international community to ensure their children do not become a 'lost generation' without an education or future.

Speaking on the first day of the annual Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, Ahmed Ullah and Zainab Arkani said their young people have been left with little hope of educating themselves out of poverty.

The community has faced persecution and what the UN describes as "ethnic cleansing" at the hands of the Myanmar regime.

Ahmed Ullah, who was born in a refugee camp following earlier purges by the government, made it to Canada in 2009. He is now a youth coordinator of the Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative.

"I am begging every single one of you... you can change those lives. I am proof that refugees can do anything as long as you give them a chance," he told an audience at the Atlantis complex on Saturday.

“They just want an opportunity to contribute to society."

In 2017, more than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya were driven out of their homes in Rakhine province. Many settled in the town of Cox's Bazar, just over the Bangladesh border, in what the UN says is among the densest concentrations of refugees today. Most Rohingya are Muslim and many in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar view them as illegal immigrants. In total there are about 900,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, some of whom fled earlier military violence in 1978, 1991 and 1992.

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , March 23 – 2019 :- Ahmed Ullah, Canadian Activist and Human Rights Defender for the Rohingya People speaking about the Rohingya crises in the opening session on "Who is changing the world?" during the Global Education & Skills Forum held at the Atlantis hotel on Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For News. Story by Anam
Ahmed Ullah spoke of the need for international support for his persecuted people. Pawan Singh / The National

"Why can’t we give Rohingya kids hope that they can go to university and build something for their people?" Mr Ullah asked an international audience of delegates, educators and government officials.

"There are millions of kids suffering the same way I was suffering. All they want is education. Day by day, everything that was given to them by the international community is being taken away."

Even before the 2017 campaign, Rohingya lived in poor conditions and were victimised by the authorities.

"I remember being kicked out of school and been told to survive along as I can," Mr Ullah said. "I got a job in a coffee shop."

He has since returned to witness conditions in the camps. He recalled how one Rohingya child told him he wants to become a lawyer to get justice for his people.

Ms Arkani described the abuse she suffered and told of how she was persecuted for being Muslim at a school in Myanmar, whose population is almost 90 per cent Buddhist.

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya children are seen at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, March 7, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo
There are about 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, many of them living in squalid conditions. Reuters

She recalled her first day, when as a four-year-old she was happy to arrive at school.

"In Burma, as soon as school starts you have to pray. My teacher came and she pushed my head on the floor and said 'why aren't you bowing?'," she said.

"I said 'I am a Muslim and I don’t bow to anything other than God'. She said to go to the corner and stand there."

"I have suffered mental and physical abuse and all kinds of assault.

"I was lucky I was among the one per cent who went to school because 99 per cent did not have the chance to go to school."

Ms Arkani moved to Canada and started the only Rohingya school in her basement.

She spoke powerfully of the need for vocational training and to build an education system for the Rohingya people.

She described the conditions of the refugee families moving there, many of whom had never held a pen.

"They only knew survival skills. We are treated as second class in our society," she said.

"Now, many of these women are becoming Canadian citizens and some of them are even working."

Asif Saleh, senior director at Brac, an international development organisation based in Bangladesh, said about 75 per cent of the refugees are women and children.

"This is a community that has been disenfranchised for such a long time. The women did not want to come out and they did not want to speak," said Mr Saleh.

"Things have changed and there is a sense of normalcy. Now, about 180,000 children are in learning centres."

Despite that improvement, many are not receiving a proper education in in those informal, fun-based learning centres.

"The greatest challenge now is to ensure children have access to education and skills training or risk losing out a large generation of people.”

He said that donor fatigue is setting in, with only about 40 per cent of the current year’s need of over $600 million met (Dh2.2 billion).

Organised by the Varkey Foundation at Atlantis, the Global Education and Skills Forum is an annual education event that culminates in the $1 million Global Teacher Prize for the best educator.

The two-day event continues on Sunday.

Also on Saturday, the Sheikha Fatima Global Humanitarian Campaign said it would open a new medical facility, Zayed Al Khair camp, to treat thousands of Rohingya refugee women and children, under the supervision of a UAE-Bangladesh volunteer medical team.