In a tiny corner of Bangladesh, refugee children find a semblance of normality as they sit in a tight circle on the floor, singing songs in two languages, one tied to their cultural heritage, the other a recognised language of their deserted homeland.
For Rohingya children scarred by the trauma of witnessing genocide and destruction, solace is found through the brief moments of education they receive in refugee camps set up to house thousands of refugees that have fled Myanmar for Cox’s Bazar, a swampy green landscape now transformed into the world's largest refugee settlement.
Over 740,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh from neighbouring Myanmar escaping genocide, following the outbreak of a state orchestrated campaign of ethnic cleansing launched in August 2017.
Nearly 500,000 of those displaced are children. That’s where Room to Read, an initiative to give Rohingya children education inside the camps, step in. Working with UNICEF, they provide Rohingya, Myanmar and English language lessons to 180,000 Rohingya children across 2,500 learning centres in refugee camps.
"These are kids… it felt like they didn't have a sense of the future. Every day was so uncertain and so jarring. They can't dream about being resettled in London or San Francisco. Sadly, there's not even many places they can think about that their places can transform," Julie Elis, Director of Room to Read, told The National.
“Their life is only what’s around them.”
The majority of them are on average aged 7-9 years old. Most of them have barely received any formal education.
Luckily for them, UNICEF skill up adult refugees with some basic literacy skills to become teachers. But the challenge doesn’t end there.
“The language issues are very complex because the Rohingya language isn’t a written language with a uniform, universal script”.
Only 32 percent of children recognise letters and 66 percent can’t read or write. On top of that, there were mounting concerns of a “tremendous teacher shortage”.
“It’s a true crisis in terms of education,” says Elis.
To tackle a teacher shortage, some adult refugees with basic literacy skills are trained and recruited to teach Rohingya and Burmese language lessons in the morning. Some Bangladeshi locals with English language skills lead lessons in the afternoon.
Surrounded by a blackboard, brightly coloured posters and draped letters in English, it’s the only time Rohingya children see colour in a camp that’s densely crowded, says Elis.
The UN estimates that more than 600,000 Rohingya still live in Rakhine State but live under conditions of persecution and discrimination. Is there any chance that the Rohingya language disappearing?
“There’s no concern of Rohingya language going away. It’s the lingua franca and its heard everywhere in the camp. There’s more a concern of what language will help this next generation in the future; on learning English, or the Myanmar language,” said Elis.
NGOs and charities are barred from teaching Bangla to children, as Bangladesh hopes that the Rohingya will one day return to their homeland across the border.
But Elis praises Bangladesh, itself a relatively low-income nation, for allowing such a vast number of refugees into the country.
She adds that the relationship between Bangladesh and the Rohingya is “very complex”.
“On the one hand, because of the influx of aid, there was job creation.”
In a joint agreement with the Bangladeshi government, for every third of aid and money given to refugees, investment is made into the local Cox Bazaar community.
“There are very interesting things playing out between the Bangladeshi community and Rohingya. In the camps there are a lot of food being donated. In some cases, the Bangladeshi community is taking that food back to their families.”
It remains unclear as to whether refugee Rohingyas will ever return to Myanmar, despite Burmese authorities claiming that the Rohingya are welcome to return. The biggest losers are the children languishing in limbo.
“On the one hand the situation is so tragic it was so hard to understand that anyone can find joy,” Elis ponders. “But the kids in the moment were joyful with each other”.