Bangladesh Shutters Dozens of Schools Set Up by Rohingya in Camps

KUTUPALONG CAMP, Bangladesh — Every morning, Mohammad Reyaz, a sixth-grader, appears in uniform outside his school for Rohingya refugees in the Cox’s Bazar area of ​​Bangladesh.

And every morning he returns home with a sullen face after finding the gate locked. Bangladesh authorities closed the school last month. According to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, it is one of more than 30 such community school closures that have caused waves of frustration and disappointment in the densely populated refugee camps, which are home to about 400,000 school-age children.

No one knows when Mohammad, along with 600 of his classmates, will be able to return to the few rooms made of bamboo slats they had called their school.

“Seeing my school empty makes me feel sad,” said Mohammad, who had attended the school for 22 months before it was closed. “I liked it more than my house.”

About half of the population of the sprawling camps is under the age of 18, and leaders of the Rohingya community began setting up free schools shortly after their arrival.

In December, the Bangladeshi authorities began cracking down on these schools, calling them illegal, but without trying to provide alternatives and lifting the ban on the Rohingya from attending local schools outside the camps.

The school closures are the result of a wider effort by the Bangladeshi government to tighten control over the camps. Last month, government authorities destroyed thousands of shops there, according to Human Rights Watch

Authorities say the schools have been closed because Rohingya community leaders were not allowed to open them. However, authorities have authorized UNICEF and some other agencies to operate schools for younger children in the camps.

“You just can’t open a school whenever you want,” said Mohammad Shamsud Douza, a top official at the Bangladesh Office of the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner. “We don’t know what they teach in these schools. It can be anything.”

But Nur Khan Liton, a human rights activist and former secretary general of Bangladesh’s largest human rights group, Ain O Salish Kendra, said the government’s main motivation was to encourage the schools to encourage the Rohingya to stay on the side of Bangladesh. border.

“They fear that if the next generation of Rohingyas are trained here, they will never leave the country,” Liton said.

Those who set up and teach the community schools said their intention was the opposite: to facilitate the eventual return of their students to Myanmar by incorporating sound instruction in the Burmese language and culture and by offering a curriculum that lines corresponds to what is taught there in similar figures.

Mohammad Showfie, a teacher, said his life revolved around the now-closed camp school where he and 15 colleagues had worked, in hopes of educating future generations for productive lives at home.

“We don’t want to stay in Bangladesh forever,” said Mr. showfie. “We want to return to our country if the situation allows, but for that we have to educate our children.”

Several parents, who hoped to one day return to Myanmar, said they viewed community schools as crucial in facilitating their children’s adjustment and improving their job prospects.

“Our hopes of returning depended on these schools,” said Feroz ul-Islam, whose son, a fifth-grader, has no place to learn after authorities demolished dozens of schools last week, including his son’s. “We pray that someone will help rebuild those schools so that children can go back to class. Their future depends on these schools.”

Both parents and teachers point to the schools’ Burmese language teaching as evidence of their intention to return.

The Rohingya have their own language, which is mutually intelligible with the Chittagonian language spoken in this part of Bangladesh. But the language of instruction of the camp schools is mainly Burmese, which many parents consider more practical as it is the language spoken by Myanmar’s dominant ethnic group.

Aid groups operate about 3,200 learning centers for the younger children in the camps; UNICEF manages 2,800 of them. But these centers only offer ABC-level instruction from the age of 4, although students as young as 14 are allowed to participate to learn basic reading and math skills.

With the approval of the Government of Bangladesh, UNICEF has embarked on a pilot program that will educate approximately 10,000 children in grades six to nine in a curriculum based on what they would learn at a school in Myanmar at that age.

“The demand for education in the Rohingya community is huge,” said Sheldon Yett, a UNICEF official in Bangladesh. “We need to be creative and flexible in how we make sure these kids can continue to go to school.”

For high school students, the schools set up by Rohingyas were the only option, and their closure means there are tens of thousands of teenagers in the camps with little to fill their days.

“Now they hang out, putting them at risk of being trafficked,” said Razia Sultana, a lawyer and a Rohingya rights activist. “They can indulge in bad things, and the consequences will be unimaginable.”

The largest school closed by the authorities was Kayaphuri High Schoolfounded by Mohib Ullah, a leader of the Rohingya community who had also documented ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and who was killed by gunmen last year.

Hundreds of students there were taught the kind of curriculum typical of a secondary school in Myanmar: the Burmese language, along with English, math, science and history.

On a recent afternoon, about two dozen ex-students from Kayaphuri and other Rohingya-led schools that had recently closed were clapping when a mosque loudspeaker broadcast the muezzin’s call to prayer.

Some said they spent their days wandering the settlements. Others said they dreamed of a better life outside the camps.

‘After our school closed, I have nothing more to do. I play here and there all day long,” said Mohammad Ismail, a seventh-grader. “Sometimes I help my mother with household chores. I don’t know what will happen next.”

Some Rohingya educators refuse to give up.

Before crossing to Bangladesh in 2017, Dil Mohammad taught at a government school in Myanmar, and recently he was teaching a group of children. Colorful posters, with handwritten words for the names of the days of the week and months, in both English and Burmese, adorned the walls of his residence, which was used as his informal classroom.

Among his students was his daughter, Dil Ara Begom, 13.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go to school,” Dil Ara said. “I want to become a doctor. But if our school stays closed, I don’t know how I will study.”

Even before the government’s intervention, the educational situation was deplorable for many Rohingya children. The percentage of Rohingya girls attending community schools was very low. And in the months leading up to their expulsion from Myanmar in 2017, almost all Rohingya students were unable to attend school due to restrictions on their freedom of movement imposed by the Burmese government.

Human rights activists said that instead of closing schools, Bangladesh authorities should do everything they can to prepare Rohingya children for life outside the camps.

“Education is a crucial part of lifting Rohingya refugees out of the extremely difficult situation they find themselves in,” said Saad Hammadi, South Asia campaigner at Amnesty International. “It will enable them to claim their human rights and stand up for themselves.”

Fatema Khatun, the mother of sixth-grader Mohammad Reyaz, said she dreams of her son becoming an influential person who can improve the lives of his suffering community.

Sitting on a plastic chair in her tarpaulin tent, which has no electricity, she said her hopes were dashed when she learned her son’s school had closed.

“I’m afraid he will forget what he has learned,” said Ms. Khatun, 44. “If he doesn’t go to school, he will never be able to change his destiny.”

Saif Hasnat reported from Kutupalong, Bangladesh, and Sameer Yasir from Srinagar, Kashmir.


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