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Why we Rohingya want to save our refugee-run schools

‘Many of us no longer trust the aid agencies to advocate on our behalf.’

Rohingya refugees build a makeshift school with bamboo at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on 22 November 2017.
Rohingya refugees build a makeshift school with bamboo at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on 22 November 2017. (Susana Vera/REUTERS)

What happens when you strip a community of its right to education? We Rohingya fear this is what’s unfolding in the refugee camps of Bangladesh.

In December, Bangladeshi authorities ordered the closure of Rohingya-run community schools, which could deny basic education to thousands here in the camps. Already, at least two of these volunteer-run schools have been dismantled, and camp officials have said that the rest must shut down.

We have heard little from the UN agencies and NGOs that provide government-approved basic education programmes. Students, parents, and community teachers like me are deeply frustrated. We’re calling for our children’s right to learn within our own community, because many of us no longer trust the aid agencies to advocate on our behalf.

The world knows we are victims of persecution, deportation, and genocide, especially after the Myanmar military forced more than 700,000 people – including me – to flee in 2017.

Yet for all of the pain we have endured, most Rohingya believe the single-biggest loss is the denial of education.

Most Rohingya were blocked from a full education in Myanmar. Bangladesh does not allow formal schooling, fearing this will encourage students to stay here permanently rather than return to Myanmar.

Instead, aid agencies run makeshift classrooms for younger children. But they don’t teach beyond a basic primary level, and students older than 14 can’t even attend. Many parents believe the NGO classes are the equivalent of nursery school.

This is why Rohingya have tried to find solutions within our own community.

The so-called “private learning centres” that Bangladesh’s government wants to shut down are extremely basic. They are run out of mosques or madrasas, or in the tiny tarpaulin tent shelters in which we live. Educated Rohingya volunteer our time to teach in the languages and curriculum of our homeland, Myanmar. For a community that has lost so much, these schools are a vital way to preserve our culture and identity.

“We fear what the consequences will be if the government continues to close Rohingya-run schools, and if aid agencies in the education sector do not genuinely support us.”

Most community teachers run these classes with no pay, and with no support from well-financed aid agencies. In the tiny tent shelter where I teach subjects like history and physics, students sit crowded together on the ground. There’s a single chair and whiteboard for the instructor (though sometimes we don’t even have marker pens).

Despite these struggles, students who had to abandon their studies when they fled Myanmar have been able to continue learning, progressing year by year under the Myanmar curriculum. Even students as old as 20 come to our school, hoping to restart their stalled education. It has restored a bit of resilience in the face of overwhelming hardship. 

The community teachers follow the teaching strategies and rules of the Myanmar education system. One day, when Rohingya can safely return to Myanmar, we hope this will help our youth to reintegrate into society.

“We struggle so hard to provide education to our children in any possible way, even in the darkest times, even as internal violence shakes the camp, even despite all the restrictions we face here,” a fellow volunteer teacher told me.

Parents and teachers want to keep our community schools running by any means possible – jointly with the education sector, or independently.

We fear what the consequences will be if the government continues to close Rohingya-run schools, and if aid agencies in the education sector do not genuinely support us.

Our contributions to education in our own community should not be underestimated or disrespected. Volunteers stepped in when government teachers would not come to our Rohingya villages in Myanmar. We again stepped in when it was clear that our students would not be allowed a formal education in Bangladesh’s camps.

Humanitarian aid services may come and go, but our volunteer-run schools are a vital part of our community. They should be allowed to remain open and thrive, so that our next generations can be guaranteed an education.

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