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Bangladesh closes 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 door locked. Bangladeshi authorities closed the school last month. It is one of more than 30 community-managed school closures that have sparked waves of frustration and disappointment in the densely populated refugee camps, home to some 400,000 school-age children, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Development Fund for Childhood.

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 called their school.

“When I see my school empty, I feel sad,” said Mohammad, who had attended the school for 22 months before it closed. “I liked it better than my house.”

Roughly half of the population in the sprawling camps is under 18, and Rohingya community leaders, shortly after arriving, began setting up free schools.

In December, Bangladeshi authorities began to crack down on these schools, calling them illegal, but without attempting to offer any alternatives and without lifting the ban on Rohingya attending local schools outside the camps.

The closure of the schools came amid a broader effort by the Bangladeshi government to tighten its control of the camps. Last month, government authorities destroyed thousands of stores there, according to Human Rights Watch.

Authorities say the schools have been closed because Rohingya community leaders did not get permission to open them. However, the authorities have granted permission to 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 senior official with Bangladesh’s Office of the Commissioner for Refugees, Relief and Repatriation. “We don’t know what they teach in these schools. It could be anything.

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

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

Those who established and teach in the community-run schools said their intention was the opposite: to smooth their students’ eventual return to Myanmar by including strong instruction in the Burmese language and culture and by offering a curriculum that reflects widely what is taught there similarly. Grades.

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

“We don’t want to stay in Bangladesh forever,” Showfie said. “We want to return to our country when the situation allows it, but for that we need to educate our children.”

Several parents, who hoped to return to Myanmar one day, said they saw community schools as crucial to facilitating their children’s readjustment 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 are praying that someone will help rebuild those schools so that children can go back to school. Their future depends on these schools.”

Parents and teachers alike point to Burmese instruction in schools as evidence of the intention to return.

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

The aid groups operate around 3,200 learning centers for the youngest children in the camps; UNICEF manages 2,800 of them. But these centers offer only ABC-level instruction starting at age 4, though students as young as 14 can attend to learn basic reading and math skills.

With the approval of the Bangladeshi government, UNICEF has launched a pilot program teaching some 10,000 children in grades six to nine in a curriculum based on what they would learn in a Myanmar school at that age.

“The demand for education in the Rohingya community is huge,” said Sheldon Yett, a UNICEF officer 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 the Rohingya 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 are on the prowl, which puts them at risk of being trafficked,” said Razia Sultana, a lawyer and Rohingya rights activist. “Bad things can be allowed, and the consequences of that will be unthinkable.”

The largest school to be closed by authorities was Kayaphuri High School, set up by Mohib Ullah, a Rohingya community leader who had also been documenting the ethnic cleansing that had occurred in Myanmar and was killed by gunmen last year.

Hundreds of students were taught the type 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 former students from Kayaphuri and other recently closed Rohingya-run schools were playing marbles as a mosque loudspeaker broadcast the muezzin’s call to prayer.

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

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

Some Rohingya educators refuse to give up.

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

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

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

Even before the government crackdown, the educational situation was dire for many Rohingya children. The percentage of Rohingya girls attending community-run schools was very low. And in the months before they were expelled from Myanmar in 2017, almost all Rohingya students were unable to go to school due to restrictions on movement imposed by the Burmese government.

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

“Education is a critical component in getting Rohingya refugees out of the extremely difficult situation they find themselves in,” said Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner. “It will empower them to claim their human rights and speak 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 their long-suffering community.

Sitting on a plastic chair in her canvas shelter, which lacks electricity, she said her hopes were dashed when she learned her son’s school had been closed.

“I am afraid that he will forget what he learned,” said Ms. Khatun, 44. “If she doesn’t go to school, she can never change her destiny.”

saif hasnat reported from Kutupalong, Bangladesh, and Samir Yasser from Srinagar, Kashmir.