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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, shows up in uniform outside his school for Rohingya refugees in the Cox’s Bazar area of ​​Bangladesh.

And every morning he returns home with a sour face after finding its gate locked. Bangladeshi authorities closed the school last month. It is one of more than 30 such closures of community-run schools that have sent waves of frustration and disappointment across the densely populated refugee camps, home to about 400,000 school-age children, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

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

“When I see my school empty, I get upset,” said Mohammad, who had attended the school for 22 months before it closed. “I liked it more than my home.”

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

In December, the Bangladeshi authorities began a repression of these schools, calling them illegal, but without trying to offer alternatives and without removing the ban on Rohingya going to local schools outside the camps.

The school closures have come amid a broader effort by the Bangladeshi government to tighten its control over 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 failed to secure permission to open them. However, the authorities have given UNICEF and a few other bodies permission to run schools for younger children in the camps.

“You just can not open a school whenever you want,” said Mohammad Shamsud Douza, a top official at Bangladesh’s Office of Refugees, Emergency Relief and Repatriation. “We do not know what they are learning at these schools. It can 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 primary motivation was concern that schools would encourage Rohingya to stay on the Bangladesh side of the country. limit.

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

Those who established and teach in the community-run schools said their intention was the opposite: to facilitate the eventual return of their students to Myanmar by including robust teaching of Burmese language and culture and by offering a curriculum that broadly reflects , what is taught there in similar 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 do not want to stay in Bangladesh forever,” he said. Showfie. “We want to return to our country when the situation allows, but for that we need to educate our children.”

Several parents hoping to return to Myanmar one day said they viewed local schools as crucial to facilitating their children’s transition and improving their job opportunities.

“Our hopes of returning depended on those schools,” said Feroz ul-Islam, whose son, a fifth-grader, is without a place to learn after authorities demolished dozens of schools last week, including his son’s. “We pray that someone will help rebuild these schools so that children can return to school. Their future depends on these schools.”

Both parents and teachers point to the teaching of schools in Burmese as proof of the intention to return.

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

Aid groups run about 3,200 learning centers for the younger children in the camps; UNICEF operates 2,800 of them. However, these centers only offer ABC-level tuition, starting at age 4, although students as young as 14 are allowed to attend to learn basic reading and math skills.

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

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

For high school-age students, schools set up by Rohingya were the only option, and their closure means there are tens of thousands of teenagers in the camps who cannot fill their days.

“Now they are strolling around, putting them in danger of being traded,” said Razia Sultana, a lawyer and Rohingya rights activist. “They can indulge in bad things, and the consequences of that will be unthinkable.”

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

Hundreds of students were taught the kind of curricula typical of a high school in Myanmar: the Burmese language along with English, mathematics, science and history.

One recent afternoon, about two dozen former students from Kayaphuri and other Rohingya-run schools that were recently shut down played with bullets while a mosque speaker broadcast the muezzin’s call for prayer.

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

“After our school 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 homework. I do not know what will happen next. walk.”

Some Rohingya teachers refuse to give up.

Before taking over for Bangladesh in 2017, Dil Mohammad was teaching at a public school in Myanmar, and on a recent day he was busy 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 shelter, used as his informal classroom.

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

“I do not know if I will ever be able to go to school,” Dil Ara said. “I want to be a doctor. But if our school stays closed, I do not know how to study.”

Even before the government collapsed, the educational situation was serious for many Rohingya children. The proportion of Rohingya girls who attended classes at the community-run schools was very low. And in the months leading up to their deportation in 2017 from Myanmar, almost all Rohingya students were unable to go to school due to restrictions on their movements imposed by the Burmese government.

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

“Education is a critical component in lifting Rohingya refugees out of the extremely difficult situation they are in,” said Saad Hammadi, a South Asian campaign leader at Amnesty International. “It will allow them to claim their human rights and speak for themselves.”

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

As she sat on a plastic chair in her tarpaulin, which lacks electricity, she said her hopes were shattered when she found out her son’s school had been closed.

“I fear he will forget what he has learned,” said Khatun, 44. “If he does not 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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