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In world’s largest refugee camp, Rohingya children face a desperate choice

On the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, the world’s largest refugee camp houses a generation of lost Rohingya children. Because Bangladesh bans them from school, they face a hard choice: Break the law, or relinquish dreams of a better future. In response, some children have begun teaching each other. Special correspondent Tania Rashid reports on the lengths these persecuted children go for an education.

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  • William Brangham:

    Inside the sprawling Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh live an entire generation of children who aren't getting an education.

    As special correspondent Tania Rashid reports, some of them are still finding ways to make it to school, even if it means breaking the law.

  • Tania Rashid:

    It's at the world's largest refugee camp on the Bangladeshi-Myanmar border this 14-year-old Rohingya girl, whose name and face we concealed to protect her identity, has risked it all to follow her dreams.

    She left the schools inside the camps for a formal education that could offer her a better future.

  • Student (through translator):

    I want to work in human rights and education, so my people, the Rohingya, have rights. I will do everything to empower my people to get an education. For all those kids in the camps unable to study, I want to fight for them. I want to give opportunities for my generation.

    If they can't study, what will they do? How can they live their lives?

  • Tania Rashid:

    Rohingya children, according to Bangladeshi law, are not allowed to attend local schools. That's because they are not recognized as refugees. But this girl didn't let that stop her. She's presently enrolled in school in Southeastern Bangladesh illegally.

    Stateless and displaced, over 730,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees fled their native Myanmar into Bangladesh in 2017 amid a brutal crackdown led by Myanmar military forces U.N. investigators have described it as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

    Today, half a million children living in these camps have no access to a formal education. And its young girls like her are most vulnerable to exploitation. They risk early marriage, child labor or being trafficked on the black market.

    But her mother wasn't going to allow that to happen. She fought to push her daughter out of the camp. Her father wanted to marry her off at just 10 years old.

  • Woman (through translator):

    "Her father said she's ready to be married. But my daughter and I fought with him. I said, you can't force my daughter to get married."

    Lots of people in the camps can't get an education. My daughter has the opportunity. Why wouldn't I give that to her?

  • Tania Rashid:

    She sold her food rations and borrowed money from family to pay a teacher to create a fake Bangladeshi birth certificate.

    Shortly after, a smuggler took her daughter out of the camps and into a local school.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I told her to go, go somewhere else. We have no stability at the camps. It's not safe here for my children. I had to think for my daughter and her future.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Today, she studies at a Bangladeshi government-funded school in the ninth grade, with access to a range of subjects, including Bangla, math, science religion, and history. It's a different world from the education received at the camps.

  • Student (through translator):

    They don't teach you anything in the camps. They taught us Burmese and English. They won't teach us Bangla. But for me to live here, I need to know Bangla. The only way I could learn Bangla is if I leave the camps. They only teach you up until fifth grade, and then there are no opportunities.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Her older sister, who works for a local NGO, barely manages to pay $50 per month to fund her education and lodging in the city.

    But faking her identity as a Bangladeshi national comes with high risks. Since January, scores of Rohingya students have been expelled from schools in Southeastern Bangladesh for not having citizenship. Many of them have been studying in the schools for years, arriving with previous influxes.

    But this girl managed not to get caught, and plans to continue to live in hiding.

  • Student (through translator):

    People hate the Rohingya here. I don't tell people I am one. We are the most persecuted community in the world. That's why I don't say I am Rohingya. I have to lie about my identity to survive.

    Even though it's a big struggle for me, I am able to study. There are hundreds of thousands of kids like me inside of the camps who are forced to marry off early. They are living a very tough life. They have no opportunities.

  • Tania Rashid:

    They include kids like 13-year-old Halim. But instead of giving up on his education, he took matters into his own hands. Today, he runs a tutoring service deep inside the settlements, where he teaches more than 20 children. He says teaching is his way of remembering what he learned in Myanmar.

  • Boy (through translator):

    As we are forgetting the education of our nation, I am teaching them, so that they can fight. I am teaching them so that they can do something for our nation. If they don't learn anything, they can't prosper in their life, as well as they can't fight for the nation.

  • Tania Rashid:

    The camps are a grim space, disease-ridden, crowded and congested with over a million inhabitants. Everyone here depends on aid, with no opportunity to generate income.

    With no autonomy or ability to control their futures, drug addictions, especially among the youth, are on the rise. Recently, international donors have set up temporary learning centers, where Rohingya students are taught English, Burmese and math.

    However, these spaces are limited and do not provide long-term educational goals or technical skills that the children can use in their future. UNICEF has set up over 1,900 learning centers so far and has plans to set vocational training for long-term opportunities for teenagers and young adults, the demographic most lacking in opportunity.

  • Karen Reidy:

    We're developing 100 centers for adolescents this year. We're establishing those, so we can provide them with educational opportunities. So some of the areas we're looking at are sewing, mobile phone service repairing, some computer skills, trying to improve their digital literacy as well.

  • Tania Rashid:

    But as it stands, the local population are being outnumbered by the refugees. With tensions mounting between both groups, the Bangladeshi government has no plans to keep the Rohingyas.

  • Mohammad Rezaul Karim:

    In that camp, there is no future.

    So, actually, who will work for them, actually? This is the question. The government or international community? But if there are not the citizen of our country, that is why government is waiting as soon as possible to repatriate them peacefully in their country.

  • Tania Rashid:

    The government also has plans to send the Rohingya to a remote island that is underwater half of the year which lies off the coast of Bay of Bengal.

    But none of that stops this girl from continuing to push forward with her dreams.

  • Student (through translator):

    I was scared before, but now I am focused on my goals and career. And now my fears went away. If I want to survive, I need to push forward with my life, even if it means I have to lie.

  • Tania Rashid:

    And though her mother is stuck in the camps alone, she feels at peace knowing her daughter is helping herself and others.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I couldn't do anything with my life, but my daughter is. I feel good. There aren't many girls like my daughter at the Rohingya camp. My daughter is unique, and I'm a very lucky mother to have a daughter like her. She's a role model.

  • Tania Rashid:

    And with her mother's blessing, she hopes she can continue to fight for the education of future generations to come.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tania Rashid, reporting from Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

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