As It Happens

'Like a dream come true': Bangladesh grants Rohingya children access to education

Rohingya-Canadian activist Raees Tinmaung says this will give the kids a chance to return to Myanmar one day

Posted: January 29, 2020
Last Updated: January 29, 2020

Yasmin, a Rohingya girl who was expelled from Leda High School for being a Rohingya, helps her younger sister to study in Leda camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh, March 5, 2019. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

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Now that Bangladesh is allowing formal schooling for Rohingya refugees, children will no longer have to sneak around pursuing covert education, says Rohingya-Canadian activist Raees Tinmaung.  6:29

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Now that Bangladesh is allowing formal schooling for Rohingya refugees, children will no longer have to sneak around pursuing covert education, says a Rohingya-Canadian activist.

Bangladesh announced Wednesday that it will partner with the United Nations to expand educational programs for hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya children living in refugee camps. 

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"This was a moment of joy as jubilation for us. We've been really pushing hard for this," Raees Tinmaung of the Rohingya Human Rights Network told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"When we got this news, this is like a dream come true."

Doing whatever it takes to get an education 

The pilot project starts in April with 10,000 children, who will receive formal education in the Myanmar language and curriculum from Grades 6 to 9. Vocational training will be available after that.

Currently, Rohingya children in Bangladesh attend 1,500 informal learning centres run by UNICEF that provide basic education, drawing and activities, the UN said. 

A child reads a book in a makeshift school run by Rohingya teachers in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Feb. 7, 2019. (Jiraporn Kuhakan/Reuters)

But what the kids really want is a full curriculum that includes math and science, says Tinmaung, who lives in Ottawa, but recently visited the camps in Bangladesh.

And they'll do whatever it takes to get it, he said, including sneaking into schools in Bangladesh or attending covert classes in the camps. 

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"They're not in a place anyone would want to stay," he said. "But the drive and their resilience is still there."

Some schools had been quietly welcoming the students into their classes, until the country started cracking down on the practice and expelling students last year.

Meanwhile, adults in the refugee camps have been running covert schools where they teach the Myanmar curriculum, Tinmaung said.

"It's very hard for Canadians and North Americans to imagine that you've got to dodge authorities just to, you know, provide basic education," Tinmaung said. "So this is going to be different. Our schools will not have to be shut down."

Why did it take so long?

There are more than one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and 400,000 Rohingya children live in the camps.

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar after a military-led crackdown in 2017, forced into camps across the border in Bangladesh. 

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UN investigators said earlier this month the military campaign was executed with "genocidal intent."

Mohammed Tuahayran, 17, teaches English in a makeshift school at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jiraporn Kuhakan (Jiraporn Kuhakan/Reuters)

Tinmaung says Bangladesh has been hesitant to educate the refugee children because it feared that would give them reason to stay in the country. 

But the opposite is true, he says. That's why advocates have specifically pushed for programs that follow the official curriculum and language of Myanmar, previously known as Burma.

"That's giving us that recognition that we are from Burma, indeed, and that one day we we hope to go back," he said. "We all aspire to go back."

The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, but the government considers them to be migrants from Bangladesh. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. 

Bangladesh, meanwhile, doesn't recognize them as citizens either, and does not issue birth certificates for those born in the camps. 

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Tinmaung says young adults returning to Myanmar without a formal education only exacerbates the problem. 

"They will be jobless, they will be uneducated, illiterate. And once again the Burmese government will start accusing them, saying look, you are not Burmese because you don't know how to read and write Burmese," he said.

"But now because we are teaching our kids Burmese language, we will now have the pride and dignity, you know, to go back and say look, we have followed up. Even though you've expelled us from our lands, we are back again with the education that you were supposed to have."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Interview with Raees Tinmaung produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.