Saturday, November 17, 2018

Modhuchhara hill breathes new life into little Rohingya survivors

  • Samin Sababa
    Published: 2017-10-18 16:36:37 BdST

10-year-old Mohammad Kasem (wearing ID with yellow band) sits with his classmates at a Child Friendly Space in Modhucchara, Cox's Bazar.

The sun was blazing over Modhuchhara in Cox’s Bazar.

The rays bounced off and illuminated its many hills where tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have settled down in tiny sheds. The land is an extension of an older camp, Kutupalong.

One hill stood high above others and a bamboo shed marked its peak. It was spacious, almost picturesque compared with the surrounding sheds.

The space has been surprising the many who pass it, be it aid workers or the camp’s dwellers. Under its roof of plastic sheets sat at least a hundred refugee children forming neat rows.

Their smiles widen at the sight of a guest at the entrance of their ‘classroom’, one of the 106 Child Friendly Spaces that the UNICEF supports in the Rohingya camps.

The aim is to provide these survivors with a space to learn, play, heal and be themselves.

Over half a million Rohingya Muslims have risked everything with a perilous dash to reach Bangladesh since the Myanmar military began a ruthless crackdown on the minority population.

Of them, 300,000 are children.

The Child Friendly Space in Modhuchhara is new – it has been around for just over two weeks. But the child refugees who go there have already made it their home. It shows in the excitement with which they welcome people curious about them.

Their hundred voices thundered Assalamalaikum! – meaning, may peace be upon you. The gesture is loudly and tirelessly repeated for every person who peeks through the gate.

The space employs 20 staffers but welcomes unlimited students. It has a register that is meticulously updated to keep track of new faces. The classes are from 9am to 5pm, with an hour break in between for lunch.

Five teachers work together to take their classes and provide company every day.

As for their refugee students, most stay committed throughout the long day, even though they are free to wander off.

They choose to be taught numbers, letters and rhymes, both in English and Burmese.

They even make sure the class moves forward. A student recites something, often a ‘Kobbia’ or rhyme that the others repeat, and no time is wasted before several more jump up to grab their turn without any prodding from teachers.

If dullness sets in, they shake it off with songs and dance.

The men and women, who have been working tirelessly, braving the sweltering sun and heavy rain to be their teachers, are astonished to see such dedication from children who very recently witnessed, if not endured, unspeakable horrors.

Their young faces seem to almost reject that reality, shaped by the deadliest conflict to ever engulf Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya community, often termed the most persecuted people on the planet.

In the space dedicated solely for children, hope is strongly felt. Some dreams shine so bright that they are impossible to miss.

The song maker

Every classroom has stars, and so does the Child Friendly Space in Modhuchhara - in 10-year-old Mohammad Kasem.

He is the class captain who almost ensures that his lessons don’t hit a slump. As he takes the others through the numbers and alphabets, he revels in the respect he gets.

Little Kasem is revered, but not just because he really knows his lessons. He can also create songs about his people, to sing what they all feel.

So far, he has put together three songs that he routinely shares with the class. But he still doesn’t know how to write sentences.

“We are the Rohingyas of Arakan,” Kasem almost yells his chorus. He tries to get a beat with the class’s tambourine in his hands. His words and intensity begin to draw a crowd of people who were passing the Child Friendly Space, but stopped to listen.

Arakan is the old name for Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which he escaped with his uncle’s family just 15 days ago. “Kasem is an orphan, he has three siblings,” said Khaleda Begum, his Bangladeshi teacher.

“He made these songs himself. He even changes them to add new thoughts.”

Kasem listened coyly as she spoke of his loss. He stared at the ground. His clever eyes seemed to know her topic even though she spoke in Bangla. Then managing a smile, he described his parent's deaths.

“We were hiding in the jungles of Rathedong for two days. My father's name was Abdur Rahman. He had to get out of hiding to get something and the soldiers shot him.”

“My mother was called Mada Khatun. They burned and killed her,” said Kasem.

But why did she also come out of hiding? “She was a bit crazy, you know,” he replied.

The leadership in Myanmar is killing the Rohingya in their homeland, he kept repeating in his songs.

Kasem studied at the second grade back home, and have been coming to the UNICEF-supported space for refugee children since Sept 28. That is just two days after he reached Bangladesh, after an eight-day walk to the border with his siblings, uncle, aunt and their children.

The idea of home has forever changed. But in class, he can focus on achievements – teachers who think he is clever, friends who admire his quick wit and brave songs.

"So, do you want to keep singing when you grow up?"

“No. I don’t want to just make songs. I want to study. Ask UNICEF to send me money. Tell them I want to grow up and work for them.” Kasem sounded serious, but still laughed at himself. 

“My uncle wasn’t able to put up a roof over our shed. It’s just ten minutes from here, on Hill-11, will you come and see?”

Twinkle, twinkle

As children took lessons in the centre, a little breeze blew in through the large gaps on the bamboo fence that acted as temporary walls. It helped to ease the heat.

Unlike most other Child Friendly Spaces, this does not have toys.

“We will get our kids toys and art materials once we have proper walls. We already got the plastic sheets,” said teacher Monjurul Islam.

“But I’m worried the plastic covering will block the wind. Our students love coming here, but I’m worried they’ll stop showing up if it gets too hot. We have power supply, all we need are some fans.”

As he spoke, several thousand Rohingya refugees waited to be let in through various border points. There were reports of renewed violence in Rakhine. Monjurul, a Cox’s Bazar local, was aware of them heading for the camp.

“There will be children with them. This space will need to be bigger for them.”

But these teachers, or outreach workers, were relieved that they were not entirely constrained.

“If we can’t fit them here, we’ll take the space to them. We go from shed to shed as part of our Mobile Child Friendly Space,” said Selina Akhter, another teacher.

Selina, with an air of accomplishment, said how the mere sight of the space's banner can attract over 50 children to a single spot. “They are even willing to fit into one hut.”

She said a lot of Rohingya parents have pleaded with the teachers to write down English rhymes like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, so they can tutor the children in their sheds.

“Some of these parents have studied up to seventh or eighth grade in Myanmar and know some English. They want to help us teach their children,” said Selina. “Seeing their children study gives them immense joy, I’ve seen it.”

She said she taught the children a new song, just a day ago. “We have to sometimes think of new ways to keep them engaged. They look up to us and expect to learn new things.”

Selina was still explaining when a younger teacher started to sing a song for the class.

“This is the one I am talking about. I knew this, so I thought why not teach them. See, they know the words already.”

Cutting off the proud teacher mid-speech, all the hundred voices sang, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome someday…”

Hope hangs heavy here.