Tents and Textbooks: The Rohingya's Struggle with Schooling in India

Settled in camps scattered around Delhi, Rohingya refugees may have left a part of them behind in Myanmar, but their children are carving out new lives thanks to some organisations.

Mohammad Ayaz effortlessly climbs the branches of a tree and smiles down at the Kalindi Kunj Rohingya refugee camp in Delhi. “Bandar ka kahania bohot achha lagta hai” ( I love stories about monkeys), he laughs and says. He is also proficient in English and says it’s his favourite subject.

In June 2012,  violent clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims led to mass exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar. The systematic violence inflicted upon them, among other things, restricted their access to education, forcing most of the Rohingya families into refugee camps in India, along with their children, many of whom are first-generation learners from their respective families, like 11-year-old Ayaz, who attends the nearby Gyandeep Vidya Mandir School, about 100 metres away from the Kalindi Kunj camp. Along with his friends, he looks forward to playing kabaddi  in school and participating in physical training.

School influence

Gyandeep Vidya Mandir School is privately owned and has classes upto the eighth grade. A huge playground sits in the middle of the campus and the classrooms are spacious. Framed photographs of overachieving students are mounted on the walls for motivation. Ayaz peeps out of his classroom and appears happy, despite having lost his uniform in a recent fire in his camp. However, happiness has not been a permanent characteristic of the schooling experience of Rohingya children in India.

The privately-run Gyandeep Vidya Mandir School which has taken in many Rohingya children. Credit: Trisha Pande and Oindrila Das

Six years ago, there were numerous barriers to teacher-student dialogues for Rohingya in India. The most pressing was that of language, that hampered the students’ ability to grasp teaching.

“Pehle jab yeh aaye thhe toh inke koi saath mein bethna bhi pasand nahi karta tha. Itne gande banke aate thhe, itne bure tareeke se ek dusre ko maarte thhe – kisi ka koi sar fodh raha hai, inko darr bhi nahi lagta tha”, says the principal. (When they first came [to the school], nobody even wanted to sit with them. They used to be extremely dirty, used to hit each other badly – some times even on the head – and weren’t even scared.)

Gradually, with the efforts of the teachers, the students have improved academically and  have been ‘civilised’ to a degree where they blend in with the rest of the students, he says.

Aid and charity

The fire that broke out in the Kalindi Kunj camp about a month ago drew the attention of several civil society organisations,  mainly Muslim-majority organisations followed by Hindu and Sikh outfits, which provided them assistance.

The Zakat Foundation has played a key role in ensuring that children of school-going age do not lose their immense potential due to forced cross-border migration.

The foundation is a grassroots organisation, its name literally translating to ‘charity’. They have partners across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom who contribute towards different causes, like running orphanages, hospitals and providing aid to widows.

However, not all camps are necessarily adopted by NGOs like Zakat. The size and population of the camps even within Delhi and its surrounding area varies, where the situations and challenges faced by the refugees vary greatly – despite sharing a common theme of exile.

The refugee camps are spread across Delhi, in areas as diverse as Madanpur Khadar (Kalindi Kunj), Shaheen Bagh, Vikaspuri, Khajuri Khas, and Faridabad and Mewat in Haryana. Some Rohingya families initially occupy land in a cluster while some other families join them once the settlement has been established.

The number of Rohingya families living in the Kalindi Kunj camp is 45, Shaheen Bagh has 84-90 families, Vikaspuri 35-40 families, Khajuri Khas about 20 families and the camp in Faridabad houses 37 families.

The Zakat Foundation aids 63 children who fall into the age bracket between 6-13 years. The organisation not only owns the land on which the Kalindi Kunj camp rests upon, but also sponsors the fees of Rohingya students who attend the two schools close to the camp – God’s Grace and Gyandeep Vidya Mandir. These schools have now become an integral part of these children’s lives.

Most of the families aspire to send their children to God’s Grace school, which is chaired by Syed Zafar Mahmood – the president of Zakat Foundation. This is because they feel that there are better opportunities to learn languages in this school, apart from better infrastructure and faculty.

Pedagogical differences across nations

Since 2012, there has been a massive change in the way the Rohingya approach education.

Mizan, who attended school in Myanmar till the third grade says, “Wahan par to exam mein kya likhte hain wo hume khud pata nahi hota hai. Wo phir bhi pass kar dete hain.” (Back home, we were unaware of what we were writing in the exam and yet they would promote us.)

Tuition was compulsory to pass exams and families were expected to shell out money to send their children for these classes. There were no Rohingya teachers in the schools there and the community faced regular discrimination by Buddhist teachers.

In India, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has an implementing partner for health, education and livelihood – called BOSCO. This falls under the Don Bosco Global Network, which has presence across 135 countries.

In order to provide training and education to refugee children, BOSCO has opened its doors to the Rohingya in Delhi. Those performing well in school have access to scholarships sponsored by UNHCR, which gives them an opportunity to carve out a different future than the reality of their parents.

Back at the Kalindi Kunj camp, burnt pages of a computer textbooks were found while sifting through the debris, an indication of the fact that new kinds of education – like computer literacy – are being imparted to Rohingya students. While their teachers seem optimistic of their future, a few parents seemed disinclined towards formal education as they felt that their children would not be eligible for government jobs in either country.

A brave new world

Tasmida Johar, 22, attended school in Myanmar as well as in Bangladesh before ending up as a refugee in India in 2012.

Bangladesh accha lagta tha. Humaare bhasha [Bengali] mein bolte the (…) par India better lagta hai. Freedom zyada hai. Wahan par illegal rehte thhe aur koi card wagera nahi thha. Yahan refugee card hai.” (Bangladesh was nice. We would converse in Bengali, but I like India better. There is more freedom here. In Bangladesh we were illegal residents, here we have refugee cards.)

Tasmida’s mother is an exceptionally supportive woman, as is her brother,  Ali Johar, who works with the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC)’s Rohingya Literacy Team. He is currently studying B.A, Political Science, at Delhi University and is in his final year. Their father was a businessman in Myanmar, which placed them in a relative position of privilege.

Girls playing around after school in the camps. Credit: Trisha Pande and Oindrila Das

Ali said in Myanmar the proximity to high schools made accessibility arduous. His family was lucky to live in the vicinity of a school. Ten to 15 villages share a common school compound and even students who made the effort to reach there, faced problems such as being denied admission or not receiving certificates. They are not allowed to study professional courses, such as medicine or law, and their job prospects are dismal. Along with abject poverty, these challenges add to the anguish of students, he says.

Possibly, Ali’s passion to study inspired Tasmida as well. She finds political science to be a fascinating subject. Last year, in the 11th grade, political science, home science, sociology, Hindi, Islamiat and English were her subjects of choice. Studying in the school run by the Zakir Husain Memorial Society in Jamia Millia Islamia, she is in the 12th grade and aspires to pursue an LLB degree.

Being the first Rohingya girl in India to take the matriculation examination, Tasmida’s achievements have encouraged other parents to educate their daughters. One can see a number of Rohingya girls excitedly run back home from school to the camp, their bags bursting with the aspirations placed upon their shoulders by their parents. Had they been in Myanmar, they would have possibly been married off in a few years.

Even now, there are some parents in the camp who find education futile and expect their daughters to learn stitching. Exile simultaneously compromises the necessity of education for some, while heightening its importance for others within the parameter of the same camp.

Tuitions being availed by the Rohingyas in India is of a different kind than the one imposed upon them in Myanmar.

Ruchi Saxena, a tuition teacher at the Kalindi Kunj camp, dedicates two hours to each batch. Out of 15 children across three batches, only the parents of three Rohingya children are able to afford Rs 200 as monthly fee. She claims that the performance of the Rohingya has improved tremendously over the years. Saxena cites the example of Tamin, a 7-year-old boy who diligently worked his way up due to the emotional, moral and academic support provided by his mentor and mother despite linguistic barriers.

Shaheen Bagh camp

Children at the Shaheen Bagh camp lead different lives than their counterparts in neighbouring Kalindi Kunj. But, there is one similarity – the children from both these camps go to Madrasas after school hours where they are explained the teachings of the Quran.

Children playing behind a heap of garbage near a refugee camp. Credit: Trisha Pande and Oindrila Das

The charitable umbrella of the Zakat Foundation does not extend to Shaheen Bagh. Aid does not pour in constantly, rather trickles in as and when people remember that there are Rohingya in Shaheen Bagh too.

Each family has to pay Rs 500 per month to occupy their makeshift homes, a difficult task for more than half the families living there. Widows find it tougher to pay rent and some of them take their children to work with them in order to earn an extra Rs 200 a day. Most women collect scrap and plastic, which is used for recycling. Finding labour as migrants is equally tough for the Rohingya, adding to their economic woes.

A total of 63 children out of 128 (who fall into the 3-15 age bracket) in this camp get to attend government schools in Sarita Vihar and Jasola due to BOSCO’s help. They have to cross a main road and an open sewage drain, then walk for about 20 minutes across one-and-a-half kilometres to reach their school in Jasola.

Parents rotationally take the responsibility of dropping off a group of children to school. The camp leader, who has two school-going daughters, says “Bachchon ko padhai karna bohot zaroori hai. Iss halat mein, iss jagah mein.” (It is vital for the children to study. In this condition, in this location.)

After a lot of hard work by UNHCR and the camp-dwellers, about 10-15 children managed to get their Aadhaar cards made in 2017. They understand that these cards are proofs of residence, not citizenship. These cards, along with their UNHCR refugee cards, are integral in ensuring that government schools do not invalidate the admission of their children. Though none of the children have been denied admission so far, their families live in the perpetual fear that such a day may come soon.

About 15 adults have also managed to get Aadhaar cards.

Cultural transition

There is a certain sense of leaving behind one’s culture as the Rohingya knew it in Myanmar, for the new generation growing up in India.

Fish is one of the primary components of a Rohingya’s dietary routine. Some families said that when their children started attending school at Gyandeep Vidya Mandir, they were seen to be ‘uncivilised’ because the “fish in their tiffins raised a stink in the  entire classroom, making it difficult for the teachers to function”.

Gradually, these students were imparted with education that propagated vegetarianism during lunchtime. The contents of their tiffins started gradually changing, as did the ‘dirt and filth’ on their bodies. Parents were given explicit instructions to wash and bathe their kids before sending them to school; tiffins started filling up with items like Maggi and biscuits (explicitly requested by the children in a bid to fit in with their Indian counterparts).

While the parents consume fish and meat at home, each time they do so, their school-going children say they are revolted by the smell of fish being fried.

While new lives are being carved out by the Rohingya community living in makeshift homes made from plastic in these refugee camps, it is too early yet to determine how many features of their previous lives have been lost with each footstep drawing them farther away from their long-lost homes.

Trisha Pande is doing a Master’s in Public Policy at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Oindrila Das is pursuing a Master’s in  Social Work in Criminology and Justice at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.