A lost childhood and an impossible dream

a boy standing against a fence with a signboard
Monday, June 19, 2023

Rezuan, 16, lives in a camp at Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. In 2017, when he fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape persecution, he left behind his friends, school, his home, and everything he knew and loved. He was only 10 years old at the time. Rezuan is a testimony of how ethnic conflict can destroy the childhood, hope, and joy of many.

Rezuan still vividly remembers his village in Myanmar and his childhood there, which he says was a happy one.

"My village was a paradise. My seven siblings and I resided in a beautiful two-storey house with four rooms. Our house buzzed with the presence of cows, goats, and hens. We lived with our parents and our grandparents and our days were filled with laughter and boundless joy," Rezuan recalls with a wistful smile.

The school Rezuan went to had a vast playground where friendships flourished amidst games and laughter. "My teachers adored me. Our History teacher, was my favourite and I’ve never forgotten him." Rezuan reminisces with pride.

Rezuan spent his days in school and playing with his friends, whom he never saw again after fleeing from his village.

"Every afternoon, I went to the field and played football and badminton with my friends. We had a lot of fun. But after fleeing from Myanmar, I never saw my friends again. Overnight, I lost all my childhood friends forever,” Rezuan shares, his gaze fixated upon a distant horizon.

Rezuan's losses extend far beyond friendships. With each passing year as he gets older, he realises how much he lost when he fled. He can still recall the horrible journey which changed his life.

"One night, my parents woke us all up and told us we had to run. I had no idea where we were going, but my parents told us that we were fleeing to save our lives. They would kill us if they could catch us. While we were running, my father looked back over and over again at our home," Rezuan shared.

"For almost six years, I have been living in a camp. Here, with my parents and siblings, we have been living in a shelter made of tarp and bamboo. In this shelter, we shiver in the winter, sweat in the heat, and get drenched in the rain,” said Rezuan.

“Recently, we were hit by Cyclone Mocha. It seemed that the strong winds would blow away our shelter. Fortunately, our shelter was saved," Rezuan shared.

Others were not as fortunate as Rezuan. According to the United Nations data on Bangladesh, close to 40,000 Rohingya refugees had their shelters damaged or destroyed in 33 camps. Many more lost access to clean drinking water and other WASH facilities. Schools, shelters, and other facilities were damaged or destroyed.

It is still extremely cramped conditions that Rezuan lives in now at the camps. Every day is a fight for survival for the residents of the camps, and Rezuan experiences this fight every day.

"My father was a businessman in Myanmar and we never had to worry about food. It is very different here where we have to survive on rations. We get some rice, oil, and vegetables but that does not feed all nine of us. My father is also not allowed to work or start a business so we have no choice but to endure our hunger,” says Rezuan.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has been providing rations in the camps since the beginning of the Rohingya crisis in 2017. However, starting from June 2023, food rations were cut by 33 percent, from USD 13 to USD 8 per person per month. The United Nations in Bangladesh has appealed for immediate funding as Rohingya refugees' conditions can worsen in the face of these new cuts in food aid.

Food is not the only thing in shortage in the camps, as Rezuan explains, “Every morning, we line up to use the communal toilets which are shared by numerous families. Our daily supply of drinking water arrives only twice, and we must wait our turn to collect it. If we miss the scheduled distribution times, we have to wait another day for water.”

Rezuan made new friends at the camp’s learning centres in his earlier years at the camp. However, access to education remains severely limited, and informal schooling like learning centres is only for children until they reach fourth grade. This leaves children with limited educational opportunities and no hope for a better future.

"I made some new friends at the learning centre, but they now spend their days without any opportunities. Without school and work, they have nothing to do here," Rezuan laments. But Rezuan himself has continued to pursue knowledge however he could find it. He regularly attends sessions at the Surjoful Pre-Vocational training centre started by World Vision.

"I attend the centre regularly to learn how to repair gas stoves. I want to learn this skill to protect our community from any fire outbreaks," he said.

There is a constant fear of fire breaking out in the camps. A report released by the Bangladesh defense ministry in February 2023 recorded 222 fire incidents in the Rohingya camps from January 2021 to December 2022. One particularly tragic event occurred in March 2021, resulting in the loss of 15 lives and the displacement of around 50,000 individuals.

Rezuan also has a big dream, an almost impossible dream for a Rohingya child: he dreams of becoming an engineer. But there is no established formal education system for more than half a million children in the camp.

"There is a person in the camp who was a teacher at a school in Myanmar. In the morning, I regularly go to him, and he teaches me English, Science, Geography, Mathematics, History, and Burmese. In the evening, I teach my three brothers, Russel, Sifat, and Yasin Arafat, who are in grades one and two," Rezuan shared.

Rezuan may never receive a certificate or official recognition for his educational achievements, but he still keeps studying. He dreams that one day his life in the camp will end, and he will be able to fulfill his dream.