“Are you a photographer?”
I didn’t expect to hear this question in English from a 14-year-old boy in a refugee camp.
“Yes, I am,” I replied.
I have met many children here in world's largest refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. As a photographer/videographer for World Vision, I’ve covered this humanitarian crisis since the first days in August 2017 when more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees began pouring across the border from Myanmar into my country.
Today, almost 1 million refugees live in the camp. More than half of them are children. But I’ve not met a boy quite like Shahed.
Speaking English fluently, he stepped out of a crowd of children and kept asking me questions. We didn’t need a Rohinya-English interpreter to continue our conversation. In few minutes, I felt like I was talking with my younger brother.
Shahed wanted to talk about his education. He told me that he is desperate to get back to school.
“I completed Grade 5 in Myanmar. After the violence broke out, we fled to Bangladesh, and I left my education behind,” says Shahed. “I used to go to a school in the camp run by Rohingya teachers, but it closed.”
Shahed and other Rohingya refugee children have been out of school for almost two years. Nearly half of the 540,000 children ages 3-14 living in the camp do not have access to education. While NGOs like World Vision offer informal learning, the government does not permit standardized curriculum to be taught. Children cannot write tests or pass a grade. Education is now a restriction for them, rather than a human right.
The situation is worse for adolescents like Shahed. A reported 97 percent of all adolescents and youth age 15-24 lack any kind of education or vocational training opportunities.
As we talked, Shahed urged me to follow him to his house. He said he wanted to show me something. I was curious. After entering in his home, he brought me all his Grade 6 books that he managed to carry with him from Myanmar. He started reading from them randomly. He told me his favorite subject is English.
“If the situation goes on without us getting education, I would rather die. I can't get a good job if I can't get an education and I will have to dig dirt as day labourer,” says Shahed. "I want to go back to Myanmar because it is my country. We could get formal schooling there and study up to the level we wanted. Here we can’t.”
When I was a boy like Shahed, my parents sent me and my five brothers to a good school with all kinds of facilities. The government provided free books up to Grade 5. My school was walking distance from my home. After school, I played cricket with my elder brothers. At university, I completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in pharmacy. Then I decided to switch careers completely. I studied graphic design, videography and photography at a training institution. Now, it’s my passion. Without an education, I wouldn’t be working as a World Vision communications specialist today—a job I love.
Education can change the future for thousands of refugee children like Shahed. Thankfully, he is one of 186 students enrolled in World Vision’s new training programme that will benefit up to 8,400 adolescents age 14-18. I first met Shahed at World Vision’s Multi-Purpose Child and Adolescent Centre, the first of 21 that we are rapidly setting up.
At the centre, adolescents participate in life skills-based education and vocational training like solar panel repair for boys and tailoring training for girls. World Vision is also providing basic informal education to 3,840 younger children ages 3-14 in 12 additional centres under this programme.
“The centre opened four months ago, and I have been coming ever since,” says Shahed. “We are studying math, English, grammar and Burmese.”
Shahed has a long wish list for his future. “I want to be a teacher or a doctor or an engineer. To serve people, I want to be a doctor. I also want to be teacher so that I can help the children of our community to be educated,” he says. “And I want to be engineer so that I can make airplanes, and people will be able to go abroad.”
Shahed is not alone. Thousands of Rohingya children want to be doctors, engineers or teachers, not day labourers. They are waiting to wear a new school uniform and enter a classroom with a backpack full of books. Like children everywhere, they deserve a quality education. I’m hoping someday that Shahed will graduate from university, become a photographer and tell the story of his community to the world.
Story and Photo: Md. Shabir Hussain