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How Rohingya Refugee Children Are Torn Between Languages

Language is both a means of assimilation and a source of exclusion for young Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh caught between a host country trying to prevent their integration and a home country that may prevent their return, writes Sunaina Kumar.

Written by Sunaina Kumar Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Rohingya children at the UNICEF learning center in Balukhali camp.Credit: Sunaina Kumar

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – When Mohammed Reyas works on his math classwork, his mind flits among multiple languages.

The 11-year-old, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, starts counting in Burmese: “Tit, hnit, thone.” He then switches to Bangla: “Char, panch, chhoy.” Then Rohingya: “Hant, anchtho, no.” Finally, he finishes in English: “Ten, eleven, twelve.”

It’s been a year and a half since Mohammed fled with his family from their home in Buthidaung in Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. There he studies in a makeshift learning center perched on a steep hill in the world’s biggest refugee camp.

In class, he learns in English and Burmese, the latter the official language of Myanmar. At home with his family and friends, he speaks Rohingya, a spoken language used by Rohingya people that has no written form. He has also picked up Bangla words and phrases from Bangladeshi locals and aid workers in the camp.

Rohingya refugee students at the UNICEF learning center in Balukhali camp. Credit: Sunaina Kumar

This mix of languages is normal for young Rohingya refugees. But language has become a political battleground. It is a means of assimilating but also a source of exclusion for Rohingya people on both sides of the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The Bangladeshi government bans Rohingya refugees from learning the local language as part of its reluctance to allow their long-term integration. Meanwhile, the Rohingya believe they will someday return home to Myanmar, so parents want their children to learn Burmese. Some feel that raising their children with Bangla as the dominant language might further alienate them from the Rakhine and Burmese population once they return home. In the meantime, not knowing Bangla results in marginalization in Bangladesh, their host community.

“The advantage of learning Burmese is that it would provide an opportunity for Rohingya children to reintegrate into the education system in Myanmar in the future. It is their national language,” says Karen Reidy, spokesperson for UNICEF, which runs 1,800 learning centers in the camps covering 155,000 children.

A ‘Lost Generation’ of Children

More than 1 million Rohingya refugees are living in Bangladesh, a figure that includes nearly half a million children. They have been called a “lost generation.” A report by Save the Children last year estimated that more than 70 percent of Rohingya children in Bangladesh are not in school. Those who do have access to education attend sessions for about two hours per day, at grade levels far below their age.

Mohammed’s 9-year-old sister, Yasmin, has been exposed to multiple languages since they arrived in Bangladesh, too: “Minglaba” (a greeting in Burmese), she says. Then, in English, “Hi, how are you?”

Mohammed Reyas writes in his Burmese class book. Credit: Sunaina Kumar

Her instructor, Najim Ullah, a 22-year-old Rohingya refugee, teaches students the alphabet, rhymes and how to write sentences in Burmese.

“We will not be here for long,” Ullah says. “They need to know Burmese when we return home.”

“We will not be here for long,” Ullah says. “They need to know Burmese when we return home.”

But the Rohingya may not return to Myanmar anytime soon – and there is a chance they never will. In November, a plan put forward by Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya fell apart when no one agreed to a return because of continued hostility in Myanmar. Twice in the past, in the late 1970s and early 1990s, there was a mass outflow of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh, and Bangladesh resisted any attempt toward their integration. Despite the harsh conditions and Bangladesh’s pressure on the Rohingya to return home, many from the previous refugee waves opted to stay there.

That’s why parents, aid workers and the children themselves wonder whether learning Burmese will serve young Rohingya in the future.

The Bangladeshi government attempts to prevent Rohingya integration in numerous ways. It prohibits formal schooling for Rohingya refugees and has recently cracked down on their attempts to study in Bangladeshi schools. And last year, it circulated a notification forbidding Bangla from being taught in the camps.

“Our policy is to provide informal education. Why do the Rohingya need to learn Bangla? Their language is Burmese,” says Abul Kalam, chief of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission in Bangladesh. “They are here temporarily. The government is negotiating their repatriation strategy.”

Burmese, Rohingya or Bangla – or All Three?

A study by Translators without Borders conducted in the camps last year found Rohingya is the language the refugees understand and prefer. Since Rohingya lacks a universally accepted script, Burmese is the preferred language for written communication. Interestingly, after Rohingya and Chittagonian (the local dialect of Cox’s Bazar), spoken Bangla is understood at higher rates than spoken Burmese and English – likely because the spoken form of Bangla is closer to Rohingya.

“We have a chaotic situation in the camps. Burmese and English are being taught, but the mode of teaching is a mix of Chittagonian, Bangla and Rohingya,” said A.K. Rahim, a sociolinguistic researcher with Translators Without Borders in Cox’s Bazar, when he explained the study’s findings at the Dhaka Lit Fest in November. “There are cognitive dissonance issues among the children, simply because they are being bombarded with so many different languages that are not standardized in any way. There is no way to foresee what is their academic educational future, so they don’t know which language to choose.”

“There are cognitive dissonance issues among the children, simply because they are being bombarded with so many different languages that are not standardized in any way. There is no way to foresee what is their academic educational future, so they don’t know which language to choose.”

It’s common to hear of Rohingya people learning Bangla at night among themselves in the camps. A news report suggests Rohingya children are learning Bangla in secret from private tutors, themselves refugees who had fled the earlier waves of violence and managed to study in Bangladeshi schools.

“They all want to learn Bangla. I have seen young Rohingya children read and write Bangla, though not openly,” says Ziaul Islam, a professor at the University of Chittagong, who researched the state of education in the camps last year. “They have the right to a better education, whether they stay back or return.”

Zahid,* a Rohingya refugee in his late 20s, arrived with his family at the Kutupalong camp in the early 1990s. He was born in Bangladesh and studied in a Bangladeshi school by faking his identity papers and identifying himself as Bangladeshi. He speaks English and Bangla, apart from his native language, Rohingya.

A chart in English and Burmese at the UNICEF learning center in Balukhali camp, Bangladesh. Credit: Sunaina Kumar

“It helped me build a future,” he says. He works with an aid agency and moonlights as a fixer and translator for international aid groups and journalists.

With both Bangla and Burmese being so politicized and not native to the Rohingya people, one recommendation by education experts and researchers is to develop a curriculum in English and include a component of mother-tongue education at the primary level.

Nasir Uddin, an anthropology professor at the University of Chittagong and a longtime researcher on Rohingya refugees, says, “Since this problem will not be solved anytime soon, we need to involve the Rohingya people and ask them what education they need for their future, instead of deciding for them.”

*Some names have been changed for refugees’ protection.



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