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One year on from the Rohingya crisis, Kawsar Zaman visits Myanmar to witness life for the Rohingya children left behind.
This Saturday 25 August marks 1 year on from the start of the mass exodus of the Rohingya people who fled violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, across the border to Bangladesh. The refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, now home to more than 900,000 people, have been constantly in the international news. However, there are still half a million Rohingya people remaining in camp-like situations in Kachin, Kayan, Shan and Rakhine states. So, what is life like for the Rohingya left behind?
Kawsar Zaman, a lawyer in the City of London and a Trustee for the charity Muslim Aid, has just returned from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, Myanmar. Kawsar grew up in a council home, in the East End of London. As the youngest of seven siblings, he was the first in his family to go to university, ending up graduating from LSE, Oxford and Harvard Law School. Following his recent visit, Kawsar gives us an insight into life for Rohingya children still inside Myanmar.
I have just returned from Myanmar on a visit to camps which are home to displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar – a people described by the United Nations as “most persecuted minority in the world”. Since the outbreak of communal violence in 2012, over a million of the Rohingya community have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh with a 200,000 remaining in Rakhine State; confined to makeshift camps they have called home for six years.
It was my first visit to the heart of a crisis and I walked along improvised streets beaten by the monsoon rain and lined with tents. For me, the most harrowing experience of all was the sight of children walking bare feet, without any clothes, looking for something to do. And yet, these are children who should be at school. This conflict was not the making or the result of their doing but they now suffer the fate of no access to education and in turn, the prospect of a life in a vicious circle of poverty.
I met Abdullah in a camp we visited. He was only 10 years old; but looked much older, perhaps brought on by the stresses and strain of living in the camp. His father had passed away and he was left alone with his younger sibling to support his mother. He had no education and was not in school. However, Abdullah told me he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up.
I grew up in disadvantage – in a council home, in the East End of London. As the youngest of seven siblings, I was the first in my family to go to university. I ended up graduating from LSE, Oxford and Harvard Law School. Today, as a lawyer practicing in the City of London, as a governor at a secondary state comprehensive school in Bethnal Green and a trustee of Toynbee Hall, I know the power of schooling to transform lives. Education is the greatest liberating force of our generation.
According to data published by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 263 million children and youth worldwide are missing out on the chance to go to school, with conflict being a major barrier to education. Globally, 35% of all out-of-school children of primary age (22 million), 25% of all out-of-school adolescents of lower secondary age (15 million), and 18% of all out-of-school youth of upper secondary age live in conflict-affected areas (26 million).
I became a trustee of Muslim Aid UK nine months ago. At 28, I believe I am the youngest trustee of any major British INGO. I live a fairly comfortable life as a lawyer so it was an opportunity I felt I had to take up - to give back to others and share my own experiences having grown up in disadvantage. The power and opportunity to be part of a team operating in 30 countries across the world is incredible - but most importantly for me, driven by a strong sense of faith based giving, I’m proud to be part of Muslim Aid UK which supports all peoples irrespective of ones’ race, religion, colour, or creed.
Muslim Aid is one of only a handful of international aid agencies operating on the ground in Myanmar. It has built a hospital, provided shelter to 720 people, trained people in livelihood skills from helping them set up their own businesses – including masonry and handicraft – with a particular focus on helping vulnerable women.
A key focus for Muslim Aid Myanmar is on education with a vision to improve access and equality for both girls and boys in 300 learning centres and in seven temporary learning schools they have constructed, benefiting 3,250 children. Prior to these projects, most children were completely illiterate. Now many of them have school uniform, made by girls trained to sew at a Muslim Aid project, and access to toilets, showers and water when they go to school.
As I reflect on my visit, I cannot help but struggle with the thought of how our lives are such lotteries. Where we are born will dictate our lives and our life chances – irrespective of how hardworking or intelligent we may be. Born as a Rohingya child in Rakhine State, Myanmar in the centre of a conflict there is little prospect of you leaving a refugee camp let alone go to school. Born in London – and, you have the prospect of a good education and the opportunities to thrive at will. Globally, we have a duty to do more to eradicate child poverty and give every child the chance to go to school; for education is the greatest liberating force of our generation. It is quite frankly, the very least we can do.