Rohingya and Bangladeshi teachers team up to tackle educational challenges in refugee camps

Shah Alam teaches Burmese to a class of 40 Rohingya children. © UNHCR/Amos Halder

For as long as he can remember, it has been Shah Alum’s dream to become a teacher. But his education ended abruptly when he was forced to flee his native Myanmar.

Across the border in Bangladesh, Shah and his family found safety in one of the camps that sprang up in Cox’s Bazar, but he could not finish high school, let alone study at a university.

Still, nearly five years later, Shah, now 22, leads a class of about 40 Rohingya children in the Kutupalong refugee camp, home to about 750,000 Rohingya refugees. While Shah teaches the children Burmese at the front of the class, Minhar Begum, a 24-year-old from the Bengali community in Cox’s Bazar district, walks through the class, making sure everyone follows the instructions.

“When we teach together, it’s easy to coordinate the class.”

Shah and Minhar have been working together for two years. Although none of them is a fully qualified teacher, they have received training from UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and together they cover an informal curriculum consisting mainly of basic skills such as reading and writing, Burmese and life skills.

“When we teach together, it’s easy to coordinate the class,” says Shah. “She can stand at the front, explain something, and I can be at the back of the class at the same time. We can focus equally on all students.”

Connecting Bangladeshis with Rohingya refugees to teach has come about out of necessity, explains Haruna Nakashiba, Senior Protection Coordinator at UNHCR. There are now about 5,600 learning centers in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.

To create jobs

“We have a shortage of teachers among the people who have fled because very few Rohingya were able to get a higher education in Myanmar Haruna says. “So for some subjects, such as English or mathematics, we decided to hire Bangladeshi teachers. This also means creating jobs for them.”

This type of education giving brings the Rohingya and local Bangladeshis closer together. “We are like brothers and sisters, we understand each other very well,” Shah says of his relationship with Minhar. “In the beginning we didn’t communicate much, but now we talk about strengths and weaknesses and how we can improve them.”

Not without challenges

Even with mutual support, teaching in the learning centers is not without challenges. Shah says many primary school-age children in the camps do not attend learning centers, and turnout is even lower during the monsoon season, when the paths in the camps can become muddy and dangerous. “Some work to help their parents; others spend their days with nothing.”

UNHCR’s Haruno Nakashiba talks about the lack of formal education in the camps and how she, together with UNICEF and other partners, advocated replacing the current system with Myanmar’s national curriculum. The government of Bangladesh approved a switch to Myanmar’s national curriculum in January 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic closed learning centers and delayed the implementation of this change.

At the end of last year, the pilot phase of the new curriculum finally began, with 10,000 children enrolled in grades 8 through 3. At the beginning of July and at the start of the new school year, the remaining groups and classes start the new education.

“We want Myanmar’s curriculum so children can continue learning when they return to their country,” Shah said.

Minhar agrees, even if it means her partnership with Shah may soon end. While some Rohingya and Bangladeshi teachers will continue to work in pairs, Rohingya teachers will receive training to teach most subjects in Burmese. Host community teachers like Minhar will focus on teaching English.

Shah’s dream of one day becoming a qualified teacher is not as impossible as it once seemed. UNHCR has started offering teacher training courses to 2,500 teachers this year, from what the majority of Rohingya is. “If I get the chance to learn somewhere, I will go for it,” says Shah.

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