From squalid refugee camp, Rohingya teen plans for higher ed

In this Aug. 27, 2018, photo, Rohingya refugee children attend a UNICEF run school in Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh. More than 1,200 temporary schools across the refugee camps teach English, math, Burmese, science and the arts to about 140,000 children between the ages of 6-14, just over a quarter of the more than half a million refugee children, according to UNICEF. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 27, 2018, photo, Rohingya girl Rahima Akter walks out of a hut after interviewing a Rohingya refugee in Balukhali Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. Rahima is a 19-year-old refugee who dreams of becoming the most educated Rohingya woman in the world. While she is mostly busy preparing university applications, Rahima spends her spare time going door-to-door at the expansive camps, documenting first-person accounts of people who fled Myanmar last year. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 27, 2018, photo, Rahima Akter walks through Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. Rahima is a 19-year-old refugee who dreams of becoming the most educated Rohingya woman in the world. She recently finished high school and hopes to study human rights in college. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 27, 2018, photo, Rohingya refugee woman Minara Begum, mother of Rahima Akter, sits by her youngest daughter Arohi Zannat inside the family hut in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. Begum, 34, a refugee who fled Myanmar as a child and never attended school, not only convinced her husband to let their eldest daughter Rahima study, but she also fought off rebukes from the elders in her community who warned that sending girls out into the world was a sin. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 23, 2018, photo, Bangladesh military personnel check identities of travelers at a road check point between a Rohingya refugee camp and Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. A United Nations fact-finding mission reported last month that at least 10,000 Rohingya died in the violence. The UN has also called for Myanmar’s top military generals to be prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 23, 2018, photo, a Rohingya refugee child rides a merry-go-round at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. More than half a million Rohingya children live in the congested camps. They rely on 1,200 learning centers set up by aid organizations that can’t accommodate everyone and only offer classes up to a 5th-grade level. Most Rohingya girls are expected to get married by the age of 16, and sometimes as early as 14. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 27, 2018, photo, Rohingya girl Rahima Akter speaks to Hosen Ali, a Rohingya refugee, inside his hut in Balukhali Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. Rahima is a 19-year-old refugee who dreams of becoming the most educated Rohingya woman in the world. While she is mostly busy preparing university applications, Rahima spends her spare time going door-to-door at the expansive camps, documenting first-person accounts of people who fled Myanmar last year. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 27, 2018, photo, Rohingya refugee children attend a UNICEF run school in Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh. More than 1,200 temporary schools across the refugee camps teach English, math, Burmese, science and the arts to about 140,000 children between the ages of 6-14, just over a quarter of the more than half a million refugee children, according to UNICEF. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 28, 2018, photo, a Rohingya refugee girl sells vegetables in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. More than half a million Rohingya children live in the congested camps. They rely on 1,200 learning centers set up by aid organizations that can’t accommodate everyone and only offer classes up to a 5th-grade level. Most Rohingya girls are expected to get married by the age of 16, and sometimes as early as 14. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 22, 2018, photo, Rahima Akter, left, teaches her siblings inside the family hut in Kutupalong refugee camp, in Bangladesh. Rahima is a 19-year-old refugee who dreams of becoming the most educated Rohingya woman in the world. While she is mostly busy preparing university applications, Rahima spends her spare time going door-to-door at the expansive camps, documenting first-person accounts of people who fled Myanmar last year. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 23, 2018, photo, a Rohingya refugee woman sits under an umbrella as she sells fruit at a playground in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. More than half a million Rohingya children live in the congested camps. They rely on 1,200 learning centers set up by aid organizations that can’t accommodate everyone and only offer classes up to a 5th-grade level. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 27, 2018, photo, Rohingya refugee woman Minara Begum, mother of Rahima Akter, holds her youngest daughter Arohi Zannat inside the family hut in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. Begum, 34, a refugee who fled Myanmar as a child and never attended school, not only convinced her husband to let their eldest daughter Rahima study, but she also fought off rebukes from the elders in her community who warned that sending girls out into the world was a sin. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this Aug. 26, 2018, photo, a Rohingya refugee girl stands by a fence at Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. More than half a million Rohingya children live in the congested camps. They rely on 1,200 learning centers set up by aid organizations that can’t accommodate everyone and only offer classes up to a 5th-grade level. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh — At an age when many young Rohingya women have children, Rahima Akter has other plans.

From the refugee camp in southern Bangladesh where she was born, Akter, a 19-year-old with a confident smile who goes by the name Khushi, says she aspires to become the most educated Rohingya woman in the world.

Akter was born and has lived her whole life in the camp, a makeshift settlement of bamboo and tarpaulin huts spread out over rolling hills that were once protected forestland.

Her parents were among a wave of 250,000 Rohingya Muslims who escaped forced labor, religious persecution and violent attacks from Buddhist mobs in Myanmar during the early 1990s.

She sees education as her ticket out of the camp.

"If we take education then we will be able to lead our life as a life," she said.

Akter has supplemented her family's income by working as a translator for aid groups and journalists responding to a new influx of Rohingya refugees who have flooded the camp since August 2017, when the Myanmar military and Buddhist mobs began "clearance operations" against Rohingya in retaliation for insurgent attacks on security posts in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

A United Nations fact-finding mission reported last month that at least 10,000 Rohingya are believed to have died in the violence. The U.N. has called for Myanmar's top military generals to be prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity.

But while the Rohingya have found a measure of safety in southern Bangladesh, access to education is far from assured.

Akter said she is among only a few Rohingya refugee girls to have completed the Bangladeshi equivalent of high school, a feat she could only achieve by sneaking past the camp's checkpoints and bribing Bangladeshi public school officials for a placement.

More than 1,200 temporary schools teach English, math, Burmese, science and the arts to about 140,000 children between the ages of 6 and 14, just over a quarter of the more than half a million refugee children living in the camp, according to UNICEF.

But the schooling only goes up to 5th grade, so Akter and other refugees have had to secretly enroll in schools in Cox's Bazar or other towns to complete their studies.

Because of the limited educational opportunities for them, UNICEF calls the refugee children "a lost generation."

"The international community has failed these children," UNICEF spokesman Sakil Faizullah said, adding that the agency plans to start offering basic classes for older refugee students on the assumption they will receive formal education when they return to Myanmar.

But in the current anti-Rohingya climate in Myanmar, Akter said her family's return has not been possible.

In order to go to school, Akter said she disguised her Rohingya identity by speaking only in Bengali, and dressing like a Bangladeshi girl.

But it was the battles she had to fight at home that were the most challenging, she said.

Most Rohingya girls are expected to get married by the age of 16, and sometimes as early as 14. She had to fight off her father who said her time for marriage had come.

Akter cried for days and begged her parents with hands clasped to let her continue studying.

Her mother, Minara Begum, a refugee who fled Myanmar as a child and never attended school, not only convinced her husband to let their eldest daughter study, but also fought off rebukes from the elders in her community who warned that sending girls out into the world was a sin.

"I told them 'let Allah punish me then,'" Begum said. "What about our lives as refugees that have gone in vain because of our illiteracy? If I can help my children get a better future by education, then that is what I am going to do."

Begum now sends three of her four daughters to school and hopes to educate her youngest daughter and only son as well. Akter and two of her sisters live on their own near the school in Cox's Bazar, about two hours' drive from the camp. Akter's sisters were able to enroll in the Bangladeshi school after she had secured a place for herself there.

Begum said the family has skimped on food to cover the costs of sending the children to school, hoping that they can build a future for themselves that is not bound by the stigma of being a refugee.

"We are Rohingya. There is no land under our feet. We have no future. We are in the same situation as chicken in a cage," Begum said, adding that they "can't even claim ownership over the fruit from a tree that we planted."

Begum's dedication to her children's education seems to be paying off already. Akter now earns more money than the rest of her family's income combined.

While she is mostly busy preparing university applications, Akter also spends time going door-to-door at the expansive camp, documenting accounts of people who fled Myanmar last year.

She hopes to eventually publish her research when she is in college, where she plans to study human rights.

"Why do people have to lead their lives in such a situation?" she said. "One day maybe I'll be able to raise up my voice about human rights for the Rohingya."

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