Every morning, 11 year old Sayedul Amin helps his three younger brothers get up and get ready for school. But, he does not join them at the Madrasah, where they go to learn to read and write in Arabic.
He doesn’t have time for school, because he has to work full time to help feed his family.
After washing up, he goes to the nearby market by 8 o’clock and buys rice which he and his mother sell in front of the small shack where the family of six lives, on the edge of the Kutupalong refugee camp, near the Bangladesh border with Burma.
Like Sayedul Amin, more than one thousand Rohingya refugee children, ages 7-12, work full time or part time after school selling goods at local markets inside and nearby refugee camps, to feed themselves and their families.
Eleven year old Sayedul Amin sells rice every day to help feed his family, instead of going to school with his brothers.They sell various goods, including rice and collect firewood from mountainsides and forests near where they live. Other children work in tea shops as waiters in the bustling commercial area of Teknaf, Nilla, and Cox’s Bazar, in southeastern Bangladesh.
“My father, Yousuf, died from malaria two years ago,” said Sayedul in a recent interview.
“I live in a small hut at Kutupalong with my mother, my elder brother and three younger brothers. Kutupalong is a makeshift camp surrounding an official refugee camp.”
Then, he went on to tell about his family’s hard struggle to survive.
Eight year old Akaram sells firewood to help his widowed mother, Begum Bahar feed their family. She has to beg to take care of her two children.
“I return from the market to my hut in the afternoon with 10 kg rice. I buy this rice for 18 taka/kg and sell it in the camp 19 taka/ kg. I get 1 taka/ kg; in total I get as a profit about 10 taka/day, which is not sufficient for my family. My elder brother also works as a manual worker in the local area. He gets 80 to 100 taka daily. Everyday we need at least 130 to 150 taka for our two square meals. And, we also have to pay 15 taka per month for the school fees of my younger brothers, who are learning Arabic and read books at a private center. Hence, we have to work dawn to dusk every day,” he said.
“I am selling rice and doing hard work to feed my brothers and mother. But, before my father died, I studied at a local school. After my father’s death, I left my studies and worked at a local tea shop.”
Later, his family moved near to the UNHCR sponsored refugee camp at Kutupalong, about an hour from Cox’s Bazar, where several thousand refugees were gathering.
But, he said, a few months ago, Bangladesh authorities made his family move to the forest nearby the camp.
“I am very sad that instead of going school I have to feed my family members in my childhood since my father died. I was eager to learn more and more and I would like to become a good teacher to teach children,” Sayedul said.
His mother, thirty-five year old Fatema Khatun, said in an interview, she is so busy taking care of the children and cooking for them, she has no time to do any work outside the home.
“I am very sorry; it makes me cry that my child feeds me by doing hard work. I am thankful, but I dislike it that my child is so young. I don’t want to destroy his childhood. Actually, I have no alternative. There is no helper to support us. And, there is no school in the makeshift camp. If I get any support from anyone, I should send my child to school,” she said.
“If we can stay in Arakan, perhaps my child can go to school. But we cannot stay there, the military junta abuses us in many ways that has forced us to leave our country. I had to cross to Bangladesh two years ago.”
A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) says forced labor and expropriation of property are a daily reality.
"The state orchestrates violence either directly, to force the Rohingya to leave, or foments discriminatory attitudes and practices whose ultimate aim is to push the Rohingya out,” the report states.
Another young boy, eight year old Akaram, also lives in the makeshift camp of Kutupalong. He lives with his sister and mother. His father, Abu Bakar, died a year and a half ago.
He goes to the nearby mountain to collect firewood every day, while his mother Begum Bahar is a beggar. Occasionally, she goes to collect firewood with her son.
Akaram, gets 10 taka for one bundle of firewood and his mother gets about one kilo of rice a day after begging door to door. But, that is not sufficient to feed the three of them.
Another small girl, 7-year old Rahana, carries bushes from the forest used to build huts in the camp. She goes to Madarasa, or religious school every day, but she can’t go to regular school because it is too far to walk. After coming from the Madarasa, she goes to the forest to collect bushes.
"Young people don't see a future for themselves or for their children in this country," said Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Bangkok based Arakan Project, a NGO involved in research-based advocacy in the country.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority population in Myanmar, have fled severe repression and persecution in their homeland and sought refuge in Bangladesh and other neighboring countries for more than 50 years. Sadly, few find the assistance they desperately need and instead are forced to survive in huge makeshift camps with little or no basic amenities, including food or water. Now, increasing violence and intimidation in a makeshift camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, is forcing the Rohingya to flee once again.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reports on the awful living conditions and maltreatment refugees are enduring at the hands of local authorities there. “It’s some of the worst poverty I’ve ever seen,” says Gemma Davies, MSF project coordinator in Kutupalong. “People are living in makeshift shelters built out of bits of plastic and wood or whatever they can find. They don’t even have basic things to cook with. And the sanitation is appalling.”
The MSF Report says, “MSF has assisted people in Bangladesh since 1992, most recently setting up a basic healthcare program in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, assisting victims of Cyclone Aila and implementing an emergency intervention to assist unregistered Rohingya in Kutupalong makeshift camp, with services also open to the host community.”
Unregistered refugees in Kutupalong struggle to survive day to day, living in neglected conditions, vulnerable to ill health and exploitation. Shelters are poorly constructed, food and medicine is in short supply. Thousands of children are passing their days without schools. They are being deprived of their right to education. Instead of going to school, they have to work to feed themselves and their family.
A day absent from work for them is a day closer to starvation.
Sayedul Amin hopes the international community will come forward to help, so the lives of about half a million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh may be improved.
“If I get the chance or get help from any quarter, I want to learn more and more. If my father was still alive, I would still be a student. I hope that someday I will be an educated person,” he said.
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