Oblivious to the deafening noise of traffic outside, about a dozen Rohingya teens and young adults are engrossed in their textbooks – a rare sight in India among the displaced refugees from Myanmar who largely are relegated to doing odd jobs for survival.
Mohammad Yusuf, 23, is one of them.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, bent over a science book in a small apartment in New Delhi, he is studying for India’s 10th-grade exams next month that lead to the equivalent of a high school diploma in the United States. Usually, Indians are 14 or 15 years old when they sit for this test.
“I want to do well in these exams so I can study further and make a decent life for myself. I can’t afford to waste more time,” said Yusuf, who fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state during the 2017 exodus that followed a brutal offensive against his Muslim minority group.
Along with Yusuf, 10 other Rohingya refugees live and study in this cramped two-room apartment, situated in the Zakir Nagar locality of south Delhi. All expenses, including food, materials and tuition, are borne by the Rohingya Literacy Program, a donation-run project founded last year by a fellow Rohingya, Ali Johar.
Yusuf was among more than 700,000 Rohingya who crossed the Myanmar border to refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh after August 2017 to flee what the United Nations described as “systematic ethnic cleansing” by Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The crackdown followed deadly attacks carried out by a Rohingya rebel outfit against security forces in that country.
“I had attended school [in Myanmar] until the 9th grade. They don’t allow us [Rohingya] to study beyond that,” Yusuf told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“When I entered Bangladesh, circumstances were such that I had to work,” he added.
Yusuf said security forces in Myanmar had arrested his parents during the crackdown and he fled with his brother and two sisters. He worked in a factory in Cox’s Bazaar district for a year before crossing over to India, hoping to make a better living.
“I was struggling to get a job in Delhi. Then, through some friends I heard of the Rohingya Literacy Program. I always dreamed of studying further. So, I got in touch with the group,” he said.
Johar told BenarNews that the students living in the hostel were handpicked from more than 100 applications he had received from Rohingya who wished to pursue higher studies.
The idea to start the hostel struck Johar, 24, when he was working as an interpreter with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in New Delhi, and realized that a “shockingly low number of Rohingya were enrolled in higher education.”
A project associated with the U.N. agency is listed among sponsors of the Rohingya Literacy Program. Local NGOs, schools and individual donors supporting the program include the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, the Human Welfare Foundation, the S.D.K, Foundation and the Woodstock School, Haryana.
Of about 17,500 Rohingya registered with the U.N. refugee agency in India, only about 40 have studied beyond primary school, according to UNHCR. Johar and only one other were seeking to graduate from college programs.
There are several reasons for this, said Johar, a political science major.
“A lot of our community members are not aware of the available opportunities. Then there is the language barrier, financial constraints, but, most importantly, documentation is a major problem,” he said.
Refugee cards not recognized
Despite holding U.N.-certified refugee cards, Rohingya in India are unable to secure admission in regular schools because the government does not recognize them as refugees but as “illegal infiltrators,” he and others said.
“I want to ask the government why it refuses to accept U.N. refugee cards as proof of identification for Rohingya and admit them in government schools,” said Ahmed Kamal, an Indian media consultant who helps tutor the students at the hostel.
In 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalists party that leads India’s government, said Rohingya were a “serious threat to national security” as they were vulnerable to radicalization by terror outfits and warned that it would deport about “40,000 of them illegally settled” in the country.
“Rohingya are most definitely not entitled to the refugee status. The government considers them illegal immigrants. They cannot claim fundamental rights that are available to non-Indians,” an official of India’s Human Resource Development Ministry told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
But that does not deter Saiful Islam, 19, from pursuing his dream of one day receiving his master’s degree in business administration.
“So what if we can’t go to a regular school and attend classes? This hostel provides us with an atmosphere to study, which we otherwise would never get in the refugee camps,” Islam told BenarNews.
He plans to appear for the senior secondary exams (Grade 12) in September.
“We are used to facing hurdles. But that cannot be an excuse to not go after your dreams,” said Johar’s sister, Tasmida, 21, who is set to become the only woman in the refugee community in India to appear for the senior secondary examinations.
“I want all Rohingya girls to study,” Tasmida told BenarNews. “And it is slowly happening. After seeing me, a lot of girls in the community have started studying through open school.”
UNHCR said that even though nearly half of the registered Rohingya population was younger than 18, “very few had completed secondary education.”
The agency “runs educational awareness campaigns in the refugee community. Families are also supported through other protection and livelihood initiatives to strengthen their social and economic capital, address child labor concerns and increase children’s school enrolment and retention,” UNHCR’s Ipshita Sengupta told BenarNews.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.