From terror to triumph
CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh, Dec 20, (RTRS): On the first day of the school year at the Asian University for Women in southern Bangladesh, groups of teenage girls in skinny jeans, sleeveless tops and T-shirts chattered, their laughter carrying through the sticky air.
Formin Akter, 19, stood in a corner by a row of suitcases, facing away from the students who seemed so modern and full of confidence. Wearing a tunic and pants that hung loosely on her, she nervously adjusted a brown georgette scarf that kept slipping from her head.
When she finally saw someone she recognized, she beamed, holding a card tied to red straps around her neck.
Getting a college ID may have been a mildly exciting rite of passage for other new students. For Formin, a stateless Rohingya Muslim from Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, it meant the world.
She had spent most of her life dreaming about this moment. But as a Rohingya in Myanmar’s apartheid-like Rakhine State, her goal of attending university had been thwarted. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled a campaign of arson, rape and killing by the military since August 2017, and many of those still in the country are languishing in de facto internment camps.
Raised by a father who wanted more than his peasant’s life for his daughters, Formin and her older sister, Nur Jahan, had defied those in their community who believed education was wasted on women. They were the only two girls from their village ever to finish high school.
Back then, the sisters made a pact. Someday, they would go to university together.
In her dorm room, Formin moved her belongings into a cupboard: a small pile of clothes, a dinner plate, a steel pot. Her Burmese-English dictionary – one of the few things she had taken with her when fleeing Myanmar a year before – was tucked on the top shelf. On one of the walls of the dorm, someone had painted a quote from the Harry Potter series: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
A few hours to the south, in the world’s largest refugee camp, her sister Nur Jahan spends her days teaching children and trying to forget how close she was to realizing her childhood dream. This year, her parents pushed her to accept a young man’s proposal; now, she is married and pregnant, and must stay at home.
Formin said her sister calls her every day. Formin is excited about college, but she knows she’s a constant reminder of the education that her sister, and hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya women, can’t have.
The two girls loved to skip rope together when they were growing up in Hlaing Thi, an all-Muslim village of about 6,000 people in Rakhine, one of Myanmar’s poorest and least-developed states.
Now the village where the girls grew up is no longer home. Scores of Rohingya houses in northern Rakhine, including those in Hlaing Thi, were burned and abandoned in what the United Nations has called an “ethnic cleansing” carried out with “genocidal intent.” Satellite images show what remains of the village: rolling green interspersed with the fields that former neighbors left behind, cut here and there by narrow streams. Formin would visit one of those streams every day with her mother to collect drinking water in plastic pails.
Since the military launched its crackdown in August 2017, more than 730,000 Rohingya have fled northern Rakhine for neighbouring Bangladesh. About 15,000 fled this year alone.
Myanmar’s government denies committing abuses against the Rohingya, saying the military action in northern Rakhine came in response to attacks by Muslim militants. Still, the country doesn’t grant most Rohingya citizenship, and Myanmar authorities refer to the Rohingya as “Bengali,” a derogatory term because it implies they are interlopers from Bangladesh. The government and the military didn’t respond to questions about specific incidents in this story.
Restrictions on education, employment and travel meant most Rohingya were like Formin’s father, farmers or day laborers largely cut off from the outside world. According to a 2015 survey by the Yangon-based Center for Diversity and National Harmony, Rakhine had the country’s lowest literacy levels and the lowest rates of primary and secondary school enrollment in Myanmar. Rohingya students struggle to understand teachers because their language isn’t recognized in the public school system.
But Formin’s uncle, Sayat Hossain, showed what was possible against the odds. Admitted to an engineering college in 1994 in the then-capital, Yangon, he was forced to leave school after it was shut down in response to pro-democracy protests two years later, and he fled Myanmar to find work as a day laborer in Malaysia. Eventually he made his way to asylum in Norway, where he now works as a translator.
For many in Formin’s village, her uncle was something of a local hero. “There was no family like theirs in the village,” Mohammed Bashar, the Rohingya chairman of Hlaing Thi, said from a refugee camp in Bangladesh. “They understood the value of an education.”
Formin’s father, Mohammed Hossain, imagined a happier future for his daughters. “You get respect when you have an education,” he said. “Illiterate people have to do hard work, but educated people can find comfortable work. I wanted that for my girls.”
In 2012, when Formin was 13 and Nur Jahan was 16, an international humanitarian group was operating schools for children in need of a secondary school education in northern Rakhine. It offered the sisters the chance to study under a program that would cover their tuition and living expenses. But they would have to move away from home.
There were murmurs of disapproval in the village. “People thought the girls would be ruined,” said Bashar, the former village chairman.
Formin’s father said he was often told by fellow villagers: “No matter how much you make them study, they have to sit at home and cook for their husbands. What is the point?”
But he allowed his daughters to go away to school – just as racial and religious tensions in Rakhine boiled over.
In a white notebook with pink flowers, Formin kept a diary. “I wrote about some happy and sad things every day,” she said. “If someone said anything bad about me, I used to write about that.”
In maintaining that diary, Formin had unconsciously started creating a record of events in Rakhine that few in the largely illiterate population were documenting firsthand. “At that time, we didn’t have TV, radio or mobile,” she said, matter-of-factly.
Just weeks after Formin and her sister began school away from their village, communal violence broke out. It was June 2012, and thousands were displaced across Rakhine State as Buddhists and Muslims torched each other’s homes.
Authorities responded to the violence, in part, by barring the Rohingya from enrolling in the only university in Rakhine State, citing unspecified “security concerns,” according to a report by UN investigators earlier this year. That effectively denied the Rohingya access to higher education, which was already limited because of travel restrictions, the report said.
But that didn’t break the sisters’ determination to keep studying. Formin and Nur Jahan moved to a secondary school in Kyein Chaung, a village with a bustling market where Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus ran shops alongside each other. Kyein Chaung had been largely untouched by the wave of violence in 2012, and things began to look hopeful.
In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy swept elections and came to power in a country that had long been ruled by generals. Many Rohingya rooted for Suu Kyi, who had been a political prisoner, believing she would put an end to their persecution.
Nur Jahan, three years older, had finished high school and was teaching children for an international nongovernmental organization. She wanted Formin to graduate, like her, and was paying her sister’s study costs with her NGO salary.
At school in Kyein Chaung, Formin met a teacher, Ali Ahmed, who was one of the few Rohingya licensed to teach in public schools. He says he encouraged her and other Rohingya students to dream big.