A State of Crisis
Across two continents, students work to educate Rohingya children, refugees forced to flee their homes in Myanmar
May 18, 2023
Three children pictured amid a garbage-strewn field, wading in mud past their knees. Their hair, their skin, their clothes are covered in it.
The picture, taken at a Bangladesh refugee camp on Sept. 29, 2022, provides only a snapshot of the issue.
The number of Rohingya—members of a predominately Muslim ethnic group—who have been driven from a Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia.
773,000 driven from their former lives, fleeing their government’s campaign of genocide. A genocide that left refugees’ villages in ashes, family members brutally murdered, and countless civilians unable to escape the trauma of unspeakable atrocities.
773,000 left without the hope of returning home, crossing the Bangladesh border in 2017 amid the fastest and largest refugee influx since 1994’s Rwandan genocide.
400,000 Rohingya—in a refugee population that now exceeds one million—are only children. Children who have spent their childhoods in camps, some born into them—the only world they have ever known. Others have grown from teens to adults in Bangladesh’s 34 crowded camps.
More than 635,000 Rohingya refugees reside in the country’s largest camp, the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site, alone.
While international attention focuses on Ukraine, other humanitarian crises around the world receive less attention, less assistance than they need. For half a decade, these children have grown up in shelters underfunded and overpopulated.
For half a decade, these 400,000 minors have struggled through incomplete educations, lived dependent on aid, and dared to hope they would one day know a world beyond the walls of their not-so-“temporary” shelters.
More than 8,000 miles outside of those walls, one Community student is working to brighten these children’s lives, these worlds where mere survival has trumped education for decades.
Jayda Kimura (’23) held Community’s first meeting of the Rohingya Refugee Project in August, with the goal of “mak[ing]… futures brighter,” she said.
That goal traveled with Kimura across half the globe when the senior moved from the Middle East to Normal last year.
It’s a goal with personal resonance, as the population of Kimura’s home country, Qatar, is five percent Bangladeshi and 68 percent Muslim.
“A lot of parts of the crisis were close to our hearts over there,” Kimura said.
Hearing the countless ways thousands of people—people just like Kimura’s neighbors—were living in suffering was a painful, everyday experience for the high schooler.
It was painful to feel powerless, a teenager unable to combat a government wreaking havoc, displacing 400,000 helpless children.
Powerless against the Malaysian government, against the decades long genocide against the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya—yes.
But Kimura and her classmates at the American School of Doha were not helpless.
For the last three years, Kimura served as president of a 50-student initiative at her school in Qatar, providing educational aid to the Rohingya refugees.
The group, with the help of coordinators in Bangladesh, prepared, recorded and delivered English-language and math lessons to the children of Bangladesh’s Kutupalong, the largest refugee camp in the world.
In camps where typical refugee children are years behind their international peers, every grammar lecture or lesson in long division is invaluable.
Kimura’s project prioritizes teaching English skills, targeting young students in their critical learning periods so they can one day “study abroad or expand even their knowledge within Bangladesh,” Kimura said—preparing them for a life outside the camps, beyond its walls.
Teaching staff in Bangladeshi refugee camps do not teach in English, so video lessons sent by Kimura’s club constitute refugees’ only exposure to the language.
“If you look at the statistics,” Kimura said, “people that speak English have more of a chance of being successful in life just because English has become the global language.”
Increasing access to English, this global language, brought the project a step closer to becoming a global initiative.
Kimura’s move to Normal last year presented a unique opportunity to continue the initiative overseas—allowing her to raise international awareness and expand the project’s goal to instructing 1,000 refugee students.
With an extension of the Qatar organization at Community, Kimura said, the Rohingya Refugee Project is able to send more instructional videos than ever before—now reaching nearly 250 additional students in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area’s orphanages, along with the 350 the group previously served in camps.
But the refugee crisis’ scope is larger than the work of one, one thousand or even tens of thousands of students Kimura and her peers could eventually help.
Dr. Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University, said the total count of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh now nears 1.1 million—a staggering number he attributes to three decades-old factors.
The first, Riaz said, is the fact that the Muslim-majority Rohingya are fighting for representation in Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country.
Myanmar’s military views Rohingya demands for “the recognition and their share of power and economic resources that have been denied” as a threat to the central government, Riaz said.
Beyond conflicting religious ideals, Riaz said the Myanmarese government has long viewed the Rohingya as not truly Myanmarese—but instead ‘foreigners’ from Bangladesh.
The final root of the crisis, Riaz said, is geographical.
The Rohingya reside in Arakan, a region highly desirable to the Myanmar government for its proximity to the Bay of Bengal: an essential area in the long-term geopolitical struggle over the Indian Ocean.
These factors led the Myanmarese military to violent aggression, which reached its climax with 2017’s genocide. The military killed 7,000 in a campaign of violence, of arson, of rape, driving nearly 700,000 Rohingya from Arakan that year alone.
While 2017 marks the largest incident of oppression against the group, “the persecution of ethnic groups in Myanmar is not new,” Riaz said.
The Rohingya were driven from Myanmar in 1975 and again in 1991 after a 1982 constitutional amendment revoked their citizenship.
Decades later, circumstances are still dire for more than a million Rohingya who were relocated to Bangladeshi camps in these assaults.
“There is no possibility at this point that those 1.1 million refugees are returning home,” Riaz said, “because Myanmar doesn’t recognize them as citizens.”
Bangladesh, too, is growing impatient with the Rohingya for the adverse economic and environmental impacts emerging refugee camps have caused, Riaz said.
“The Bangladesh government doesn’t really want them there, unfortunately,” Kimura said, “and they’re doing everything that they can to hinder the process of more people coming there.”
In this effort, Bangladesh recently stripped Rohingya camps of internet access.
Without WiFi, the online lessons Kimura and fellow club members once taught via Zoom must now be sent as videos on a hard drive, Kimura said.
This obstacle hasn’t stopped Kimura and the club members in Qatar from instructing refugee students.
While their videos reach only a fraction of the people other international aid organizations are able to support, this access to education provides help in a different way than other volunteer groups’ monetary or food donations.
As other groups work to satisfy immediate, basic needs, a larger need—the tools to one day escape the crisis and no longer live dependent on aid—remains unfulfilled.
“The solution is not simply providing food on their table… and unfortunately, the international community has failed,” Riaz said.
The tribulations the Rohingya are facing at the hands of the international community don’t stop at what hasn’t been done.
In Silicon Valley, tech giants, focused on engagement and profit, recklessly ignored hateful, anti-Rohingya content.
Myanmar’s armed forces, Tatmadaw, used Facebook to spread propaganda in support of murders and arson—an issue exacerbated by the fact that Facebook only employed a single Burmese-speaking employee to monitor Myanmar’s 1.2 million active users.
An Amnesty International investigation into the algorithms used by Meta, Facebook’s parent company, found the company was aware violence was being promoted on the platform as early as 2012—five years before the genocide—but took “wholly inadequate measures” to address the issue.
Facebook reportedly took action against just two percent of the speech the Rohingya repeatedly claimed violated community guidelines.
“I hold Facebook accountable…,” Riaz said. “I think they should actually pay reparations to the Rohingya people.”
Unfortunately, America’s hyper-focus on domestic issues is nothing new.
Amnesty International’s report included testimony from a former Meta employee, who believed the company devalued the lives of people in the Global South: “‘Different countries are treated differently,’ the employee said. ‘If 1,000 people died in Myanmar tomorrow, it is less important than if 10 people in Britain die.’”
Unlike Facebook, Riaz and Kimura hope U.S. high schoolers treat the refugee crisis as more than just a ‘Middle East problem.’
The U.S. education system focuses too much domestically, Riaz said, and high schoolers need to be educated about global conflicts.
“Is it a bad world?” Riaz said. “No, this is the world that we live in.”
Riaz emphasized “the” as a reminder that we—citizens of the world—only have one globe, one opportunity to create a place where all people are valued as members of the human race.
Kimura said that her project, which began as an effort to improve refugees’ lives in Bangladesh, now addresses a new concern: the United States’ lack of global awareness.
“Hearing about these things first hand is so powerful, I think,” Kimura said. “Just showing people how much there is outside of America.”
Establishing connections with Rohingya children helps dispel myths about the group and their religion, Kimura said.
Kimura, while not Muslim, grew up in an Islamic country and has “seen firsthand how many false narratives are pushed about Islam” in America. She hopes the club can show Community’s members the “peacefulness of the religion.”
“Educating people about what they can do to not push those kinds of prejudices is really important to me,” Kimura said. “I feel like it’s my responsibility, especially having so many people in my life that are Islamic.”
Educating students halfway across the world in Qatar and at Community requires hours of work, which Kimura said can be viewed as a “daunting” task.
But the struggles have been worth the effort.
Kimura has received videos, pictures and thank-you letters from her students written in the English she taught them through video lessons.
“I would know them by name,” Kimura said. “And then I would receive a letter from them and they would name me specifically.”
Some of the mothers of refugee children sent Kimura a handsewn expression of thanks.
“Just knowing you’re making a difference, or at least trying to make a difference,” Kimura said, “is huge.”
But however huge, however valued Kimura’s efforts have been by the hundreds of refugees her initiative has reached, the crisis remains infinitely larger.
400,000 children still spend their days wondering if they will ever know a world beyond the dry hills and flimsy shelters of camps like Kutupalong.
Camps they have known for far too many years.
735,000 people’s lives are still on hold as they enter their sixth year away from home.
Homes they will never return to, because Myanmar will never recognize them as citizens—as people—at all.
The same three children who were waist-deep in mud in September are still waist-deep in mud today.
They’ll likely be waist-deep in mud next September, and again many Septembers after that.
Merely surviving in this vast world that they know so little of.
“Is it a bad world?”
It is the world we live in—a wounded world that can only be mended when those who have the means and education to make a difference help those who do not.
A world that everyday people, high schoolers, so often feel powerless in.
But not helpless.