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Bringing laughter and learning to refugee camps

How video calling is changing lives in the world's largest refugee camp in Bangladesh. Volunteers from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Wales are working together to create fun, play and learning.

Meeting challenges head on

In the world’s biggest refugee settlement, volunteers from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Wales are working together to create fun, play, learning and laughter for Rohingya children who call the camps home.

Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is home to about 900,000 Rohingya refugees, more than half of whom are children. Families forced here, displaced from their home country of Myanmar, are struggling to carry on with their lives. Some of the younger children will have never known anything beyond the camps’ confines.

“Living in the camp, there are so many hazards, from fires, to thunderstorms, to the threat of coronavirus,” says volunteer Anup Goon, himself from Bangladesh.

COVID-19 has brought deep challenges to people living in Cox’s Bazar. Very strict lockdown measures have been taken and there are fears that the catastrophe in neighbouring India equally hard.

Bringing laughter and learning back

Before the pandemic, children in Cox’s Bazar had been visiting VSO-run learning centres for 12 hours each week, to play and learn with other children in a fun and relaxed environment. Lessons were led by teachers and ‘Big Sisters,’ Rohingya refugee women trained in early learning skills.

The ongoing threat of coronavirus coupled with cramped, crowded conditions led to the closure of the learning centres in March 2020.

For four-year-old Monir who used to play with his VSO Big Sister and classmates, his whole world changed. “I feel sad because I cannot meet my friends. I wish it could be like before so that I can draw, jump, and play like we used to,” says Monir.* 

“Children used to come out into the fresh air and play with their friends. In lockdown, they cannot move. Children have to stay inside one room with no electricity, very little light. For a child, these conditions are intolerable”

Anup Goon

Education Volunteer, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

Anup and Monir*. Anup started VSO volunteering in 2020. Monir, 4, misses seeing his friends and playing games.

Throughout lockdown and the closure of the VSO learning centres, VSO Big Sisters have been visiting their young students, including Monir, at home. On their visits, they sing, dance and play with the little ones, keeping them learning and developing during such a difficult time. They bring a ray of sunshine and hope with each visit, but have found themselves held back by lack of resources.

“I used to use many learning materials at the centre but now a few learning materials are used at children’s homes, which is not effective for learning,” says Big Sister Jinnat.

Mary Watkins pictured training Big Sisters over Zoom.

The value of play

Teacher-turned-volunteer Mary Watkins, 56, started supporting Jinnat and other local volunteers. Over Zoom from her living room in Wales, Mary joined them to create low-cost toys and games for play and learning.

“Every child should have a safe space to play and things to play with,” says Mary. “In refugee camps, one of the biggest problems is getting materials and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the lack of resources. But these trainings opened their eyes to what you can do with just some plastic bottles.” 

An example of the kinds of teaching and learning materials Mary has helped volunteers create.

To date, 50 Big Sisters in the camp and community have been trained. This will benefit 1,500 children between 3 and 5 with more interactive lessons which include turning plastic bottles into skittles, bottle tops into counters and toilet rolls into dice.

Mary shares how “we get the children to play games with the dice, for example, they might roll a dice and then jump up and down and clap five times. You can’t jump up and down five times without smiling.” It’s more important than ever to keep these children interested and engaged.

“People really underestimate the importance of play. In terms of development, it can help with fine and gross motor skills, but it’s also about play and creativity. It’s so sad if a child has nothing to play with. Once you’ve missed those early years of education it’s very difficult to get them back.”

Mary Watkins

VSO Education Volunteer

Mary’s training is transforming rubbish into materials providing refugee children with a real education, ensuring they don’t miss out on vital developmental milestones.

Much more work to do

Together, Anup, Mary and Big Sisters like Jinnat are helping refugee children through this pandemic and lockdown in the camps.

“I hope these children will be able to live a happy, normal life. I hope they can overcome all the difficulties they have faced” says Anup.

VSO works in one refugee camp, but there are 31 more camps at Cox’s Bazar. There are so many children cut off and isolated as lockdown continues, without a Big Sister to support them.

Children like Monir just want to play and learn. Having a Big Sister at this time can make a world of difference.

You can help ensure children don’t miss out on learning

To date, VSO has helped over 9,000 children in Cox’s Bazar – but there are many more missing out on learning life skills like play, creativity and interacting with others.

Please, donate today and help a Big Sister reach children who have spent the last year trapped in a cramped, dark, unsanitary shelter.

£50 could help train a refugee to be a Big Sister and support children to keep learning and developing through lockdown.


*Monir is a pseudonym used to protect his identity.