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Creating smiles in a Rohingya refugee camp

©VSO/Mahmud Hossain Opu

One year ago, VSO supporters donated £130,000 to help Rohingya children living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. One year on, we look at the tremendous impact the project has made for thousands of people.

Two years ago, when widespread violence drove Rohingya people to flee Myanmar, Cox’s Bazar camp can hardly have seemed like the ideal place for a child to grow up. Families faced cramped conditions, no classrooms or resources for learning, and nothing for children to do.

We put the call out for donations to help Rohingya children — children who have already experienced so much violence and ongoing trauma in their young lives, without safe spaces to learn and play.

The response was incredible: VSO supporters raised £130,000 to help children in Cox’s Bazar. In the past year, more than 6,600 children aged 3-14 have been supported through this project.

One of the learning centres built by VSO in Cox's Bazar refugee camp, so Rohingya children could have a space to play and learn. ©VSO/Mahmud Hossain Opu

One of the learning centres built by VSO and decorated with learning materials and artwork, so children could have a space to play and learn.

We’ve built 12 learning centres for those aged 6-14 to begin to learn the basics in maths and literacy, including six wells to deliver purified water to the centres.

School bags, notebooks, pens and pencils were given to more than 1,000 children. For children aged 3-5, we’ve developed 108 home-based learning centres giving children the chance to learn through play.

Overcoming adversity

Volunteers recall how challenging it was, to begin with.

“We had congested areas and cramped spaces. Parents didn't understand that children under five still need to learn,” said community volunteer, Sadaka, who spent time counselling parents on the importance of educating young children.

Three Rohingya children walk in the hillock of the Balukhali extension camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. ©VSO/Abir Abdullah

Children were missing out on the essential foundations of learning. Now, they can play and learn.

Another volunteer, Rima, said, “Initially, the mothers arrived here with their children without clothes.

"Their living conditions were not good and their health was suffering.”

Children’s day-to-day lives had no structure, and many had never set foot in a classroom.

One parent said, “Previously, it was difficult to manage kids at home.

"They were not studying at all. They would roam around all day, quarrelling with each other. Now they study as well as play.”

These children are learning the foundations of education, including learning the alphabet, how to count, and making use of a VSO app which lets children record and share songs, poems and stories from the Rohingya community.

Finding joy in learning

Fifty mothers and older sisters have taken on the role of teaching the children, with teacher training from VSO.

Rohingya children playing with toys in a learning centre in Cox's Bazar refugee camp, Bangladesh. ©VSO/Mahmud Hossain Opu

“My child does not want to leave after the school hour finishes,” said one parent. Children in these centres are learning through games and fun.

The mothers and big sisters run three sessions per day, each lasting two hours, with ten children in each session.

One mother, Azara*, can see the difference in her son.

“After joining the centre, my son knows his letters, he can recite rhymes and knows how to do personal cleaning.”

By learning through play and games, children here are developing a lifelong love of learning.

“My child does not want to leave after the school hour finishes,” said one parent, and 90-95% of parents are satisfied with the level of education being taught in the learning centres.

This passion for education has been spreading. The mothers and big sisters report feeling more confident, and are more respected within the camp community.

Fifteen-year-old big sister Humaira*, who has decided she wants to work as a teacher when she is older, said that after volunteering as a teacher she is now addressed as ‘madam’, and said, “I have more respect in the community now.”

*Names have been changed.

Choosing love over hate

Mabia, 5, at the ECCE centre – 31, supported by VSO, with supervisor Muslima Zannat Rima, the centre is situated at Camp 15 in Jamtoli of Ukhiya, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. ©VSO/Mahmud Hossain Opu

Community volunteer, Rima, plays with 5-year-old Mabia.

Some of the volunteers on this project come from the local areas surrounding the Cox’s Bazar camp.

Instead of putting up walls, these local volunteers have found love and compassion for the Rohingya people.

They don’t begrudge their existence, instead they are volunteering their time to help their fellow human.

“I easily get along with these people and they like me. I have a very good relationship with them. I am happy I can contribute something by supporting them,” said community volunteer Rima.

Another local volunteer, Sadaka, said, “My reaction to them is positive. They have not come here willingly, they were forced. That's why we should take them in.”

At a time when messages of division and hate have taken centre stage, it’s inspiring to see these volunteers standing with the Rohingya people.

What does the future hold for the Rohingya refugees?

A Rohingya child runs with their new VSO backpack, filled with school supplies, so they can begin to learn the basics of education. ©VSO/Mahmud Hossain Opu

Thanks to VSO supporters, we were able to give school supplies to more than 1,000 children including a backpack, notebook, and pencils and pens.

The future is uncertain for the forcibly displaced Rohingyas, as they have not yet been granted refugee status by the Bangladeshi government. Although many may want to return, they fear that they might face persecution.

However, these children are now much more ready to take on whatever future awaits them.

“It is truly disheartening to experience the condition of Rohingya people who have forcibly been displaced from their home soil.

"Sometimes I think that our humanity is dying here,” said VSO Bangladesh fundraising manager, Salahuddin Ahmed.

“But I feel proud to be a member of an organisation like VSO, which is trying to bring back smiles to the faces of these Rohingya children.”

Our work would not be possible without VSO supporters, and without our incredible volunteers.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer in a refugee camp?

Hear from volunteer Ann Wambui on her experience.