Early on the morning of January 7, a fire ravaged Rohingya refugee camp 5 in Cox's Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, leaving already vulnerable children frightened and homeless. As the flames destroyed their beloved backpacks, textbooks and learning centers, children mourned the loss of their education, a lifeline to their future.
There is nothing better than sitting on the floor of a classroom in Cox's Bazar refugee camp and listening to Rohingya children talk about how much they want to learn and how they dream of receiving their daily lessons. These conversations, recorded in my head and in my heart, challenge us to do more for these boys and girls who have already suffered so much in their short lives. And yet, at 1 a.m. on January 7, flames swept through Cox's Bazar Camp 5, and children who had already lost so much lost even more. Fires occur too frequently in warehouses.
Today Cox's Bazar is the largest refugee settlement in the world; One million Rohingya rely on humanitarian assistance for education, protection, food, water, shelter and basic health care.
Mohammad Rafiq, 14, knows fires that destroy everything he holds dear. He has been living in Camp 5 for six years after fleeing violence and persecution in Myanmar. His family escaped when their village was burned down in August 2017. Rafiq's mother was the first to notice the flames engulfing their camp. He saw the fire approaching his house. Terrified, she evacuated her family and fled with Rafiq and his brothers to a nearby camp. They didn't have time to pack up their things. When the family returned home, they found only ashes. They had lost everything. In total, this fire left more than 5,000 refugees homeless, including 3,500 children.
Rafiq was particularly devastated by the loss of his textbooks. On the ground he found a partially burnt leaf from one of them. He held the page in his hand and ran down the hill, past the smoldering remains of the shelters and facilities of neighboring camps. Where her school once stood was nothing but rubble. A total of eleven Unicef-supported learning centers where children learned and played, as well as six shelters used for early childhood development courses, were burned to the ground. Rafiq and 1,500 other children had lost their only opportunity for education and a fundamental source of hope.
Some of his classmates had also run to check on their class. His teacher Ekram, who was clearing the rubble, remembers the question the students asked him: “Sir, our school is gone, our books too. How are we supposed to learn?”
For Rohingya refugee children who dream of one day returning to their homeland and contributing to Myanmar's future, education is key
For Rohingya refugee children who dream of one day returning to their homeland and contributing to Myanmar's future, education is key. Rafiq, who is in fifth grade, loves learning Burmese, one of the languages spoken in Myanmar's national curriculum will be taught in the camps. “When I learn Burmese, it helps me remember my homeland,” he says. “My Burmese textbook contained photos and stories from my country. I only have one page left.”
Providing education to all children and youth in Cox's Bazar is an initiative of considerable magnitude. UNICEF and its partners help 240,000 people learn in 3,000 learning centers. Donors include Education Can't Wait (ECW), KfW Development Bank and the governments of Canada, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. United States and others. Thanks to them, it was possible to launch the Myanmar Curriculum Pilot Project in 2021, enabling all Rohingya students to receive an education in their national language – an important step towards making it easier for them to one day return to their homeland.
However, educating adolescent girls remains a challenge. They face significant barriers to learning due to social and cultural norms that restrict their freedom of movement outside their home. A 2023 Unicef survey of out-of-school adolescent girls in Cox's Bazar camps found that many parents are reluctant to let their daughters go to school out of fear for their safety. To address this problem, we have set up community-based learning centers – classes take place in houses close to where the girls live – with female teachers. This neighborhood educational model offers an additional guarantee for worried parents.
A few weeks ago I met some of these girls. They were understandably shy at first, but then they became quite animated when I asked them whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa. They wanted to ask too. We had a class of scientists! It got me thinking about the promise and potential of these young women and how important it is that we provide learning solutions in their situation.
A few days after the fire, Unicef set up temporary learning centers that serve a dual function: they enable children to continue learning and help them recover from trauma. We also distributed “School in a Box” kits that included notebooks, crayons, pencils, rulers, and whiteboards. And we returned the smiles of Rafiq and many other students by distributing new textbooks to those affected by the fire. That smile is priceless.
For girls and boys who have lost a large part of their childhood, the opportunity to learn is a lifeline. Offers hope and healing; it is a source of motivation; and it is the path to a better future. Let's do more for Rohingya children.
Sheldon Yett He is a representative of Unicef in Bangladesh.
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