Kutupalong, Bangladesh – Over plastic sheets and woven straw mats on the ground, dozens of children sit clustered together in groups, chatting animatedly.
A group of them is hunched over carrom boards. Others are rolling dices counting their turns over games such as Snakes and Ladders or Ludo.
The younger ones are playing with marbles, expertly flicking the tiny glass balls on a board printed with different points. Some are holding copies of Meena and Raju, the popular South Asian children’s books, too young to read the words but old enough to recognise the two main characters and their sidekick, a talking parrot.
“The difference in these children compared to last year is remarkable,” says Sadrulalam, who runs this Child Friendly Space (CFS) in Kutupalong camp.
The centre was established in September 2017, barely two weeks after the first mass influx of Rohingya refugees crossed the border into Bangladesh, fleeing an army crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which the United Nations called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
“Back then, they were so traumatised. Their features were frozen in fear,” recalls Sadrulalam. “Whenever they saw a policeman or soldier here they would be very scared.
“The children now are happier,” adds the 42-year-old. “They laugh and play together, and they roam around the camp without any fear.”
More than 700,000 Rohingya have settled in overcrowded and dilapidated camps, including Kutupalong, in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar since last year, carrying accounts of mass killings, gang rapes and razing of entire villages.
Half of them are under the age of five, according to aid agencies’ estimates.
“The main purpose of the Child Friendly Spaces (CFSs) is to help children between the ages of five-18, who had witnessed the brutality and violence carried out by Myanmar soldiers overcome their trauma,” says Sadrulalam, explaining the use of physio-psycho-social training which includes physical and counselling exercises.
The CFS that he supervises hosts 200 children, including orphans and those who have been separated from their families or whose relatives are missing.
The space is part of the Child Centre Project, an initiative supported by the UN’s children agency (UNICEF) in conjunction with CODEC, a national NGO.
To date, there are currently 150 CFSs supporting 145,000 children in the camps, according to a UNICEF official, in addition to 300 adolescent clubs supporting 30,000 teenagers.
Furthermore, UNICEF supports nearly 1,000 learning centres in the camps for children between the age of nine-13, who are taught English and Burmese. Under the instructions of the host government, Rohingya children are prevented from learning Bengali as a deterrent from permanently settling in the country.
Inside the CSF in Kutupalong camp, tissue paper decorations, garlands and polystyrene birds tied with string hang from the ceiling.
Seven-year-old Sabialam flits around the room, the remnants of a washable tattoo that comes with chewing gum plastered on one cheek.
“My mother was shot and killed by Myanmar soldiers,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Sabialam lives in the camp with father, who drops him off to the CFS every morning after Quran lessons, and other relatives.
“I like it here because I have children my own age to play with,” he says. “The books and toys are good too.”
When asked about his favourite colour, he looks down at his red button-down shirt and red shorts and smiles, before the four teenage boys sitting around a carrom board grab his attention.
“There is a weekly peer session between a child and an adolescent where they meet to talk about what they learned and share their views and experiences,” explains Sadrulalam.
The camp has four adolescent centres, each made up of 25 girls and five boys, who are trained in life skills such as hygiene and sanitation, in addition to counselling and guidance on how to protect themselves from early marriage, human trafficking or illegal work such as drug dealing.
“They also receive training in how to cultivate farmland, how to make handcrafts and how to build cottages or huts in the event they go back to their villages in Myanmar,” Sadrulalam said.
Rafiq Alam, 18, is from the village of Fakira Bazar in the Maungdaw Township but now lives in the Lambashia camp section of Kutupalong. He has been coming to the CFS for eight months.
“I feel good here. It’s a way to make new friends, and a place that has the facilities we need,” he says.
With a shy smile, he says that in the future his goal is to work in a humanitarian agency.
“I want … to help others.”
The CFS may offer respite to children for a few hours, but the wretchedness that engulfs their daily lives is too huge to be ignored.
Alastair Tancred, a spokesperson for UNICEF Bangladesh, says that above all, a sense of hopelessness is exacerbated by statelessness – and nature is more foe than friend.
“The main concern about children in the camps is unquestionably the monsoon,” he says, adding that an estimated 200,000 people in the camps are in danger of landslides and having their homes swept away.
Tancred deems the threat of a cyclone as the “apocalypse scenario”.
In another deterrent against permanent residence, the Bangladeshi government has banned the construction of cyclone-resistance structures in the camps.
“I’m afraid that there will be a strong chance of high fatalities if there was a very strong cyclone to hit Bangladesh,” says Tancred.
He points out that too often, the little worries faced by the Rohingya refugees go unnoticed and end up being “big forms of discomfiture”.
“People often draw attention to waterborne diseases – and quite rightly so – but problems like keeping dry in the camp are just ignored,” he says.
“A lot of the times when it rains – and it rains most days – it’s very difficult for refugees to keep dry. And as a result, a lot of them are suffering from aspiratory diseases.”
For his part, Sadrulalam is well aware of the challenges faced especially by the Rohingya children, citing malnutrition, lack of education and adequate shelter.
But he draws his fulfilment from their wellbeing, recognising the progress they have made despite being subjected at an early age to unspeakable horrors.
“As a child protection worker, I consider it a great achievement when I see them laugh again,” he says.
“There’s a huge improvement from last year, where most children were too traumatised to speak and would sit in silence, oblivious to their surroundings.
“At least now, they remembered how to be children again.”
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