Rahima Akter hid her Rohingya identity to enrol at a private university in Bangladesh‘s Cox’s Bazar, but her dreams of pursuing higher education were dashed after she was suspended by her university earlier this month.
The 20-year-old from Kutupalong refugee camp has become the face of the struggle of Rohingya refugees who want to study, as Bangladesh does not allow Rohingya to enrol in schools or colleges.
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Last October, she was featured in a video story by the Associated Press in which she talked about being a Rohingya and her dream to study human rights so she could raise her voice for her persecuted community.
Nearly a year after it was published, the video went viral after which she was expelled from Cox’s Bazar International University where she was studying law.
“I was in college when the video started showing up on people’s phones. Suddenly, everyone was asking me, ‘Are you Rohingya?’ Some people started a negative campaign, saying I should be sent back,” Akter told Al Jazeera over the phone.
“I was hiding my identity only so I could study. I feel guilty but I did not have an option. Is getting an education a crime?” she asked.
“It’s a fundamental human right. I have learned that. Being a Rohingya is not my fault.”
She has been in hiding at her aunt’s house in Cox’s Bazar, worried about her safety since her identity was revealed.
When she was 12 years old, Akter’s father tried to stop her from going to school and wanted to marry her off instead, she said. She pleaded with him to let her study and he relented.
Akter was born and raised in Bangladesh. Her parents fled in 1992 during the mass exodus of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. She is one of 33,000 registered refugees in the country.
Rohingya children are only allowed to study in non-formal primary schools in refugee camps. Some Rohingya families obtain forged documents for their children to study in Bangladeshi educational institutions.
For years, schools and colleges in Bangladesh admitted these students without causing a furore. That started to change from January 2019, as Bangladeshi authorities began to track down and expel Rohingya refugee students, according to a report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) in April this year.
Bangladesh distinguishes between “registered” Rohingya refugees and those who arrived since August 2017 whom it refers to as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals”.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar in August 2017 after the military launched a bloody crackdown on the community that had long been stripped of their citizenship and other basic rights.
“Under international law, Bangladesh has an obligation to provide access to education to all children on its territory without discrimination, regardless of their refugee status,” said Bill Vans Esveld, associate director of children’s rights at HRW.
Al Jazeera reached out to government officials in Dhaka, but could not get a response.
Mahbub Alam Talukdar, the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, refused to comment. “I’m not in a position to comment. We are observing the situation,” he told Al Jazeera.
These incidents have come in the wake of growing insecurity in Bangladesh about Rohingya refugees. Roughly 1.2 million Rohingya refugees now live in congested camps in Cox’s Bazar district, bordering Myanmar.
The host population now feels it is competing for scant resources and opportunities with the refugees.
Attempts at repatriation by the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar have so far failed.
The Bangladesh government recently cut off access to mobile phone services in the refugee camps, citing security reasons.
A large protest by Rohingya on August 25 – the second anniversary of their exodus from Myanmar – has angered the government.
Activists have sounded alarms over government plans to relocate 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, a remote island prone to cyclones and accessible only by boat.
“The public discourse on Rohingya has changed drastically in Bangladesh. It is not hostile yet, but there is growing discontent,” said Nasir Uddin, an anthropologist at the University of Chittagong, who has carried out research on Rohingya refugees.
“In the case of Akter, legally she doesn’t have the right to study as a refugee in Bangladesh, but morally she has every right to be educated as a human being.”
Akter’s story represents how conditions for Rohingya refugees are getting tougher. In November last year, when Al Jazeera met with her, she was upbeat about her future. She radiated confidence that is not common in the persecuted community.
Wearing a bright red lipstick that matched her nail paint and her head covered with a loose scarf, she went from camp to camp collecting information from the new refugees for a research project. With great empathy, she drew out their stories of endless suffering.
“I want to help them. I want to understand what it means to be Rohingya. To me it feels like bad luck, that I have to hide who I am,” she said. “This is my home, and yet I’m always afraid I will be sent back, every night and every day.”
Like most of the refugees who arrived earlier, her family is more or less socially-integrated, speaks the local language, Bangla, and thinks of Bangladesh as their home.
In her spare time after her classes, she worked as a volunteer with the Red Cross and more recently with a local NGO.
She has also worked as an interpreter and translator for aid agencies in the camps.
Akter was aware of how her life is different from other Rohingya girls. She had no role models while growing up, but she is one for her four younger siblings. “I am the only one from my camp to be doing all this,” she said.
“Most of my Rohingya friends are married, they have two or three children and they suffer domestic abuse.”
And yet, Akter could not fit into her other life. “I have never told my Bangladeshi friends from school who I am. Some of them suspected and they teased me for being Rohingya.”
‘Two mistaken ideas’
The future of young Rohingya refugees looks bleak. There are 683,000 children as of August 2019, according to UNICEF.
They are getting two hours a day of informal education in the 2,000-odd learning centres in the camps. Up to 97 percent of children aged 15 to 18 are not attending any type of educational facility. They cannot get a certified education, study a real curriculum, learn Bangla, or complete secondary school.
“Dhaka seems to have trapped itself between two mistaken ideas: That the Rohingya don’t need a real education because they will return home soon, or that allowing them to have a real education would undermine its policy that they should go home,” said Vans Esveld.
“It is a huge mistake to hold Rohingya children’s education hostage to politics. Doing so also amounts to human rights abuse.”
Akter seems determined to pursue her education. “They can take away my certificates, but they can’t take away my knowledge,” she said.