In search for education for Rohingya children
Challenge of continuous learning in the world’s largest refugee camp during the COVID-19 pandemic
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As schools remain closed across the world to contain the spread of COVID-19, students like Shefuka are trying to adapt to their new reality. However, studying from home in a refugee shelter without access to electricity is far more challenging than most places.
Nine-year-old Shefuka lives in the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh with her mother and three siblings. Their father is no longer around.
“I feel very sad that our learning centre is closed. I cannot continue my study like before. I miss my classmates and my teachers,” says Shefuka.
“I read books, draw pictures, and play the games we learned at our learning centre with my brother and sisters. But I feel bored staying at home all the time,” she adds.
Shefuka’s mother Fatema sees the value in education and wants a better life for her children. As a female head of family, she faces many challenges. She places a strong emphasis on education, particularly for her daughters.
“I believe women were not created to do house chores only. Women should be educated, then the whole of society will benefit. I always encourage my daughters to study. For me, it’s very difficult to provide food and take care of my children. We survive somehow but it is a struggle,” says Fatema.
I feel very sad that our learning centre is closed. I cannot continue my study like before. I miss my classmates and my teachers.
Moving towards caregiver-led home-based learning
Together with all the education institutions in Bangladesh, learning centres in the Rohingya refugee camps closed on 17 March 2020 to minimize the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. The closures affect 315,000 Rohingya children, 216,000 of whom attend UNICEF’s network of 2,500 learning centres.
“We rushed to find alternatives to sustain children’s education. But it’s difficult to implement caregiver led learning because refugees have little access to technology in the camps. This greatly limits our options for the delivery of home-based learning activities,” says Charles Avelino, UNICEF’s Education Manager, Cox’s Bazar.
Another challenge is that Bangladeshi teachers can no longer enter the refugee camps. Services have been drastically scaled down to minimize risks of disease transmission in the congested camps and this includes the reduction of the footprint of humanitarian workers.
UNICEF now relies on Rohingya volunteer teachers to continue education through learning activities, which require support from parents and caregivers.
“We have provided guidelines for Rohingya volunteer teachers and parents to deliver caregiver-led learning. We also provide pictorial books, audio messages and workbooks for children. We have not reached all Rohingya households yet, but we are trying to get there by supporting Rohingya teachers,” says Avelino.
Parents struggle to support learning
Shefuka’s teacher Safura Begum has already visited the homes of thirty students to guide parents, caregivers and children on how to study while the learning centres are closed. Safura also delivers advice on handwashing and hygiene to prevent COVID-19.
“Most parents are implementing the guidelines, but it is more challenging for those who are illiterate,” highlights Safura.
I help my children with their studies, but they cannot learn something new because I cannot teach them. I am uneducated.
With the support of 1,200 Rohingya volunteer teachers like Safura, over one-third of the targeted 100,000 children are regularly engaged in caregiver-led home-based learning.
Shefuka’s mother worries that while she can help her children study to a certain extent, she faces her own limitations.
“I help my children with their studies, but they cannot learn something new because I cannot teach them. I am uneducated,” says Fatema.
COVID-19 impact on Rohingya children
The COVID-19 pandemic is hampering access to learning of the most vulnerable refugee children who already come from disadvantaged families with limited resources to support learning.
“This is one of the biggest challenges with caregiver led home-based learning. If parents are uneducated, they are less likely to be in a position to guide their children’s learning. Many Rohingya parents are illiterate, so it is difficult to ensure systematic learning through home-based education. It also varies from household to household,” says Avelino.
UNICEF is also exploring other alternatives. This includes engagement of literate young women to support Rohingya volunteer teachers and parents who are not literate to ensure that their children have equal opportunity to benefit from caregiver led home-based learning and use of radio to deliver pre-recorded lessons to children.
Shefuka’s teacher is worried about the prolonged impact of this pandemic.
“Looking at the increasing numbers of coronavirus cases across the country, I cannot imagine how long it will continue. I am so afraid that I may not see all the faces of my students again once the lockdown is over,” shares Safura Begum.
Based on experience in previous emergencies, the longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to return.
“We don’t have a perfect system in place, but it is the only feasible option for now. Despite limited education abilities of many parents, if they spend time with their children, play with them, ensure they are safe and help them study whenever they can, this will help their children’s growth and development,” says Avelino.
“We will continue to search for the best way to deliver education for Rohingya children, while adapting to this unprecedented situation.”
UNICEF wishes to express its sincere gratitude to the Governments of Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Denmark, Germany (via KFW Development Bank) Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States of America, as well as Global Partnership for Education, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), Education Cannot Wait, European Union, Islamic Development Bank, King Abdullah Foundation, UN Central Emergency Response Fund (UNCERF), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) the World Bank for their generous contributions to the education programme.