Three years of the Rohingya refugee crisis

Stories of courage, resilience and strength of Rohingya children

Nazzina Mohsin
Bangladesh. Shelters sprawled across the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
26 August 2020

On 25 August 2017, escalating violence triggered an exodus of Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Men, women and children brought with them accounts of the unspeakable atrocities. The survivors, holding on to little more than memories of loved ones lost, fled their homes and crossed the border into Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees including women and children cross from Myanmar into Bangladesh at Palong Khali in Cox’s Bazar District.
At daybreak on 9 October 2017, Rohingya refugees including women and children cross from Myanmar into Bangladesh at Palong Khali in Cox’s Bazar District. They travelled by foot during the night, hiding in the forest during the day for up to 10 days or more.

It was an agonizing journey for those who survived. They walked many miles, crossed mountains, rivers and the bay. For some the journey took a few days, for others over one month. Children carried whatever belongings they could grab while fleeing home, but the greatest burdens were pain, fear, exhaustion, starvation and thirst.

For several months, refugees continued to pour into the refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar area in Bangladesh as violence continued in Myanmar.

Bangladesh. A Rohingya child
A Rohingya boy, exhausted after walking for days and crossing the Naf river, sleeps on a mat on the ridge of a rice paddy along the no-man's land area at the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh in November 2017. Scattered around him are the family's documents, wet from the journey, carried from Myanmar, laid out to dry in the sun.

Since their arrival in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees grappled with new challenges – floods, landslides, severe storms and now, they are fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic.

From this tragedy, inspiring tales also started to emerge. There are stories of courage, determination and strength to rebuild lives from scratch in challenging and overcrowded refugee camps.

Like thousands of families living in the makeshift temporary settlement in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh
During floods in 2018, a Rohingya family manages to prepare a simple lunch with rice and vegetables in Shamlapur refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar District. Like thousands of families living in the makeshift temporary settlement in the camps, the family tried to build their home on a raised platform to protect themselves from monsoon floods.

Thousands of Rohingya children, youth and women are leading this endeavor, striving for a hopeful, better future. There are now nearly 860,000 Rohingya people living in exile in the world’s largest refugee settlement, located in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Over half of them are children.

Bangladesh. A Rohingya child Zubair, who survived a gunshot wound, lost his left leg.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Kiron
Zubair, who survived a gunshot wound, lost his left leg but it could not stop him from attending a learning centre and playing football in Rohingya refugee camp.

Zubair is an incredible inspiration – always ready to smile, study and share his love for football. He was only six years old when he was shot while fleeing his village in Myanmar.  He was found bleeding and unconscious by the roadside. His wounded left leg had to be amputated to save his life. As an avid footballer who continues to play with just one leg, he balances with the help of a stick made from bamboo. Zubair has many dreams. “I want to meet Messi and play football with him!” He also wants to get a good education, “I want to study hard so that one day I can find a job and support my family.” Zubair is amongst thousands of Rohingya children who survived physical and psychological wounds, but their courage and strength to build a better future could not be destroyed.  

14-year old Kohinur, a Rohingya child. Bangladesh
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Kiron
14-year old Kohinur shares her joy of learning handicrafts in a centre supported by UNICEF in Rohingya refugee camp.

“I miss my home in Burma a lot,” says 14-year old Kohinur who is learning Burmese and English languages alongside handicrafts at a UNICEF-supported centre. “My family owned a two-storey farm-house which had some land, livestock and a beautiful balcony.” She had to leave all this behind and rebuild her life in a refugee camp far from home. At the UNICEF centre, this is the first time she has received any education and training since her family fled to Bangladesh in 2017. Kohinur says that the centre has given her a new purpose in life and is a welcome respite from the daily household chores, which includes cooking rice and collecting water. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, she was attending the centre six days a week. She hopes that one day she can become a tailor and earn a living.

Bangladesh. A Rohingya child Sadia (10) never missed her classes
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Himu
As an avid learner, 10-year old Sadia never missed her classes until her learning centre closed due to COVID-19 outbreak. She practices writing at home until her centre re-opens.

Now an eager student in the Rohingya refugee camp, 10-year-old Sadia could not attend school in Myanmar regularly because the conflict made it unsafe. She has been traumatized since she fled her home and sought safety in Cox’s Bazar in 2017. She wants to forget the miseries she had witnessed. Though she is in a better place now after receiving psychosocial support, she misses her home. “I am really happy that I can continue my education here. I also encourage all my friends in my neighbourhood to attend learning centres. It will help us in the future.”

Bangladesh. A Rohingya child, Jia
UNICEF Bangladesh/2019/Sujan
13-year old Jia, who lost his father, proudly makes a spicy betel-leaf wrap in his tiny shop that he set up in Rohingya refugee camp to support his siblings and ailing mother.

The refugee crisis forced 13-year old Jia to become the breadwinner of his family, but his dreams for higher education and a better life have not ended. He wants to be a doctor. “I want to return to Myanmar one day. This is not the way we should be living our lives in a refugee camp.” Jia has set up a small shop in the camp. He lost his father while they were fleeing to Bangladesh through the mountains. “They were shooting us. Then I could not find my father in the mountains. He was possibly killed.” Jia’s inspiration is his family, particularly his brother with special needs. “My younger siblings are attending learning centres, but I have already completed this education in Myanmar and so I need to study at higher levels.” UNICEF has been advocating for enhanced education opportunities for Rohingya children and adolescents. In January 2020, the Government of Bangladesh granted permission to introduce a Myanmar curriculum pilot initially targeting 10,000 students. This expansion of the education programme will be an opportunity for Jia to return to school and realize his dreams one day.

Asheka is a brilliant youth volunteer. Bangladesh
Asheka is a brilliant youth volunteer who shares lifesaving messages with women and girls on best hygiene practices.

Asheka Akter was 16 years old when she became a champion youth volunteer in the Rohingya refugee camp in 2018. She has helped save countless lives in her community by visiting homes and simply sharing lifesaving information on better hygiene management for improved health. “I mainly speak with women and girls in my community to inform them about how to care for children and their own health by following best practices of hygiene management at home.” Asheka arrived in Bangladesh in September 2017 after a grueling journey from Myanmar. In the camps, though it is very tough, she enjoys the challenge of working as a youth volunteer, " I feel very happy that I'm able to do something for my community that I didn't know I could do before coming to UNICEF’s information and feedback centre and receiving training on sharing correct messages."

Rohingya Refugee. Naher is a young mother and health worker
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Himu
Naher is a young mother and health worker, making a huge difference in raising awareness on better health management in her community.

Nahar fled her home in Myanmar as her village came under attack. The hardship of everyday life in a refugee camp is difficult but that did not stop her from becoming an inspiring young health worker, serving her community every day. During COVID-19, her work is essential to save lives. She makes a big difference in her community by promoting best health and hygiene practices while taking care of her own small children. “In my free time, I make artificial flowers and decoration materials for my small shelter.” This recreational activity is a welcome respite from life in the camps.

Sanjida carries her baby girl as she walks to fetch clean and safe water for her home in Rohingya refugee camp.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Himu
Sanjida carries her baby girl as she walks to fetch clean and safe water for her home in Rohingya refugee camp.

“When I managed to cross the border and reached Bangladesh from Myanmar, all I wanted was to have a drop of clean water,” says Sanjida Begum, a young Rohingya refugee mother of a six-month-old baby girl. “Throughout our journey to reach Bangladesh, we suffered so much, we were  running to save our lives, but we did not have access to drinkable water. We were thirsty and falling sick.”

Sanjida now lives in a densely populated Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. “My concerns are always about my daughter. The living conditions in the camp are very harsh but I must ensure that my child is safe and healthy. One thing that makes a big difference to maintaining the health of my child is the safe water taps that are installed near our home. This is lifesaving!”

Community Nutrition Workers like Mahbuba to visit homes of small children in ultra-poor families in Cox’s Bazar host communities, Bangladesh.
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Himu
UNICEF supports Community Nutrition Workers like Mahbuba to visit homes of small children in ultra-poor families in Cox’s Bazar host communities to identify acute malnutriton cases.

UNICEF reaffirms its gratitude to the Government and the people of Bangladesh who gave protection and shelter to the Rohingya people when they needed it the most. UNICEF calls upon the international community to continue its generous support to both refugee and Bangladeshi communities in Cox’s Bazar as needs become even more pressing during COVID-19, and to sustain the hopes and dreams of refugee children for a better future.

UNICEF Bangladesh thanks Canada, Education Cannot Wait, the European Union, France, GAVI, Germany, Global Partnership on Education, Japan, BMZ/KfW Development Bank, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, the United Kingdom, King Abdullah Foundation, CERF, the World Bank, various UNICEF National Committees and individual donors around the world for generous contribution to humanitarian response.