It is not all emptiness at the Rohingya camps. Not all despair and misery. In the midst of the things hopeless, some people still cling to hope, like this teacher who has set up a school completely on his own initiative.
“Hello, how are you?”
A greeting hardly worthy of attention in an overcrowded refugee camp struggling to find meaning out of every chaos and opportunity.
We ignored it and walked ahead.
“Are you new here? I have not seen you before,” he said in fairly good English.
So we stopped briefly and turned around.
There he was, standing. A small boy, fair-skinned and lean. A little hunched. Brownish eyes. A kind of innocence written over his smiling face.
“Are you a Rohingya? Do you speak English?” we asked, because all the hundreds or so Rohingya people we had met so far spoke in a dialect that only local Chittagonians understand.
And none of them spoke English.
“Yes I am and yes I do,” the boy’s smile widened. “I study in grade nine. I am just coming from my class.”
“You mean you used to study in grade nine in Myanmar. Right?”
“No, I study in school here.”
That sounded strange. Here in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kutupalong, only ‘life-skill’ schools are allowed, which basically teach some elementary English, Burmese and math. Besides, kids learn rudimentary stuff – such as reproductive awareness.
No formal education and no formal schools. The government has prepared a curriculum for only up to grade two. But that still awaits approval and so Jehan studying in grade nine sounded absurd.
“You have a school here? Show us.”
He walked us to the edge of a knoll that was once part of a dense forest in Modhuchhara but which has since been turned into nothing but thousands and thousands of shabby shacks made of bamboo and polythene sheets.
“There.” He pointed down below to the feet of the knoll.
Standing from where we were, we could hear a rhythmic chorus wafting up from a long bamboo and plastic sheet structure.
We peeked inside the first room. Some 40 boys were sitting on the floor with long and low wooden benches running in front of them, across the room. These served as tables. Boys in white shirts tucked inside lungis - in traditional Burmese style - were busy solving math.
At the end of the room, a white board rested against the plastic wall, labelled UNHCR, with its logo of two sheaves of wheat circling two hands shielding a child.
On the board were some simple algebra equations. a x 1/a = a, 3/X x X/3 = 1
We met the founder of the school, Mohammad Hannan.
“We paid for this school from our own pockets,” Hannan said in clear English, his white shirt tucked inside his lungi. “We did not take funds from any NGO, or anybody else. The whole community pooled funds and set up this school.”
Ali was a teacher at a school in Myanmar. Inndin High School, he tells us.
Then one fine morning came the mob, burning houses along the way, shooting at the people.
When the news of the marauding crowd reached Ali, he was taking a class. He rushed out to find the whole neighbourhood engulfed in leaping flames. Black, roiling smokes blew up into the sky, mixing fear and horror with the monsoon cloud. He could hear the terrible panicked screams of the fleeing villagers.
Ali made an instant decision and took off for the hills, reaching higher and higher in leaps and bounds.
Then he stopped and looked down. The mob had reached his school. Suddenly it burst into flames. In front of his eyes he saw his dear school burn down and fall apart. He could see charred pages from books floating in the air, aimlessly, not finding any place to settle down with the hot air from the flames lifting them higher and higher.
He felt a sharp pang in his heart. He was trembling with rage and impotent frustration. Then he turned around and started walking, the terrible sound of singeing wooden walls of his school humming in his ears.
With thousands others who were fleeing death and destruction, Ali finally crossed his motherland and enter Bangladesh no more as a teacher but a refugee who had no money, no clothes, no country and no home.
But hope did not die for Ali.
For days and months Ali did nothing in the Kutupalong refugee camp except for scouring around for food and shelter, medicine and water.
Life had suddenly gouged him out from the idyllic rural setup of an emerald Myanmar village. Here, life was coarse, life was chaotic, life was dun, and denuded of trees on a knoll that had been cleared off everything standing, to make space for the hundreds of thousands people pouring in every day across the border.
Then he found something meaningful to do – work with an international NGO. He knew English and Burmese and so he could be of invaluable help to the relief workers.
But no matter how much he worked, the memory of the burning school did not go away. One day he quit his job and went about setting up a school for his community.
“Every day I saw the children just wilting away with no education and all,” Ali said. “But I know education is the only hope for us. The children are our future and if we can’t educate them, they will simply turn into nothing. The thought pained me so much that one day I left my job, gathered together some other teachers who have also fled Burma like me, and decided to set up a school.”
So they raised money – from as small an amount as fifty taka to as high as five thousand taka - from the Rohingyas. NGO workers who learned about their effort also chipped in.
And soon the school was set up and the classes began. With 745 students now, classes run in three shifts. The first shift starts at six in the morning and ends by eight. This shift is meant for boys who work with NGOs, or are otherwise employed. The second shift is for regular boys, while a third shift starts in the evening.
“The parents pay us whatever they can,” Ali said. “We don’t get much. Certainly much less than what we used to get as NGO workers. But we are happy that we got our children back to school. We follow the Burmese curriculum, because one day they will go back and will have to pick up from where they left off.”
As we left the school, Jahan led us away.
Walking slowly beside us, he suddenly said: “When I go back, I will burn them down. Just burn them down.”
“Who would you burn down?”
“Them. They burned us down. When I go back, I will burn them down.”
A pulse jumped from the side of the ninth grader’s mouth.
Jehan was looking down at the dun earth with dry empty eyes.
When we were ready to leave he shook my hand for a good length of time.