NEW DELHI: Tucked inside a bustling working class locality in Vikaspuri, is a printing store that meshes perfectly with its surroundings. The store in itself is no different from the ones that dot the busy market place, but the person sitting at the counter has a tale that’s far from ordinary. 29 year old Maung Abdul Khan is among the many Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar fearing persecution at the hands of the government and took refuge in India. He has been living in Delhi since 2013 and is committed to bettering the lives of individuals in his community.
In January this year, Khan set up the ‘Rohingya Literacy Mission’ with his friends to equip Rohingya refugees with the required life skills. Every Sunday, Khan along with Ali Johar, who is the Secretary of Rohingya Refugee Committee in Delhi, visit refugee camps across the city and conduct classes. They hold sessions in Madhanpur, Shaheen Bagh and a few other camps whose locations Khan did not wish to disclose. Through creative ways such as storytelling, they educate people on issues like child marriage, child labour and women empowerment. Besides conducting classes for children and teenagers, he also arranges special sessions for senior citizens in the evenings
“Teaching English and imparting knowledge on life skills is our priority. We also feel that it is important for our people to be aware of the legal aspects of being a refugee in India. We make it a point to educate them about the rights they have as refugees,” Khan said.
He recounts how he completed his higher education in Statistics at the University of Sittwe with great difficulty. “The Mynamar government initiated discriminatory policies and imposed strict movement restrictions on Rohingya community. Despite this, I continued my studies,” he recounts. Having faced such adversity, he strongly feels that education is the most vital tool for empowerment of Rohingya. “I feel that quality education is essential for our unity and only through unity will achieve our goal of liberation,” he added.
The Rohingya Literacy Mission’s primary focus is on the need for educating the girl child. “One of the main problems is that families are reluctant to educate their girls once they grow up. I feel that educating our girls would emancipate the entire Rohingya community. So, I structure my lessons by integrating religion and science. I take the help of teachings in the Quran to bring about a change in people’s attitude,” he continued.
Recently, Khan also started a YouTube channel called ‘Rohingya Learning Center’ which has garnered 400 subscribers already. The channel uploads videos on English grammar and other spiritual and motivational themes.
But, if there is one thing that particularly pains him, it is the attitude of employers towards hiring a refugee. He describes how several Rohingya youth are discriminated despite having the needed skills. “A friend of mine had all the required certificates to qualify as a software technician. But the moment the employers saw the refugee card, they denied him employment,” he laments. On being asked about the response from the community, Khan’s eyes lit up. “Our initiative has been well received. Their enthusiasm has motivated us to take it forward,” he replied contently.
22 year old Ali Johar, who is the secretary of Rohingya Refugee Committee in Delhi, believes that the Literacy Mission will connect institutions and organisations with the Rohingya community. He said, “Education is the only solution. We want to bring our youth to the forefront through education.”
Though UNHCR conducts classes to assist refugees, community driven initiatives like these have grater accessibility. “UNHCR provides computer lessons and classes for English and other languages. But their centre is far off from the camps, making it extremely unaffordable for our people” he explained.
Johar has been a refugee in India since 2012 and his journey has been a harrowing one. When the Myanmar government began its initial crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, his father was imprisoned for more than a year. After his father’s release, the family escaped to Bangladesh. In 2012, anti- Rohingya attacks engulfed Bangladesh too and the government’s persecution forced them to flee to India. Today, he is pursuing BA programme from Delhi University and has become an inspiration for the Rohingya community. “I am the first in my community to study in a university in India. If I can do it, so can they,” he continued with conviction. His sister Tasmida has carved a success story of her own by becoming the first Rohingya girl to take class X examinations.
He explained how the mission’s focus is to ensure education for all Rohingya women. “We want every girl to go to school, so that in our coming generation, no girl is uneducated. Through the initiative, they are trying to provide opportunities to women who have not received any formal education. “We are trying to provide vocational training to women in handicrafts creation and tailoring so that they are able to contribute to the family’s income,” he continued.
Rohingya Muslims are said to be the most persecuted minority. Reports from international humanitarian organisations like Amnesty International have brought to fore the violence and discrimination faced by the ethnic group in Myanmar. Fearing torture by the army, scores of Rohingya Muslims fled to India and other South Asian countries. The Myanmar government refuses to grant them citizenship because of which the refugees have been rendered stateless.
On being asked about what life can be like for a refugee, Johar ruefully said, “No one chooses to become a refugee. They would have never thought that one day, they would be forced to take refuge in a place far away from their homeland. Refugees are not different; it’s just other people who are lucky.”