Rohingya children study inside a center at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on Dec. 7. (Photo Stephan Uttom)
In the middle of overcrowded Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp, a small tin-roofed and brick-walled house is abuzz with about 100 children receiving a basic primary education.
There they get the chance to get a rudimentary education and are taught classes such as English, Bengali and science.
During their break, they have snacks—mostly cookies and water and have the opportunity to play, draw pictures and talk to their teachers.
For the past two months, seven-year-old Ruhul Amin has been one of the regular visitors of the center.
Ruhul fled Buthidaung area of Myanmar's Rakhine State to Bangladesh in September. Like hundreds of thousands of others he became a refugee after Myanmar's military launched a violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims in response to Rohingya militant attacks on security checkpoints on Aug. 25.
"My father was shot dead by soldiers and for many days I hid the forest with my mother and three siblings. We walked for four days to reach Bangladesh," Ruhul told ucanews.com.
While traumatic memories are not far away, Ruhul has not given up on his future.
"I want to become a doctor in future and help poor people," he said. "I would like to stay with my family and relatives always; if they remain here I should to and if they go back to Myanmar I would like to go with them," he said.
Ruhul is one of 237 kids enrolled in the "child friendly space" in the camp which is operated by the aid group Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). On a weekday, 100-150 students attend classes in two shifts — 8 am to 1 pm for children aged two to five and 1-5 pm for those aged six to 13.
Sabekun Nahar, 28, an English language teacher at the center said children were initially unwilling to come. "But now there are many coming," Nahar told ucanews.com
"They were psychologically traumatized but we have helped them recover. Things are much better now and they seem happy to be here," said Nahar, local Bengali.
"They were not good at learning in the beginning but they were very interested to learn new things.
"Sometimes, they get frightened seeing Bengali military soldiers who are in the camps for security reasons."
Eight-year-old Rukhsana also comes to a learning center in Balukhali refugee camp on weekdays.
"Our teachers are caring and they also allow us to play with friends during breaks. In future, I want to become a teacher and work for children," she told ucanews.com.
Rukhsana came to Bangladesh from Maungdaw area of Rakhine two months ago with her father and three siblings. She said they lost their mother while fleeing and they don't know where she is or if she is safe.
"Sometimes, I feel sad for my mother but I still try to listen to my teachers and learn during classes," she said.
Rohingya children play football in Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on Dec. 7. (Photo Stephan Uttom)
In Kutupalong and Balukhali, the two largest of the 12 makeshift refugee settlements in Cox's Bazar, about 1,000 child friendly spaces are helping thousands of kids, many of them orphans.
Local and international aid groups under supervision of United Nations Children Agency (UNICEF) have been running the centers.
On top of basic subjects the children also receive psychosocial counseling, and learn hygiene and life skills. They are provided with books, pens, coloring pencils, school bags and other educational materials.
UNICEF plans to set up a further 500 centers within the next year to serve in total about 200,000 refugee children.
Caritas sets up centers
Caritas has been operating among refugees during the past two months, mostly providing food and non-food items for up to 70,000 refugees.
James Gomes, Caritas Chittagong regional director, said the agency is setting up 186 centers including nine "model centers" for refugee children with funding from Caritas Internationalis, the federation of member 160 Caritas organizations and like-minded agencies across the globe.
"Our goal is to offer the children complete education and entertainment facilities," Gomes told ucanews.com. "They will get basic education, space for play, learning music and also a section for psychological counseling. They will also have a rest room, toilets and a bathing place there as well."
There are about 250,000 children among up to one million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, according to UNICEF. Most of them fled from their homes in Rakhine State following the latest bout of violence, which started late August.
According to a recent United Nations Refugee Agency report, a total of 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have crossed into Bangladesh fleeing from what the UN dubbed a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
Rohingya Muslims have been in Rakhine for centuries but many in Myanmar including the government, military, and hard-line Buddhists consider them as recent "illegal Bengali interlopers" from Bangladesh.
In 1982, the Rohingya officially became stateless when Myanmar changed citizenship laws that excluded them. For decades, the Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh in varying scales to avoid persecution by the military and Buddhist hardliners. In Bangladesh, Rohingya are seen as unwelcome guests putting economic and social pressure on this largely impoverished, overpopulated Muslim-majority nation.