A bashful Tasleema Akhtar, 4, has her photo taken at a makeshift classroom inside a refugee camp in India's Jammu. She is among about 100 Rohingya children who are attending the preparatory school after government-run schools in the area began turning the refugees away. (Photo by Umar Manzoor Shah/ucanews.com)
While their parents scrabble for food and part-time jobs, hundreds of Rohingya children are getting a makeshift education in shanty huts in Bathandi, a predominantly Hindu part of India's northern Jammu and Kashmir state.
Hundreds of thousands of this ethnic Muslim minority have fled military persecution in Myanmar for refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh in the last several years, but a smattering have made their way further to India.
According to government figures, 1,219 Rohingya families, or 5,107 people, live in Kashmir. Of them, 4,912 hold cards issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Among those who fled was the family of Mohammad Tahir, a 22-year-old Rohingya Muslim who is now offering classes to children who, like him, have been forced to leave their homeland and abandon their studies.
He said he was recommended by a contact in New Delhi to make his way to Kashmir to join the fledgling community of refugees there.
"We were told that the weather here is tolerable and we would be able to get decent wages, so we decided to 'pitch our tents' here," he said.
Mohammad Tahir was instrumental in launching a preparatory school for Rohingya children at their refugee camp in India's Jammu. (Photo by Umar Manzoor Shah/ucanews.com)
At one of the classes ucanews.com observed for young students, Tahir asked the children to say the names of all the different fruit in English.
"You see? They've memorized them already," he said with a smile. "They also recognize colors [in English] and have memorized the alphabet."
Sitting in the front row of the makeshift class was 4-year-old Tasleema Akhtar, who was striving to pronounce words like "papaya," "orange" and "guava" correctly.
Tasleema is one of thousands of Rohingya kids whose parents left the northern part of Myanmar's Rakhine State in the wake of violence and discrimination.
She only knows of her place of birth through lullabies and stories from her mother. In class, she was able to describe Rakhine as a land "full of fruit, rivers and fish."
Her family left in 2012, five years before the military crackdown reached its crescendo in 2017, prompting an estimated 700,000 Rohingya to flee.
The U.S. State Department issued a report on Sept. 25, 2018, confirming that mass killings, gang rapes, and other atrocities occurred at the hands of the military. But it stopped short of labeling this genocide or crimes against humanity.
Tasleema was born two years after her family fled, at a refugee camp in Kashmir in 2014.
"It is still only her first week at school, but she has dazzled us with her sense of humor. She is also pretty good at maths and has an impressive memory," Tahir said.
He recalled the persecution his community faced in Rakhine, adding that he still has flashbacks of torched villages and screaming women.
He was 19 years old when the family left. Tahir said he trekked for days through treacherous terrain with his two brothers and elderly parents before they reached India.
Some children prepare for class, their only chance at an early education as mainstream schools in the state are refusing to admit them. (Photo by Umar Manzoor Shah/ucanews.com)
However, things are not all plain sailing in their new home, either.
Various Hindu groups have been urging the government to deport them. They say the true number of refugees in places like Kashmir is much higher than has been officially reported, claiming that thousands have infiltrated the state illegally.
On several occasions, their huts have been attacked by Hindu mobs. Pro-Hindu groups made open calls to the public to rise up against the refugees and force them to leave.
Tahir said soon after such campaigns began to gain ground, local schools started shutting their doors to Rohingya children. The teachers said Indian parents were not prepared to allow them to attend mixed classes.
"When we objected, they came up with another excuse, citing the language barrier with local teachers," he said.
Tahir, a high school graduate, sought out other people in the camp who had some secondary education in order to find a solution.
"We discussed many proposals and decided to set up a few small preparatory schools. This is like a foundation," he said.
"When they know the basics, mainstream schools won't have any reason to keep rejecting them," he added.
The Sakhawat Centre, an NGO, has also been helping the refugees. It agreed to provide uniforms, books and other stationary.
Some 50-100 students show up for class on an average day, said Mohammad Ashraf, a senior official at the centre.
Government schools have reportedly agreed to admit Rohingya children once they can speak and write properly but, "we don't know how far we can go with this endeavor," Tahir said.
Masood Ahmad, 19, teaches at the camp. He said the teachers are adamant that they "won't allow the next generation to face the same ordeal we faced."
"We have seen enough, faced enough, and borne enough [suffering]. It was because our community was ignorant of its rights that we were slaughtered and our homes set on fire," he said.
He said it would be a crime for the children at the camps to miss out on an education, as this would just perpetuate the vicious cycle most Rohingya families find themselves trapped in.
"Education is the only effective weapon for us to raise our voice against injustice and seek equal rights," he said.
"Even if it takes 20 years for us to go back to Myanmar, these kids should all go back as educated people who understand what their rights and entitlements are, so they don't have to suffer like their parents."
Noor Alam, a middle-aged Rohingya Muslim at the camp, said the school has given the people of his community hope of a better future.
"By virtue of education, our kids will not be humiliated, ridiculed, tortured or persecuted like we were in Myanmar," said the 56-year-old.