Sitting cross-legged on the floor in a small room, one story below street level, a group of teenagers smile and giggle as they listen to instructions on how to play a word game. This exercise is to ease introductions and break the ice for a youth empowerment session organized by Ummid Ki Udan (Hope’s Flight), an initiative of Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI). A group of CERI volunteers have joined in for what will be an enlightening afternoon.
Like most people their age, they start out a little shy. However, this group of 15 teenagers is far from average; they are Rohingya refugees from Myanmar (Burma), known as the most persecuted minority in the world, according to the United Nations.
For generations, the Rohingya have faced discrimination that erupted into extreme violence in 2017 and has since led to their mass migration into surrounding countries. Today, Rohingya refugees are not recognized as citizens of any country and therefore lack access to basics such as education, legal employment, and health care. These teenagers live in the Kanchan Kunj neighborhood of New Delhi in a makeshift settlement of shelters built with bamboo poles and tattered plastic tarps, waiting every day for official identity.
Some families have spent nearly a decade in the settlement, long enough to learn a new way of life; however, though these teenagers and their families face a list of complex problems that at times can seem impossible to overcome, thanks to CERI there is one obstacle they no longer must wait to overcome: educational achievement.
Rohingya refugees’ settlement in New Delhi.
After our first ice-breaker, a second begins. This time we delve a bit deeper into who each of the girls are, asking the group to share their goals and aspirations.
“Fashion designer,” says the one young lady who had added a bit of flare to her traditional burka, a pop of color with a plaid scarf.
These make up an impressive list of career paths these youth aspire to, but the underlying message from each choice is revealed when they share the inspiration and rationale behind it: “to help others.”
One young lady stands out from the group. She is the first Rohingya refugee in India – out of an estimated 40,000 – to be admitted to college. Her dream to help others will start as she pursues a formal education at Jamia Millia Islamia University in the fall, something she made happen with the help of CERI and the National Institute of Open School (NIOS) program. CERI not only helped enroll her in the program, but also provided tutoring, counseling, and other educational support through Ummid Ki Udan, where teachers and social workers work with participants to ensure they receive educational and personal support.
Tasmida with her senior school certificate.
Tasmida proudly holds her 12th class pass certificate (the equivalent of a high school diploma in the U.S.), making her the first female Rohingya refugee in India to do so.
Since its inception in late 2018, Ummid Ki Udan has prioritized educating children and youth in the Kanchan Kunj neighborhood, including Rohingya children. Tasmida was one of those youth who, despite the language barrier (most Rohingya speak Rohingya while the majority of New Delhi uses Hindi) and many other hardships, knew education was key and persisted in her studies, making the best of a truly hard situation.
Through a translator, Tasmida answers an important question I have for her: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“I want to be a human rights lawyer,” she begins.
“Maybe I will work for the United Nations. I want to help not only my family, but other refugees all over the world. I also want to be a role model for others who feel helpless and hopeless, to let them know even in the most difficult of times – in harsh living environments, in poverty – the dream to achieve is possible. Also, when your goal is to give back, your inner passion will guide you beyond what you might have even thought possible.”
Her words are universal, reflecting what most parents want for their children. Care and compassion are not lost in translation.