by Marilu Reyna
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.
Likely no different from any child’s first day at camp or school, this ice-breaker is designed to get the participants to open up. Like most people their age, they start out a little shy. However, this group of teenagers is far from average: the room they are sitting in lies halfway across the world – in New Delhi, India – and their situations are as unique to them as their fingerprint, though all their stories share a commonality of tragedy and hardship some might find unfathomable. Despite all they have faced and all they know they still must face, their drive and their passion for a better future is clear.
This group of 15 teenagers 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. This group of teenagers live in the Kanchan Kunj neighborhood of New Delhi in a makeshift settlement of shelters built with bamboo poles and tattered plastic tarps. The settlement has three hand pumps where people get most of their water. Residents have no way to cool themselves on hot days or protect themselves against cold nights. There are four toilets and a hole in the ground that collects waste for nearly 250 people.
These Rohingya refugees spend every day waiting for official identity, but their plight has been slow. Some families have spent nearly a decade in the settlement, long enough to build resilience/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 Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI) there is one obstacle they no longer must wait to overcome: educational achievement.
Covered from head to toe in traditional Muslim dress, these young women’s eyes are the only facial feature visible. It is somewhat surprising to see the sparkle in their eyes, not only because you know their hardships and the journey to where they are today can only be described as difficult, but also because the heat in this small room exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 percent humidity. And yet, they say this room, with two old fans, is still cooler than the cobbled-together homes they live in, a few minutes’ walk from where we are now. The primitive cooling system attempts to provide relief, but it is minimal at best. Nevertheless, the heat does not dampen their excitement for today’s activity.
“Mizan,” says Zora.
“Guava,” says Tasmida.
“Lychee,” says another.
The word game they are playing asks that each of them name a fruit; no one is to repeat the fruit and, in addition, they need to memorize both the fruit and the name of each person who says it. The memory game pauses as several CERI volunteers ask, “What is a lychee?”
One of the girls is quick to her cell phone, tapping away and then turning her screen around to show us both an image and a brief description. We learn that lychee is a sweet fruit used in many dessert recipes, grown throughout China and Southeast Asia. “They’re delicious,” the group says.
After this brief detour, round two of the game 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.” Perhaps this would not be so common to hear from your average high school student, but these children are not average. They have been through enough to know that working diligently in the fields of human rights, social work, law, and politics can empower them to one day help others like them.
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.
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. Not only did Tasmida and her friends at the settlement have to learn a new language; they would be schooled in that language and would need to excel in preparation for the required college admission exams. CERI’s after-school enrichment and empowerment program has helped Tasmida accomplish those goals, and CERI continues working to make Tasmida’s story possible for other young people like her.
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.