Thailand/Malaysia/Indonesia, 17 April 2023 – “To me, a tree represents life – growing up, standing on my own two feet and, in turn, helping others with the shade I provide,” says 14-year-old Umaira* while holding a tree figurine.
It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon and Umaira is participating in an activity in which she expresses her emotions using figurines. Amidst the violence and persecution faced by ethnic Rohingya, she fled on her own in 2021, at the age of 11, and arrived in Thailand, unaware of what her situation would be like at her next destination.
During the activity, she is joined by 17-year-old Roshida* and Shobika*, who recently turned 18. Both left on the same boat from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, which is the world’s largest refugee settlement today.
Roshida holds up a candy figurine: “It reminds me of my childhood, where my family and friends would gather for parties. One day, I hope to find the same sense of community.”
Shobika, meanwhile, holds up a toy car – a symbol of freedom and stability, she explains.
All three girls currently reside at a shelter for children and families in Thailand, one of eleven shelters in the country hosting Rohingya refugee children.
Despite the limited prospects for girls of their background, displaced around the region often without their families, some days remind them that there is hope.
“Art therapy empowers the girls to express what’s on their mind, whether it’s about the challenges they faced in the past or their aspirations for the future. Using figurines allows us to cross language barriers,” says Hathaithip Chaivatee, a psychologist at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), who facilitated the activity.
In Thailand, IOM regularly organizes similar activities at shelters hosting Rohingya children – aimed at improving their mental well-being and providing a safe space for expression. “Activities differ each time. Last year, for example, we taught some girls how to embroider tote bags, which we helped them sell to earn some income,” says Chaivatee.
Mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) are a critical component of IOM’s humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees in the region, on top of providing urgent food and other essential items and conducting regular health checks.
In Malaysia, which currently hosts over 100,000 Rohingya individuals, alternative learning centres are becoming spaces for Rohingya children to learn and grow.
Sekolah Islamiyah was established in 2018 by a group of university student-volunteers with the goal of giving refugee and migrant children the chance at a primary education. With around 50 students enrolled, majority of whom are of Rohingya ethnicity, the centre introduces mainstream subjects such as language, mathematics and science.
“We are trying to bridge the gap faced by children,” says Ainina, a teacher at the centre. “Without the foundation of an education, they risk having limited opportunities later in life.”
For its students, Sekolah Islamiyah is more than a school – it has become a community. Reinforcing teachers’ efforts to foster a sense of belonging, IOM supported an initiative to produce an online magazine. Its objective was to empower students to share their stories through various art forms, such as poetry and poster design.
After an enriching experience in putting the magazine together, the centre published it on its social media platforms, only to unfortunately receive dozens of negative comments from the public expressing xenophobic and anti-refugee sentiment.
“It was a reminder that we still have a long way to go in combatting stigma and discrimination against refugees,” remarks Husna. After debating removing the social media posts, the centre decided to use the moment as a learning opportunity. “Through our discussions, we were able to teach them self-confidence, that there’s nothing wrong with them being in Malaysia.”
Despite this setback and recognizing the uphill battle many other children of Rohingya ethnicity still face, Sekolah Islamiyah's big plans have not been deterred. This year, they hope to increase their capacity for enrolment, the number of subjects taught and the frequency of classes.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia, education is one of IOM’s key priorities for Rohingya children who have arrived in recent months. In late 2022 and early 2023, Indonesia witnessed a significant uptick of Rohingya arrivals, with roughly 850 Rohingya having arrived in the last five months.
IOM works with local partners to conduct classes for children hosted in temporary shelters around Aceh Province, in western Indonesia. While not a substitute for formal education, the classes offer a space for children in the shelter to engage in positive recreational activities and improve their well-being.
In the coastal town of Pidie, Murmalawati of the Balle Seribu Bintang Foundation is one of the teachers leading these efforts.
“We started with an assessment to understand the children’s needs,” she says. “It can be difficult to plan classes when they have varying levels of education. Some don’t even know the alphabet.”
Despite the challenges, Murmalawati is very mindful of her purpose. “I have been a teacher since 2007. I love working with kids. Through my classes, I hope that they gain the inspiration to pursue their dreams.”
As the years pass, with ever-diminishing prospects for peace and safety, Rohingya boys and girls have not wavered in their determination for a brighter future.
“We have faced many obstacles, but we need to keep the faith and believe in ourselves,” insists Shobika. “If we don’t keep pushing, it will be a waste of all the support we have received so far,” Roshida adds.
While their sentiments exhibit a great sense of maturity, they also reflect challenges and experiences commonly faced by refugee children that push them to grow up too fast.
As their futures remain uncertain, these safe spaces have provided Rohingya children occasional moments in time where they can relax, unwind and just be children.
*Names changed to protect their identities
IOM’s humanitarian assistance to Rohingya in the region is funded by the European Union and the US Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).
This story was written by Miko Alazas, IOM Thailand’s Media and Communications Officer.