The quest for a “beautiful palace”

When I first met him, he was standing on the roof of his house. It was the second day of my assignment for UNICEF in Bangladesh. I was in Kutupalong Refugee Camp seeking stories about the impending monsoon that was set to wreak havoc on the camp’s 600,000 inhabitants. But, watching Rashed’s 13-year-old frame tugging a tarpaulin like a gymnast on a balance beam, I could not help but ask, “Kid, why aren’t you in school?”

That was the beginning of my friendship with Rashed and the three-part documentary series that I produced about him and his family.

He is desperate to learn English because he thinks it will give him a leg up if he chooses to try his luck further afield

Rashed was happy to help his family reinforce their bamboo shack to better withstand strong winds and heavy rain but he was not in school because the learning opportunities for Rohingya children are tragically limited. Rohingya refugee children are not allowed to receive a formal education. Going to school and studying the full range of subjects is not only complicated for them but also forbidden by Bangladeshi law. UNICEF has attempted to compensate by offering non-formal education in 1,200 ‘Learning Centres’. But these one- or two-room structures are crowded and teachers struggle with a curriculum that is not suited to all students.

Rashed could make rudimentary conversation with me in English. On occasion, I would inquire after his family; he would politely reply and ask that I convey his best wishes to my parents. It was therefore upsetting to see him at his local Learning Centre, dutifully repeating his A-B-Cs alongside children at least two years younger. One day, I gave him some Spiderman comic books printed off the internet. I could tell that some of the speech bubbles still eluded him but, as he related them to the action in the images, I could see him making the connections. I knew that, once I had left, he would reach for his English-Bangla dictionary to try uncover whatever secrets Peter Parker still held.

Rashed is acutely aware that he may neither be allowed to return to Myanmar nor obtain work authorisation in Bangladesh. He is desperate to learn English because he thinks it will give him a leg up if he chooses to try his luck further afield. He wants to become a doctor but I suspect his calling is science or engineering. One day, I wandered by his house and found him sawing bits of bamboo into a piece of furniture. This was impressive enough but he then proceeded to attach the shelf to the ceiling where it elevated a battery pack to be attached to a solar panel on the roof. Rashed had identified a problem — his family had to eat dinner by candlelight — and had solved it with a few pieces of bamboo. Just imagine the problems he could solve with more resources and education.

That is how he and his friends see education. Not as a dungeon into which one is dragged kicking and screaming but as a palace, on a hilltop, a promised land temporarily out of reach.

Rashed and I filmed together nearly every day I was in Kutupalong. Our conversations, on many occasions, would last for nearly an hour. He let me follow him to class, to the market, and to football. He never once complained, neither about having to do his chores with a microphone clipped to his waist nor about having a stranger film him and his friends from the corner of their classroom.

A boy sits facing a lady and listens to her speak.
© UNICEF/Bangladesh/2018/GregoryRashed talks about his desire to be in school. Learning opportunities for Rohingya refugee children are tragically limited.

The one time I overstepped, asking if I could follow him into the mosque, he very politely asked me to wait outside. It would have been easy for him to consent, but he stood by his personal belief. That fortitude, I believe, makes him a future leader in his community. He understood that by putting up with his own personal paparazzo, he was helping his friends. They were not going to get their own documentaries but would reap the rewards that such exposure could potentially bring. I doubt that I would have made the same sacrifice when I was a timid teenager.

Towards the end of my stay, I gave Rashed an assignment. I listed some keywords and asked him to describe them using two words from his burgeoning English vocabulary. For the word ‘family’, he put ‘happy together’. A+. For ‘school’ he wrote ‘a beautiful palace’. I explained that a palace was where the Queen lived and that he probably meant ‘place’ but he had inadvertently created an indelibly poetic metaphor.

A boy sits reading on the floow ith his back to the wall and surrounded by other studying students.
© UNICEF/Bangladesh/2018/Gregory“He wants to become a doctor but I suspect his calling is science or engineering.” Rashed reads alongside other children in one of the 1,200 UNICEF-supported Learning Centres in southern Bangladesh.

That is how he and his friends see education. Not as a dungeon into which one is dragged kicking and screaming but as a palace, on a hilltop, a promised land temporarily out of reach.

Rashed and I keep in touch, exchanging WhatsApp messages in English with a sprinkle of emojis. He still pursues his studies and will soon attend a series of science lessons beamed in via satellite from universities around the world. I hope that one day, he sits across a desk from these professors in an actual lecture hall. He must not be allowed to become part of a lost generation. He must be given the chance to lead his generation onto greater things, into that beautiful palace on the hill.

Watch the documentary series Rashed: A strong boy.

 

Timour Gregory is a filmmaker who works in humanitarian crises around the world. He recently returned from a month-long assignment for UNICEF in Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh.

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