Ayesha Siddique, an 11-year-old Rohingya girl, rushed into her classroom. She picked up a broom, swept the floor and laid out a plastic mat in front of the small white board.
Siddique’s family fled Myanmar soon after she was born to escape the widespread discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in the Southeast Asian nation. They spent a few years in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar refugee camp before moving to India in 2019.
The young girl currently lives in a refugee camp in Faridabad.
“My grandparents often describe Burma as a beautiful land with mountains,” Siddique said, referring to the country now known as Myanmar. “They told me about the trees behind our house, too. One day, I want to write a song about this in my own language.”
For the past month, Maulvi Mohammad Ismail, himself a Rohingya asylum-seeker, began teaching the children like Siddique how to read and write in their mother tongue.
Setting up a classroom and making space for history
In 2013, Ismail’s family also fled to Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, which is currently home to at least 1 million Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. After five years, he and his family made their way to India. They settled in the Faridabad camp, along with 50 other Rohingya families. The camp is located inside a garbage dump and most of the men work as ragpickers.
The people in the camp speak to each other in Rohingya. They are also fluent in Bengali and Hindi. However, most of them do not know how to read or write the script known as the Hanifi Rohingya. The script was included in a 2019 upgrade to the Unicode Standard, a global encoding system that changes written script into digital characters and numbers.
The same year, Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh started a WhatsApp group called the “Rohingya Zubaan Online Academy”. Ismail joined the group, downloaded the script, and spent a month learning the alphabet.
In May, he set up a small classroom made of woven bamboo walls and a cardboard roof where he started teaching around 30 children between the ages of 5 and 15 how to read and write the language. “When we fled Burma, we left with nothing but our clothes. The only things we carried with us from our home are memories and our language. It is important we learn and teach this to our children,” he said.
Sabber Kyaw Min, founder and director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (ROHRingya) in India, explained why it was so important that children learn the language. “We as a community do not have much documentation. Our children must learn to write our language and then our stories, which will become our history. These stories should be translated and read. There is dignity in this,” he told DW.
“Through these stories we can hopefully demand justice someday,” he added.
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A systematic erasure of Rohingya language
The Rohingya language remained an oral tradition till the 1980s when Mohammad Hanif, an Islamic scholar, developed a script based on Arabic letters and a set of decimal numbers. The Hanifi Rohingya language is an eastern Indo-Aryan language. In Myanmar, it is spoken not only by the Rohingya community but also by certain Hindu and Buddhist groups.
Although the script of the Rohingya language was written in the late 1980s, due to a military crackdown, violence and an internet shutdown, most of the population could not access it.
“What happens in any genocide is the systematic erasure of a cultural identity which had to be preserved,” said Shehzar Doja, founder and editor of the Luxembourg Review. He is also the co-editor of the book, I am Rohingya: Poetry from the camps and beyond.
The erasure of Rohingya culture began in 1964, when Myanmar’s then military dictator, U Ne Win, excluded the Rohingya language from Burmese Broadcasting Service (BBS).
In 1982, the military government enacted the Citizenship Law, which excluded the Rohingya people from the list of recognised ethnic groups in the country. From 1989 onward, the military junta undertook the mission of wiping away any traces of Rohingya cultural history. Restrictions were placed on practicing the community traditions and the Rohingya population were violently evicted from their homes.
In 2017, Myanmar unleashed a violent military crackdown in what many describe as a genocide against the Rohingya Muslims in the country. This led to a mass exodus, with more than 1 million Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh and other countries.
A language in exile
Mayyu Ali, currently residing in Canada, is a Rohingya poet and author of Exodus: Between Genocide and Me. Ali himself learned the language in 2013 while working at a research center in Myanmar which had access to the internet.
“As a poet, it is very important for me to tell my own story in my own language. It is one the most powerful things to me,” he told DW.
Ali was among the thousands of Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh. While living in Cox’s Bazar, he began the Art garden Rohingya, a website which now brings together hundreds of Rohingya writers, poets, and artists. The platform, launched in 2019, also documents and preserves ancient Rohingya folktales, proverbs, and riddles. They are published in Rohingya, Burmese, and English.
Ali also explained that another factor contributing to the slow wiping out of the language is that after fleeing, most of the Rohingya focus on quick assimilation into their host countries. “While I was in Cox’s Bazar, I saw my own friends trying to adapt to Bangladeshi culture and speak like locals as soon as possible,” he said.
Reefa Akhtar, 10, and Abdul Shukur, 12, are two children studying Rohingya language in Ismail’s class. When asked if they ever want to go home, both siblings immediately said, “yes.” However, Akhtar was quick to add, “but I also don’t want to go back to a place which makes my father sad even if he thinks about it for a minute”.
India is currently home to an estimated 40,000 Rohingya Muslims who escaped persecution in Myanmar. Close to 20,000 of them are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).