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Posts Tagged ‘Rohingya’

Image: Mayyu Khan/Mohammed Rezuwan.
“The Blind Mother,” an illustration by Mayyu Khan, a Rohingya artist living in a Bangladesh refugee camp, from Rohingya Folk Tales, by Mohammed Rezuwan. 

While we’re on the subject of saving languages (see yesterday’s post), let’s look into how preserving folk tales can help keep a threatened culture from disappearing.

Few cultures are more threatened than that of the Rohingya of Myanmar, and today’s article is about a young folklorist in a Bangladesh refugee camp who is determined to do something about that.

Stephen Snyder has the report at Public Radio International’s The World. “Mohammed Rezuwan is on a rescue mission: The 24-year-old who lives in Cox’s Bazar — the world’s largest refugee camp — is working to save Rohingya traditional stories before a generation of storytellers dies off.

“Rohingya people have lived in the region for over a thousand years, but Myanmar’s government considers them foreigners from neighboring Bangladesh. Over the last four years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been driven out of Myanmar by government troops and local militias. Many now live in dozens of refugee camps.

” ‘We, Rohingya people, have our own culture, tradition. We are on the brink of losing all of them, unfortunately,’ Rezuwan said in a WhatsApp voice message from Kutupalong, one of more than two dozen encampments in Cox’s Bazar, on the coast of Bangladesh.

“The crowded area accommodates families who live in tents and shelters along narrow alleyways. United Nations figures put the exile population in the camp at nearly a million — four times the number of Rohingya still living in Myanmar.

“Rezuwan lives in a bamboo shelter with his wife, his mother, a brother and a sister. The family fled their home in Maung Daw, in the Rakhine district of Myanmar, on Aug. 25, 2017, as their village was set ablaze in a campaign that has forced most Rohingya out of Rakhine.

“ ‘I remember the gunshots ringing out like thunderclaps, the bullets strafing the sky like clouds of hungry locusts,’ Rezuwan wrote in the author’s note of his book, Rohingya Folktales: Stories from Arakan, as told by Rohingya refugees.

“ ‘On that terrible day, my family and I ran to a nearby mountain where we hid for three days before we decided to cross the border to Bangladesh.’

“In 2020, after several years at Cox’s Bazar, he took on the role of folklorist — recording stories passed along in the oral tradition by Rohingya elders.

“ ‘Folk tales are used by Rohingya people to teach morals and lessons to their youngsters,’ he said. ‘I, myself, decided to make a book.’

“Rezuwan speaks his native Rohingya and learned to speak and write Burmese in school, but his English is largely self-taught. He spent a year collecting material for his English-language book, and the online version now includes 19 stories from storytellers in several of Cox’s Bazar’s camps.

Research was no easy task. Rezuwan doesn’t have a car or bike, so he walked, sometimes up to five miles, to meet with each storyteller and record his or her story on the phone. …

“ ‘The hardest part is finding and meeting the people from different sorts of camps,’ Rezuwan said. ‘After all, not everyone has the same talents to remember the stories — just because they are uneducated — and so, finding the right person to tell the story was finding a gem from the ocean.’

“The Rohingya language is primarily spoken, without a standardized written script. Rezuwan translated the stories by playing back his recordings and, word by word, constructing English versions of the tales. He then pasted them into WhatsApp and sent them to his editor and friend, Alex Ebsary, in Buffalo, New York, who corrected grammar and word usage. Ebsary said he intentionally edited the stories with a light touch.

“ ‘Folktales are not a universal language,’ he said in a phone interview. ‘You know, if you read these folktales, some of them are quirky. They’re kind of not even the morals that I would think of when thinking of a folktale.’ …

“Rezuwan said his mother used to tell him the story known as ‘A Hunter and a Flock of Heron.’ The version he collected from Rashid Ahmod, a 60-year-old resident of Kutapalong, was essentially the same story he heard as a boy, he said.

“The story is about a hunter who catches a group of beautiful herons in his net. The herons all try to escape by flying around in all directions, Ebsary explained. Rezuwan said the moral of the story is that birds — and people — can’t manage to go anywhere until they cooperate. …

“​​Since coming to Kutupalong, Rezuwan has organized an educational network where Rohingya children — unable to attend schools — can follow the same curriculum taught in Myanmar. He also works with humanitarian groups as a guide and interpreter.”

Read more here.

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Photo: Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop
Grover from “Sesame Street” in a Rohingya camp in Bangladesh. The Lego Foundation will provide $100 million over five years to the makers of “Sesame Street” and their partners for a program for refugee children.

Most of what we know about the situation of Rohingya refugees — expelled from Myanmar (Burma) for their Muslim beliefs — is pretty dire. But here and there we see positive efforts to lessen the pain of living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, especially for children. Read about this partnership among humanitarian relief organizations, Sesame Street, and Lego.

Karen Zraick writes at the New York Times, “Can play help refugee children heal from trauma?

“That’s the belief behind a new partnership formed by the Lego Foundation, Sesame Workshop and organizations working with Syrian and Rohingya refugees. In its first major humanitarian project, announced [in December], the foundation will provide $100 million over five years to the makers of ‘Sesame Street’ to deepen their work with the International Rescue Committee in the countries around Syria, and also to partner with the Bangladeshi relief organization BRAC.

“The aim is to create play-based learning programs for children up to age 6 in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Bangladesh. The programs will teach basics like the alphabet and numbers, but will also emphasize social and emotional development to counter the effects of stress and suffering. They will be offered both to displaced children and to some of their potential friends in host communities.

“Officials at the organizations involved said that helping children’s brains develop during their first years — when they are absorbing information like sponges — is crucial to helping them become healthy and successful later in life, and that play is an excellent way to do it.

“ ‘We know from child development research that the best way for children to learn is through exploring their world and play,’ said Sarah Smith, the senior director for education at the International Rescue Committee. …

“The families’ needs are great. In addition to basics like adequate food and shelter, children need to foster ties with nurturing caregivers to heal from what they have witnessed and endured, said Hirokazu Yoshikawa, a director of Global TIES for Children, a research center at New York University that will conduct testing and evaluation for the program.

‘Part of the magic of human development is that very few experiences doom a child to ruin,’ Dr. Yoshikawa said. ‘But we have to address the risks early. This is particularly critical in these first years.’ …

“Erum Mariam, a program director for BRAC, said that many of the 240 play labs the organization has created for refugees were built by the children’s fathers and painted and decorated by mothers and children.

“ ‘We place a lot of emphasis on culture and on strengthening community engagement,’ she said. Within those centers, trained facilitators focus on providing enough structure to make children feel safe, while allowing for spontaneous joy.

“ ‘When a child enters the humanitarian play lab, we want the child to feel very happy and very connected to their culture and heritage,’ she said.” More here.

You may recall I wrote about Sesame Street helping Syrian refugee children, here.

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Rohingya-in-Bangladesh-ARC-photo

Photo: @coryt
American Refugee Committee, a nonprofit with Charity Navigator‘s highest rating, is one of a few organizations helping Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh camps.

With so many languages still in use, I have sometimes wondered how aid workers in refugee camps find people to translate languages that are rare.

Malaka Gharib reports about some of the challenges at National Public Radio (NPR).

“Imagine an aid worker in Bangladesh. Her mother tongue is Chittagonian. She’s trying to help a Rohingya refugee, whose language is similar to hers — but not 100 percent. The refugee tells her gaa-lamani biaram, ‘my body is falling apart.’ Would she know that phrase meant the refugee had diarrhea?

“That’s why a new glossary is being developed. And one of the 180 entries is that Rohingya phrase, indicating that a person is suffering from diarrhea.

“In June, a nonprofit group called Translators Without Borders, in partnership with Oxfam and UNICEF, created a special online glossary for humanitarians working in Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. The app, which aid workers can download on their mobile phones, includes terms with translations in five languages spoken in the camps: English, Bangla, Rohingya, Chittagonian and Burmese. …

“A November 2017 study from Internews, a nonprofit group that helps people in low-income settings access news and information, reported that almost two-thirds of the 570 Rohingya refugees surveyed at Cox’s Bazar [a Bangladesh camp] were unable to communicate with aid providers.

“That can be particularly dangerous when it comes to health care, says [Irene Scott, the program director for Translators Without Borders in Bangladesh]. … To create the glossary, Translators Without Borders assembled a focus group of aid workers and refugees to come up with ‘a dictionary list of terms they use at the camps every day and terms that field workers are having trouble trying to communicate,’ says Scott. Then they worked with members of the community and a staff sociolinguist to translate the words into the four languages. …

“Most of the words in this first iteration of the Bangladesh glossary focus on water, sanitation and hygiene. Over the past few months, the camps have faced acute water shortages, putting people at risk of waterborne diseases like cholera, bloody diarrhea, typhoid and hepatitis E. …

” ‘Chlorine tablet’ is an important word for aid workers to clearly translate, says Scott, because they’re asking refugees to put a foreign substance into their drinking water to make it safe to consume. ‘It’s hard to tell a traumatized community to put that tablet in water and drink it.’ …

There are a few unexpected words in the glossary — like ‘poem.’ Rohingya aid volunteers in the camps specifically asked for this word to be added.

” ‘Since Rohingya is an oral language, written communications like fliers or pamphlets [to convey important health information] may not be effective given the lack of a standardized script,’ says Krissy Welle, senior communications officer for Translators Without Borders.

“Rhyming conventions are a key way to transfer knowledge and historical facts in Rohingya culture, explains Eva Niederberger, Oxfam’s community engagement adviser in Cox’s Bazar, in a statement to NPR. So an aid worker might say something like, ‘Here’s a poem that will teach you how to protect yourself from certain diseases. …

” ‘When we talk about language with Rohingya women and men, they’re happy that someone is paying attention to something so crucially important to their cultural identity. For so long they’ve had their rights denied to them. It’s all about respect at the end of the day.’ ”

More at NPR, here.

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