‘Raise up’

Unstoppable Rohingya teen overcomes circumstance and tradition to pursue college education

Rahima Akter. (The Associated Press/YouTube)

Rahima Akter, a 19-year-old Rohingya woman who was born and raised in the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh, is working on applications to universities in a bid to become one of the only Rohingya women to ever achieve a college education. Already, she told The Associated Press, she is one of just a handful of female students to have completed the Bangladeshi equivalent of high school. Doing so required her to overcome a number of hurdles — not least of all her own father’s objections. In Rohingya culture, girls are expected to marry by the age of 16 — Akter had to beg her father to allow her to put off marriage in order to study, and was only successful after her mother, Minara Begum, convinced her husband to relent and defended her daughter from Rohingya elders who told the family that her daughter’s desire to seek an education was a sin.

“I told them ‘let Allah punish me then,’” Begum recalled. “What about our lives as refugees that have gone in vain because of our illiteracy? If I can help my children get a better future by education, then that is what I am going to do.”

After being granted permission by her parents, Akter still had to go to elaborate measures in order to pursue her dream. Temporary schools set up in the camp only cover up to a fifth-grade level, so Akter and other refugees seeking higher schooling were forced to sneak out of the camp, bribe Bangladeshi public school officials to enroll her, and speak and dress as a Bengali to hide their identities as Rohingya. For Akter, the trouble was more than worth it. Earning an education, she says, is the only real way for her to get herself and her family out of the camp.

“If we take education then we will be able to lead our life as a life,” she said.

In the 1990s, Akter’s parents and 250,000 other Rohingya fled Myanmar to escape forced labor, religious persecution, and violence from Buddhist mobs. In 2017, history repeated itself on a larger and tragic scale, as more than 700,000 Rohingya escaped into neighboring Bangladesh to flee systemic rape and executions by Myanmar’s military that claimed the lives of at least 10,000 Rohingya, according to the United Nations. In the wake of the new influx of refugees, Akter’s education proved a valuable asset. Working as a translator for aid groups and journalists who visit to cover the human rights crisis, she now makes more money than the rest of her family combined.

As Akter puts together her applications for university, where she hopes to study human rights, the resilient teenager is already conducting her own research by interviewing families that fled the recent violence.

“Why do people have to lead their lives in such a situation?” she asked. “One day maybe I’ll be able to raise up my voice about human rights for the Rohingya.”

Watch video of The Associated Press’s interviews with Akter below.

Read the full story at The Associated Press.

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