Bangladesh's forgotten students: The Biharis struggle

Updated:

DHAKA, Bangladesh — The slum in northern Dhaka is only slightly larger than an acre, but the tin-and-concrete homes packed inside its borders hold upwards of 25,000 inhabitants. The neighborhood, known as “Geneva Camp,” is crowded and undeveloped; families of ten people typically live together in single rooms, there is only one latrine for every ninety families and no more than 5 percent of the population has a formal education.

What sets this slum apart from others in Dhaka, however, is not the sheer density of its population or the inhumanity of its living conditions — but rather the fact that its inhabitants are Bihari, an ethnic identification that puts them in a minority comprising less than 1 percent of Bangladesh’s population.

The Biharis are descendents of Muslim refugees who fled from India in 1947 to escape religious violence. They speak Urdu, making them clear outsiders in a population in which 98 percent of people are ethnic Bengali and speak Bangla.

During Bangladesh’s war for independence from Pakistan in 1971, factions of Biharis continued supporting Pakistan, causing a conflict that escalated into a bloodbath which created enmity between the two groups that has lasted for decades.

After the war, thousands of Biharis were willingly deported to Pakistan. The 300,000 who remained in Bangladesh moved into refugee camps set up by the International Red Cross, awaiting flights to Pakistan that never came because of diplomatic wrangling. Today — 40 years later —  the stranded Biharis and their descendents are still living in these camps.

A stateless and forgotten people, they are the subjects of widespread discrimination. Forbidden to hold passports or even enroll in most schools, the Biharis count themselves among the poorest and most marginalized in all of Bangladesh.

Geneva Camp is the largest of these Bihari slums. It is here that childhood friends Rashed Ahmed, Noor Hossain and Sajid Hossain have grown up, managing not only to earn an education for themselves but also to launch an impressive effort to bring education to other children within the camp.

The discrimination the three students faced throughout their lives proved a tangible barrier to their desire for schooling. Rashed, now 23, laments that while Biharis have no features or skin color to distinguish them from Bengalis, his childhood classmates always managed to discover his ethnicity. During elementary school, he transferred schools three times to avoid harassment.

“People teased me and said, 'You are a Bihari and you are a loser,'” Rashed said. His attempts to enter secondary school were refused because of his ethnicity, but he eventually managed to enroll by using a false address from outside the camp.

Overcoming discrimination and getting admitted to secondary school, however, only opened the door to an even more insurmountable problem: tuition fees.

In Bangladesh, where only a few of the best and brightest enter government schools, private schools must charge for entrance fees, tuition, and testing fees. For a boy whose parents and several siblings depend on his income to help keep food on the table, the amount of money and time required to stay in school is staggering.

Hassan, 24, told of waking up at 4 a.m. every morning when he was a teenage to make the hour’s walk to the wholesale market where he would buy an enormous sack of potatoes, carry them back on his shoulders and sell them on the street corner before beginning the walk to school.

“It was difficult and I had to drop out of school several times to support my sick father,” he said.

During secondary school, all three young men worked late into the evenings tutoring younger Bengali students from outside the camp for a small fee, which they then used towards their tuition.

Through years of dedicated labor and support from their impoverished families, Rashed, Hassan and Sajid managed to cling to their educations and have enrolled themselves in university degree programs. They are among only a handful of Biharis to do so in Bangladesh.

“I would like to forget the history of how I got here,” Rashed said. For them, the ascent to university has been one of hardship and luck, and the climb is not yet complete.

Nevertheless, Rashed, Hassan and Sajid have taken on an additional mission: to bring an education to the Bihari children trapped in slums throughout Bangladesh. Doing so, they believe, will enable the community to rise from the poverty and discrimination that has accompanied the Bihari identity for the past forty years.

These young men, now joined by several others, have formed an organization called “Urdu Bashi Jubo Chattro Sangathan,” or, the “Urdu-speaking Young Students Association.” The effort grew out of the boys’ tutoring experience and has rapidly expanded.

In 2006, Hassan felt he could no longer ignore his desire to give children inside the camp the same educational opportunities that he had. He began to hold tutoring sessions for the Bihari children and was quickly joined by Rashed and Sajid. That year, Hassan taught 18 students who were expected to fail the state exams. At the end of the year, every one of his students passed and was able to move on to secondary school.

Despite the success, the young men were limited by a lack of space. First they tutored in homes but with homes the size of single bedrooms often housing upwards of ten people, this soon became unfeasible. They then moved their work to a nearby school after hours but were forced to leave when local Bihari men insisted they needed the building as a lounge.

At that point, two other friends from the slum encouraged the students to take a big step forward. Jaynul Abedin, another childhood friend with a deep concern for the children of the camp, joined them in their efforts and urged them to create a formal organization.

They did, and the first thing that the fledgling UJBCS needed was a safe, quiet place to teach and study. As no such place existed, the students decided they would build their own. That’s when they brought their case to Mr. Haji Akkas Ali, a wealthy Bengali businessman who lives near the camp and is sympathetic to the plight of its inhabitants.

“Mr. Haji Akkas Ali had a generous heart,” said Sajid. Together they calculated what it would cost to build the learning center they envisioned. Mr. Ali promised to donate half the money if the boys could raise the other half, and after months of saving and canvassing families in the slum for spare change, the required sum was reached.

Rashed, Hassan, Sajid and Joy purchased an empty market stall. They filled it with furniture and books and christened it a library — a place where students could come to use reference books, receive tutoring or study in peace. The education effort was underway.

In 2006 and 2007, tutoring sessions took off as Hassan and his friends readied another batch of children for their state middle school exams. Again, every single student passed. Then, with the help of Mr. Ali, the students behind UBJCS began to save up money to use as scholarships for children who could not pay their tuition fees.

As the organization grew, so did its responsibilities. Because the hardships of education cannot be easily isolated from the other aspects of slum life, UBJCS was soon drawn into a number of other projects.

“We repaired our first house in 2007 with money from Mr. Ali and much of our own time,” said Sajid. They have since repaired 67 homes, most destroyed by a devastating fire that racked the slum three years ago. When the winter hits, the members of the organization find a way to provide blankets and sweaters to large numbers of their fellow slum dwellers. UBJCS, with over 20 “executive members,” includes in its stated responsibilities education, home repair, assistance with health bills and even the provision of funds to families for their daughters’ weddings.

The money for these undertakings, though never truly sufficient, is always scraped together from the savings of a tight network — the students, their families, their close friends — and the generosity of Mr. Ali.

The mission of UJBCS is ambitious. Its members dream of scaling up their efforts and bringing assistance to all 70 Bihari camps in Bangladesh, maintaining their special focus on education for children.

UJBCS might, however, be arriving at a crossroads. The three founders are nearing the end of their university studies.

“I want to do this humanitarian work, but where will I find an income?” wondered Hassan. The paradox is that these young men are no more affluent than the families they are helping. Now that they are nearing the end of their studies, they will need to make full use of their university degrees to support their families.

Moreover, the generosity of Mr. Ali’s pockets can only reach so far. Generating sufficient resources to expand UJBCS’s efforts to all 77 camps is going to require innovation on the part of its members.

For Rashed, Hassan, and Sajid, hope lies in the organization's name—the words “Young Students.”

“In 2008, we tutored a young boy who passed all of his state exams,” said Rashed. “The next year, he himself joined us and began tutoring more children.”

If every student that UJBCS helps can eventually give back to the organization in the same way, the Bihari community may find a sustainable pathway towards education for its youth and hope for its future.