Many Children Among Rohingya Fleeing Myanmar More than half the Muslim minority Rohingya who have fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh are believed to be children. Most of them are at risk and in need.

Many Children Among Rohingya Fleeing Myanmar

Many Children Among Rohingya Fleeing Myanmar

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More than half the Muslim minority Rohingya who have fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh are believed to be children. Most of them are at risk and in need.


The Rohingya people of Myanmar are pouring into neighboring Bangladesh telling stories of murder, rape, ethnic cleansing on the part of the Myanmar military. More than 436,000 have made this journey recently, carrying scraps of their lives into refugee camps. Michael Sullivan reports from the city of Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. He says many of those on the move are children who are at risk and in need.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: UNICEF's Jean-Jacques Simon has an image he can't get out of his head. It's been there since he went to the border to see the refugees coming across shortly after the exodus began.

JEAN-JACQUES SIMON: I saw two very young ones, 3 and 5, and they were holding hands. They were covered with mud, without their parents, without relatives. They were were nowhere. Basically, they were alone. And so we brought them to our center. But for a long time, they wouldn't speak. They were completely traumatized.

SULLIVAN: He says UNICEF has identified more than 1,500 unaccompanied children, and says there's probably a lot more they haven't yet reached. The U.N. estimates more than 60 percent of the refugees coming from Myanmar are children.

SIMON: They need protection. They need food. They need shelter. They need a lot of things. That's why UNICEF has mobile teams going all around to camps to make sure that these children are identified and protected.

SULLIVAN: The Balukhali makeshift camp is just a few miles from the border with neighboring Myanmar. And when it rains - and it rains a lot these days - the muddy footpaths turn into fast-moving streams.


SULLIVAN: In addition to its mobile teams, UNICEF has more than half a dozen child-friendly spaces here amid the thousands of makeshift huts of bamboo and plastic sheeting that the refugees now call home, and I can hear one of those spaces long before I see.


SULLIVAN: There's crayons and paints and board games and storybooks, and about 50 children in the open-air space under a tarp, a happy place in a miserable camp.

FARIA SELIM: Our main response is basically to give them psychosocial support, give them some recreational activities because what they have gone through in Myanmar, they need to ventilate their stress. They need to come out of it.

SULLIVAN: That's UNICEF's Faria Selim, who spies a group of girls sitting on the other side of the tent and walks over.

MURSHEEDA: (Singing in foreign language).

SULLIVAN: One of the girls, 7-year-old Mursheeda, who arrived from Myanmar two weeks ago, begins a rhyme. Selim watches with a huge smile on her face and tells a story.

SELIM: There is a school over there inside the makeshift settlement, and she stood behind the window of that school and she heard, you know, children reciting a rhyme. And she learned from them, and she said that she wants to recite it for us. And just in 15 days, this is how children are. They can cope so well and they can learn so easily and fast.

SULLIVAN: Another girl, 12-year-old Zahura, is trying, but it's still hard. She arrived here with her grandmother just a week ago.

ZAHURA: (Speaking foreign language).

SULLIVAN: She says her mother and father were killed when the Myanmar military attacked her village with soldiers and helicopter gunships. She hid in a field, found her grandma then found her way here.

ZAHURA: (Speaking foreign language).

SULLIVAN: "When I first got to the camp," she says, "I was thinking about my parents a lot and I didn't have anyone to talk to. But since I started coming here," she says, "I feel better." By sending social workers out into the makeshift camps and convincing children like Zahura to come to these child-friendly spaces, aid workers are able to start case files on the children and their families and start teaching them life skills, to avoid traffickers and others who do them harm. They'll also get a chance to go to a school of sorts, something Zahura's excited about.

ZAHURA: (Speaking foreign language).

SULLIVAN: She says she got as far as first grade back in Myanmar before the government told her she couldn't go to school anymore, that it was reserved for Myanmar nationals, not Rohingya, like her. Baby Barua is the social worker with the local NGO working with UNICEF. I asked her if she thinks Zahura can make the grade here.

BABY BARUA: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: She thinks she can, a small silver-lining for Zahura and perhaps some of the 200,000 other children who've been forced to flee their homes since August. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

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