A child laborer works long days to support his family
As a kid growing up in the camp, Amin’s grandmother supported him emotionally, always encouraging him to study. His mother and father also wanted him to get an education, but couldn’t give him much support. His father has a disability and couldn’t work much, and the family depended entirely on food rations. Starting from the age of 8, Amin labored in the camp as a porter of firewood and food rations.
“As a kid, I would go to early morning madrassa classes, then to a private tutor to study until later in the morning,” Amin recalls. “After that I would go to NGO offices looking for loads to carry. And sometimes my mom would make cakes that I would go door to door selling. I would get paid 1, 2, 3, or 4 taka (1 taka= 0.01 USD) for every load I carried. It was a slow and hard way to make money. I was a boy, so I couldn’t carry more than 25 kilograms at a time. I earned 40 or 50 taka (0.5-0.6 USD) per day. My mom and siblings would be waiting for me all day. When I got back home at 5 or 6 pm, I’d give my mom the money in order to get us something nice for dinner. I would then go to the market to get fish, or ingredients for a curry. We rarely ate lunch. And there were many days when we couldn’t have dinner either.”
“On some nights, I would go to a private learning center, then eat after 8:30 pm,” Amin continues. “Then I would try to read something if I wasn’t too sleepy. Daily life was like this. Sometimes I attended school; sometimes not. I recall one year, I couldn’t pay the monthly fee of 20 or 30 taka (0.2-0.3 USD) per month to my tutor. I decided that I needed to find a way to get a better job. I was offered 900 taka (10.5 USD) per month to work at a tea stall. I accepted the job. After working there for a month I had enough money to pay my teacher for 6 months of tuition. I also bought some books and clothes for my family. My mom and sisters were very happy.”
In 2009, Amin applied to an NGO and got a job as a volunteer. The salary was low for such a position, 1500 taka (18 USD) per month, but Amin says other volunteers earned even less –880 taka (10.3 USD) per month. He enjoyed his work greatly and served there until 2012.
An unexpected opportunity to attend high school
At the time, few Rohingya refugee students reached secondary school, though a few managed. A Bangladeshi friend from the local village adjacent to the camps observed that Amin was academically talented and adept at communicating well with others. The friend asked Amin why he wasn’t trying to get admission at the local high school and that he deserved to continue his studies.
After Amin got his documents in order, he came to Cox’s Bazar to take admission exams and was admitted to Ukhia high school in 2012. He studied there through a distance learning program; coming to school only on Fridays to take a class and an exam. He studied there for three years along with three other Rohingya students from the Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps.
Aspiring to achieve university education
In 2015, Amin got his high school exam results and was overjoyed to learn that he had passed. He obtained admission to a technical college in Ukhia, but began dreaming of attending a university. By this time, his academic gifts were undeniable, and he had no trouble passing his classes. But his study time was often compromised by the need to continue working full-time as an NGO teacher to help support his family. Good luck occurred when, two month before his final graduating exams, there was a protest in the camp by all the teachers – a strike to demand higher salaries. This gave Amin two free months to study without the option to work.
He graduated from the technical college in 2017, then managed to get admission to a university in Bangladesh, where he now studies.
A separated family looks to the future
Amin’s father is disabled and was unable to support the family financially. But Amin is impressed at how his father somehow managed to help all nine siblings achieve at least some education, though Amin was the only one who reached university. Another brother went to India in 2016 with the help of a trafficker and is living in an urban Rohingya settlement in Delhi. The rest of Amin’s siblings are still in the camp. He says that at first it was a bit difficult to live apart, as everyone missed each other, but that separation has now become normal.
“When I came to the city to study, my vision was just to get a job in a restaurant or hotel and earn 5,000 or 6,000 taka (58-70 USD) a month, which would be enough to pay for my school fees and basic costs. My school costs 27,000 (315 USD) a semester, so I could have made it work. I was thinking about it like that,” Amin says. “But then I met a lady from Austria through Facebook, someone who was just wanting to help the Rohingya from afar. I wrote on Facebook that I passed college and was looking for a way to go to university – she got in touch and she helped me by giving me 50,000 (580 USD). This helped me launch into my university studies.”
Amin had also come into contact with various foreigners over the years in his role as a socially engaged young teacher in the camps. He reached out to some journalists from Al Jazeera, NPR, and other media outlets, and started getting some sporadic work when classes weren’t in session. He was able to earn much more as a freelance fixer, in one instances earning 100,000 taka (1,170 USD) for five days of work. He says this helped him “a ton.”
He continues to work as a fixer. Amin is proud of the socioeconomic mobility he has slowly built: “Now, Alhamdullilah, I support my family every month. I even bought some gold for my mom. And my family has higher status because of me and I was able to help arrange good marriages for my two sisters.” He says that honesty is the best policy, and has helped him build trust with many foreign friends.