CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh (Reuters) - On the first day of the school year at the Asian University for Women in southern Bangladesh, groups of teenage girls in skinny jeans, sleeveless tops and T-shirts chattered, their laughter carrying through the sticky air.
Formin Akter, 19, stood in a corner by a row of suitcases, facing away from the students who seemed so modern and full of confidence. Wearing a tunic and pants that hung loosely on her, she nervously adjusted a brown georgette scarf that kept slipping from her head.
When she finally saw someone she recognized, she beamed, holding a card tied to red straps around her neck.
“Look at my identity card!” she said, flashing it like a gold medal.
Getting a college ID may have been a mildly exciting rite of passage for other new students. For Formin, a stateless Rohingya Muslim from Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, it meant the world.
She had spent most of her life dreaming about this moment. But as a Rohingya in Myanmar’s apartheid-like Rakhine State, her goal of attending university had been thwarted. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled a campaign of arson, rape and killing by the military since August 2017, and many of those still in the country are languishing in de facto internment camps.
Raised by a father who wanted more than his peasant’s life for his daughters, Formin and her older sister, Nur Jahan, had defied those in their community who believed education was wasted on women. They were the only two girls from their village ever to finish high school.
Back then, the sisters made a pact. Someday, they would go to university together.
In her dorm room, Formin moved her belongings into a cupboard: a small pile of clothes, a dinner plate, a steel pot. Her Burmese-English dictionary – one of the few things she had taken with her when fleeing Myanmar a year before – was tucked on the top shelf. On one of the walls of the dorm, someone had painted a quote from the Harry Potter series: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
A few hours to the south, in the world’s largest refugee camp, her sister Nur Jahan spends her days teaching children and trying to forget how close she was to realizing her childhood dream. This year, her parents pushed her to accept a young man’s proposal; now, she is married and pregnant, and must stay at home.
Formin said her sister calls her every day. Formin is excited about college, but she knows she’s a constant reminder of the education that her sister, and hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya women, can’t have.
“I miss my sister more than anything else,” she said. “Every time I spent with her, I miss.”
The two girls loved to skip rope together when they were growing up in Hlaing Thi, an all-Muslim village of about 6,000 people in Rakhine, one of Myanmar’s poorest and least-developed states.
Now the village where the girls grew up is no longer home. Scores of Rohingya houses in northern Rakhine, including those in Hlaing Thi, were burned and abandoned in what the United Nations has called an “ethnic cleansing” carried out with “genocidal intent.” Satellite images show what remains of the village: rolling green interspersed with the fields that former neighbors left behind, cut here and there by narrow streams. Formin would visit one of those streams every day with her mother to collect drinking water in plastic pails.
Since the military launched its crackdown in August 2017, more than 730,000 Rohingya have fled northern Rakhine for neighboring Bangladesh. About 15,000 fled this year alone.
Myanmar’s government denies committing abuses against the Rohingya, saying the military action in northern Rakhine came in response to attacks by Muslim militants. Still, the country doesn’t grant most Rohingya citizenship, and Myanmar authorities refer to the Rohingya as “Bengali,” a derogatory term because it implies they are interlopers from Bangladesh. The government and the military didn’t respond to questions about specific incidents in this story.
Restrictions on education, employment and travel meant most Rohingya were like Formin’s father, farmers or day laborers largely cut off from the outside world. According to a 2015 survey by the Yangon-based Center for Diversity and National Harmony, Rakhine had the country’s lowest literacy levels and the lowest rates of primary and secondary school enrollment in Myanmar. Rohingya students struggle to understand teachers because their language isn’t recognized in the public school system.
But Formin’s uncle, Sayat Hossain, showed what was possible against the odds. Admitted to an engineering college in 1994 in the then-capital, Yangon, he was forced to leave school after it was shut down in response to pro-democracy protests two years later, and he fled Myanmar to find work as a day laborer in Malaysia. Eventually he made his way to asylum in Norway, where he now works as a translator.
“My uncle studied, so he is in Norway. My father didn’t study, so he is a farmer,” Formin said.
For many in Formin’s village, her uncle was something of a local hero. “There was no family like theirs in the village,” Mohammed Bashar, the Rohingya chairman of Hlaing Thi, said from a refugee camp in Bangladesh. “They understood the value of an education.”
Formin’s father, Mohammed Hossain, imagined a happier future for his daughters. “You get respect when you have an education,” he said. “Illiterate people have to do hard work, but educated people can find comfortable work. I wanted that for my girls.”
In 2012, when Formin was 13 and Nur Jahan was 16, an international humanitarian group was operating schools for children in need of a secondary school education in northern Rakhine. It offered the sisters the chance to study under a program that would cover their tuition and living expenses. But they would have to move away from home.
There were murmurs of disapproval in the village. “People thought the girls would be ruined,” said Bashar, the former village chairman.
Formin’s father said he was often told by fellow villagers: “No matter how much you make them study, they have to sit at home and cook for their husbands. What is the point?”
But he allowed his daughters to go away to school – just as racial and religious tensions in Rakhine boiled over.
In a white notebook with pink flowers, Formin kept a diary. “I wrote about some happy and sad things every day,” she said. “If someone said anything bad about me, I used to write about that.”
In maintaining that diary, Formin had unconsciously started creating a record of events in Rakhine that few in the largely illiterate population were documenting firsthand. “At that time, we didn’t have TV, radio or mobile,” she said, matter-of-factly.
Just weeks after Formin and her sister began school away from their village, communal violence broke out. It was June 2012, and thousands were displaced across Rakhine State as Buddhists and Muslims torched each other’s homes.
“We saw the military shoot two people going on a motorcycle,” Formin said. Schools were shut, travel was risky, and the hostel where she and other students lived had to close.
Authorities responded to the violence, in part, by barring the Rohingya from enrolling in the only university in Rakhine State, citing unspecified “security concerns,” according to a report by U.N. investigators earlier this year. That effectively denied the Rohingya access to higher education, which was already limited because of travel restrictions, the report said.
But that didn’t break the sisters’ determination to keep studying. Formin and Nur Jahan moved to a secondary school in Kyein Chaung, a village with a bustling market where Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus ran shops alongside each other. Kyein Chaung had been largely untouched by the wave of violence in 2012, and things began to look hopeful.
In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy swept elections and came to power in a country that had long been ruled by generals. Many Rohingya rooted for Suu Kyi, who had been a political prisoner, believing she would put an end to their persecution.
Nur Jahan, three years older, had finished high school and was teaching children for an international nongovernmental organization. She wanted Formin to graduate, like her, and was paying her sister’s study costs with her NGO salary.
At school in Kyein Chaung, Formin met a teacher, Ali Ahmed, who was one of the few Rohingya licensed to teach in public schools. He says he encouraged her and other Rohingya students to dream big.
“Master Ali,” as the students called him, would often pepper his lectures with inspiring stories, sometimes pulled from news reports he heard on the small radio he kept.
That was how he first heard about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani peace and education rights activist. He took the story to Formin’s class with a challenge: “If she can go to Oxford from Pakistan, why can’t you?”
Formin was struck by the story from the moment she heard how a young Muslim woman from rural Pakistan stood up to the Taliban, survived a gunshot wound to the head from a would-be assassin and, in 2014, won the Nobel Peace Prize. At home, she told her family all about Malala. “Did you know they put a gun to her head?” Formin said. “She is a great girl. She cares about education, not other things.”
In her class, she also heard the story of Helen Keller’s remarkable education. Her sister Nur Jahan found her a copy of Keller’s autobiography, and she read it with the same rapt admiration.
“She is blind, but she didn’t stop learning,” Formin said. “We can see everything – we can’t stop studying.”
The heroic stories of Malala and Helen kept her dreams of university alive. And she began to nurture another desire: to become an inspiration for Rohingya girls like her.
On Oct. 8, 2016, Formin remembers, she went to bed early because she had a physics and chemistry test the next morning. When she woke before dawn for a final round of study, all the students in her lodgings were already up. Overnight, dozens of Muslim militants armed with sticks, knives and homemade weapons had launched an attack on police outposts.
The attack marked the emergence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – a group that claimed to be fighting for the rights of the Rohingya.
In the early light, Formin said, she could see soldiers fanning out across the village. She heard gunfire. The students hunkered down in their lodgings, afraid to move. Some 80,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in the months that followed, many claiming soldiers had torched homes, arrested and tortured suspected militants and raped women.
Once again, schools were shut, and gradually reopened over the next few weeks. But Formin’s parents had no plans of sending her back this time. They were terrified. It wasn’t until four months later, as Formin’s high school graduation exam neared, that her parents finally relented. They were still fearful, her mother said, but they also wanted to prove wrong those in the village who had predicted that Formin would fail.
Formin and her father made the risky trip back to her high school to take the test. Of the 150 girls who sat for the exam at the Kyein Chaung school in March 2017, only four would pass.
Myanmar’s Education Ministry typically puts matriculation results on Facebook, but Formin’s village rarely had a connection. She asked a friend in another village to look for her roll number on the list of those who had passed, but the friend couldn’t find it.
Formin cried for days. One evening, one of her teachers called and asked her: “Formin, your roll number is 542?”
“I said yes.”
“OK,” he said. “You passed your exam.”
Formin returned to school to receive her diploma. But once again, violence intervened.
The militant group ARSA had waged a more ambitious attack in the early hours of Aug. 25, 2017, across security posts in northern Rakhine. In the military’s response, the U.N. said, entire Rohingya villages were razed, scores of women were raped and murdered, and an estimated 10,000 people, if not more, were killed. The military denies these allegations and says it made a proportionate response to militant attacks.
As houses went up in flames in Hlaing Thi, Formin’s mother called her at her lodgings. “Our village is burning. We are leaving for Bangladesh,” she said. “What will you do, Formin?”
Formin didn’t know what to do. She felt paralyzed as the rattle of bullets went on and on around her.
For the first time in her life, she said, she felt hope slipping away, and she cried – cried because she was scared for her life, and cried for her dream of attending college.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I thought that would be the last day of my life.”
Formin remained locked up inside her lodgings for two days. But as she saw local Buddhists and the military start to burn houses in the village, an account that echoes those of other eyewitnesses on both sides of the conflict in Rakhine, she decided to escape with five schoolmates.
She was in a panic over how to get away. From afar, her sister Nur Jahan helped her once again.
“She didn’t know the way. When I called her on the phone, Formin was crying,” Nur Jahan said. “There was military everywhere.”
“Just follow the people,” Nur Jahan told her.
Using the dim light of a small phone her father had given her, Formin walked with crowds of people heading toward the border through monsoon-drenched forests and streams, protecting her belongings that were wrapped carefully in plastic under her arm.
The group moved by night to avoid security forces and civilian mobs, stopping at abandoned houses for shelter. Along the way, Formin said, she saw several bodies.
At the border with Bangladesh, Formin paid the equivalent of $10 to a boatman to cross the Naf River. On a wooden boat with nine other people, she reached the other shore and a refugee camp that would become a home in exile.
When she was reunited with her family at the camp, one of the first things she asked about was her books back home. Between tears, her mother told her the house had burned down.
Formin’s most prized possessions had turned to ash.
Gone too, was a small pink-and-white notebook – her first diary.
Almost exactly a year since she had fled her country to reach the refugee camps of Bangladesh, Formin was preparing to leave. She was going to college.
“I am happy, but nervous,” she said, blushing, as she sat on her knees on the mud floor of a hut. She and 24 other Rohingya girls from the refugee camps had been accepted to the university’s “Pathways to Promise” program, which offers a full scholarship to selected young women in marginalized communities.
She dipped a hand into a purse to fish out a compact face powder with a mirror. She held the mirror in one hand and with the other lightly dabbed the peach-colored powder onto her cheeks with the puff, moving her face from left to right. “I have watched makeup videos,” she said, giggling.
She also now had a smartphone that she’d bought with her earnings from working as a translator and community health worker for NGOs in the camp. She had filled it with language learning apps: Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, English; and a Bollywood movie about a Hindu boy and Muslim girl who flee communal riots together, and eventually get married.
But marriage hasn’t been a fairytale ending for her sister Nur Jahan.
In May, Nur Jahan married a Rohingya from their village. Like Formin, she had been desperate to continue studying, but she was older, and there was no guarantee the university program in Chittagong would come through.
“After coming here, we were worried about our daughters’ future. The situation became uncertain,” their father said. “She has younger sisters who are growing fast.” So when a proposal came from a fellow refugee who had spent time working in Saudi Arabia, her parents pushed her to accept.
Her husband declined to allow Nur Jahan to be interviewed alone. She sat in a chair with her back straight and legs folded, listening attentively and speaking enthusiastically about her relationship with Formin and their life back in Hlaing Thi.
But midway during talk of college, as Nur Jahan tried to stay composed in front of her husband, her voice cracked, and she started to cry.
“Our father was very poor, but he helped a lot for our studies,” she said. “We made a pact that we would go to college together, and after we finished our education, we would help our father any way we can.”
Her 79-year-old grandfather, Nur Ahmed, said: “Nur Jahan is even smarter than Formin. She would do even better at college.
“I know she is sad. We are also sad. We wish we had waited. But now we cannot do anything. I am happy for Formin, but I feel bad for Nur Jahan. She still blames us.”
Formin is hoping to study law after she completes her five-year university program, including two years spent improving her English, math and comprehension skills.
“I am a Rohingya. If I become a lawyer, I can do something for the cause of the Rohingya,” she said.
She reflected on her role models, Malala and Helen Keller. And she spoke of another woman whom she revered. Growing up, she said, she idolized Suu Kyi, who has drawn international criticism for her silence on the plight of the Rohingya.
“Yes, yes, I really liked her!” she said. “We thought that woman stood for everyone.”
If she ever met Suu Kyi, she said, she would ask her: “I am Rohingya, but I am also a woman like you. We are all women like you. Please put yourself in our place. What do you feel?”
Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui; edited by Kari Howard