Blog by Shahadat Hossain, Research Scholar in the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi

In November and December 2022, I had the wonderful experience of enjoying the World Cup on the largest screen in Dhaka. The adolescents of Dhaka were immensely enthusiastic about the World Cup. It seemed to me that they were experiencing the excitement of the World Cup as they would another Eid, Puja, Pohela Boishakh, or Christmas in their lives.

While I was engrossed in watching the Qatar World Cup on the TV screen, I couldn’t help but contemplate how Rohingya adolescents enjoy their own version of the World Cup in the camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Football stands as a popular sport in the Rohingya community. After the largest Rohingya influx to Bangladesh in 2017 and during the 2018 World Cup, I watched numerous TV reports showcasing Rohingya adolescents’ excitement for the tournament. The fans in the Rohingya camps were divided in support between Brazil and Argentina, much like in other parts of South Asia. Notably, during the 2018 World Cup, a Rohingya adolescent named Jahangir Alam garnered attention for sporting a Neymar signature haircut, showcasing both his football skills and his identification as “Jahangir Alam Neymar” within the camp.

The life of adolescents’ brims with dreams, hope, love, excitement and liberty. However, the liberty sought in foreign lands isn’t always easily obtained. In the Rohingya camp, where football is very popular, the ‘football fever’ escalates during the World Cup, creating a new and vibrant energy. Consequently In 2022, 50 Rohingya people were arrested at the Ukhiya High School playground for playing football outside the camp.

Witnessing the daily lives of Dhaka adolescents and excitement at the football tournament, I felt a strong desire to visit the Rohingya camp and understand the lives of Rohingya adolescents. I yearned to learn about their everyday routines, their favourite sports, their dreams, how they nurture those dreams, their experiences with love, their perception of their homeland Myanmar, and how they cope with life in the camp. With these questions swirling in my mind, I visited the Rohingya camp and engaged in conversations with the Rohingya adolescents. 

Numerous studies exist in the academic world on the Rohingya genocide, the conflict within the host community, and the geopolitical aspects of the Rohingya crisis. However, there is less research specifically focused on Rohingya adolescents using primary data rather than secondary data. I felt that it’s important to conduct firsthand data analysis on the everyday life of Rohingya adolescents, so went to Kutupalang Rohingya camp for interview and observation-based research. For entering the camps and conducting research, I obtained formal permission from the local government authority. After entering the camps, I obtained consent from the Majhi (camp leader) and the adolescents’ parents to conduct interviews and spend time with their children. I informed the parents and participants that I would publish the interview data in the research. As the Rohingya adolescents were under 18 years old, out of respect for their privacy, I have used pseudonyms for them in the research. As the Rohingya community strictly adheres to its cultural and religious norms, I had no conversations with female adolescents. However, I engaged in discussions with some male adolescents in the camp individually and conducted a focus group discussion for my research purposes.

Before heading to the camp, I stopped at a tea stall in Cox’s Bazar. While at the tea stall, I noticed a 10-year-old serving tea and speaking in a Rohingya accent. I speculated that he might be from a Rohingya family. I inquired about his family, and he informed me that he is from the Rohingya camp. However, he expressed his dislike for staying in the camp. He works in the tea stall for a daily wage of 100 taka (less than 1 USD) and returns to the camp in the evening. When I asked him about Myanmar and whether he wished to return, he replied that he has never seen Arakan (Rakhine province of Myanmar). At the age of three he was forced to migrate to Bangladesh from Rakhine province and has no memories of Myanmar. His emotions, experiences, and connections are developing in Bangladesh, although his roots are in Rakhine, Myanmar. While talking to this boy, I remembered an interview of a Rohingya child I saw on TV in 2017 who said, “We came here to save our own lives.” Perhaps he too grows up like this boy. Similar to the child in the TV interview and the boy I spoke with in Cox’s Bazar, they may save their own lives by taking shelter in Bangladesh, but their own lives have numerous challenges. After the conversation with the 10-year-old boy, I proceeded to Kutupalong Rohingya camp in Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar.

Photograph by Shahadat Hossain

Upon entering the camp, I met a 17-year-old Rohingya adolescent named Farhan (pseudonym) I introduced myself, and he seemed quite interested in conversing. I observed Farhan holding a smartphone, watching Bollywood music videos on YouTube, and dressed in jeans and a shirt. I was curious about how he obtained these privileges in the camp. Farhan explained that during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he found a job at a clothing store and used his earnings to buy the clothes and the phone.

I expressed interest in understanding how common it is for Rohingya adolescents to work outside the camp. Farhan elaborated that in the lives of adolescents, there is a desire for items like phones, sports shoes, and better outfits. However, there is no source of income for adolescents or their parents in the camp. Previously, rations could be sold outside for extra income, but this is now restricted by the police. Consequently, people seek work outside the camp for additional earnings. Rohingya adolescents also seek part-time or short-term jobs to fulfil their additional needs. When I asked Farhan about his dreams, he lamented his inability to continue studying. He dreams of securing his younger sibling’s education in traditional schools within the camps. Farhan mentioned that traditional coaching in the camp costs 500-1000 BDT (4-8 USD) per month, and he is striving to earn an income to support his younger brother’s education.

While conversing with Farhan, another Rohingya adolescent name Arman (pseudonym) approached us. Arman had an athletic look and appeared older. According to Rohingya customs, boys as young as 16-18 years are considered ideal for marriage. I inquired about Arman’s marriage plans. He shared that he is only 18 years old and, while his community permits marriage at this age, he feels the need for more time before getting married. Various programs initiated by international organizations in the camp have significantly influenced the cultural perspectives of the Rohingyas. They now possess enhanced awareness regarding child marriage, adolescent health, and overall health consciousness.

I also asked Arman about his dreams or future plans. He expressed a desire to venture outside Cox’s Bazar or Chittagong even once. If successful, he plans to return to the camp with an income ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 BDT (180-280 USD). He intends to use this money to purchase a small piece of gold, as in the Rohingya community, marriage without gold is inconceivable, particularly the nose ring is preferred as a necessary gift to the bride from the bridegroom. As Arman approaches marriageable age, he is now focused on earning money to facilitate his marriage.

I expressed my desire to conduct a focus group discussion with Rohingya adolescents to understand their daily lives and aspirations. With limited time, Farhan and Arman quickly organized a focus group comprising some of their friends: Ahmed, Rahman, Faruk (pseudonyms) all of are all between 12 and 18 years old.

During the discussion, Faruk (pseudonym) joined in and shared his story. He had pursued his studies in Myanmar up to the fourth grade and completed the eighth grade in camp school after relocating to Bangladesh. I observed he has lacks of motivation for studying. He expressed his disdain for the camp, likening it to a prison. Interestingly, Faruk is proficient in speaking pure Bengali, Rohingya, and Burmese. Despite his language skills, he harbors no dreams within the camp; instead, he yearns to return to his homeland. He aspires to travel to Myanmar, start a stationery shop, and eventually marry. Faruk also mentioned uncertainty about his future, although he is holding onto the belief that he may return home, be it today or tomorrow.

A clear contrast emerges between Faruk and the 10-year-old child I met in Cox Bazar city. That boy had no memory of his homeland, so he has no dreams of his homeland. On the other side Faruk’s dreams solely revolve around returning home.

I asked the group about their favourite sports and how they spend their afternoons. Rahman said there are many traditional sports popular among Rohingya adolescents. One such traditional sport is Boli Khela (wrestling), which is popular among all ages. However, football has recently been gaining popularity. He also expressed concern about the lack of a football field for playing in the camp. The recent security dynamics of the camp have influenced their lives also. Their parents don’t allow them to play far from home due to increased armed conflicts. Rahman mentioned that their parents restrict them from staying out past sunset due to recent conflicts.

Ahmed (pseudonym) joined the conversation and mentioned that his father told him about a boy being kidnapped in another camp and advised them not to go there to play. He also heard that during the World Cup, large screens were installed in some places to watch matches. However, as it was at night, they refrained from attending. They played football solely within the camp, dividing themselves into two teams named ‘Brazil’ and ‘Argentina.’ Ahmed added that they lack sports shoes, goalposts, or a proper field to play on. They only have a football and a few jerseys representing Brazil and Argentina. Despite these limitations, they enjoy their sporting activities.

After concluding the focus group discussion and as I was readying to leave the camp, an adolescent named Arman accompanied me to the gate. There I noticed someone crying in a nearby room. I learned that a 23-year-old youth had died as a victim of the Rohingya arms conflict the previous night and the dead body had been brought from the local security office. Although I expressed surprise, Arman seemed indifferent to this incident. When I asked Arman if such occurrences are common in the camp and why he isn’t afraid of the murder of a youth, he stated, “One who has lost his home in the riverine might have no feelings about losing a few bricks.”

On my way back to Dhaka, I couldn’t stop thinking about Arman’s quote. The next morning, when I opened the newspaper in Dhaka, reports mentioned that the control of the camp and the prevalence of drug trade created several armed groups contributing to the arms conflict, According to a report of The Daily star in June 2023, at least 48 Rohingyas, including 16 Majhis, 11 ARSA members, and a volunteer, were killed in clashes or gunfights in the last six months. Due to the involvement of many armed groups, the security crisis has heightened fear and anxiety among the adolescents. On the other hand, a recent research revealed that xenophobia against the Rohingya community within the host community has increased.

When the largest group of Rohingya adolescents came to Bangladesh, there was a significant number of orphaned children who had lost their parents in the Rohingya genocide committed by Myanmar. These orphaned children have now grown into adolescents. Their lives, along with those of other adolescents, are filled with challenges such as the lack of opportunities for play, entertainment, hope, mental health issues, and social and economic insecurity. While some adolescents still hold onto hope, there’s a visible glimmer in the sky of their dreams. Today’s Rohingya adolescents will become the leaders of the community tomorrow. There is an urgent need to take special care of their hopes, dreams, health, social, and economic security.

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