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Mad Scientist 2.0

Apr 14, 2020
India’s first woman Rohingya graduate: Name to nation, she accepted all changes to learn her lessons, earn her ‘freedom’
In December 2022, Tasmida became the first woman Rohingya graduate in India. Armed with a B.A. (P) degree through open university under Delhi University, Tasmida is now awaiting a confirmation letter from Wilfrid Laurier University, Toronto. She is likely to leave for Canada this August.

She had to change her name; her ‘home’; her age; her country — twice, with a third likely later this year; learn new languages; and assimilate into new cultures. All because of her circumstances.

And the two constants of life Tasmida Johar, 26 — a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar who fled to neighbouring Bangladesh Cox’s Bazar, which houses the world’s largest refugee camp to escape persecution in her country, and then on to India to pursue her dream of education — keeps closest to her heart are her family’s circumstances, and the belief that education is a one-way ticket to “freedom”.

In December 2022, Tasmida became the first woman Rohingya graduate in India. Armed with a B.A. (P) degree through open university under Delhi University, Tasmida is now awaiting a confirmation letter from Wilfrid Laurier University, Toronto. She is likely to leave for Canada this August.

“I am actually 24, but my UNHCR card says 26. In Myanmar, Rohingya parents usually increase our (girls’) age by two years so that we can be married off early. It’s tough to get married after 18,” said Tasmida, which, in fact, is not her birth name.

My name is Tasmeen Fatima. But you can’t have a Rohingya name to study in Myanmar; you need to have a Buddhist name, so I had to change mine,” she told The Indian Express.

“For people of Myanmar, the Rohingya simply shouldn’t exist. In school, there would be separate classrooms for us. In examination halls, we sit in the furthest benches. Up to class X, even if you top, your name would not appear in the merit list. If a Rohingya wants to go to college, then you have to travel to Yangon (the country’s former capital), so students seldom graduate.

But even if you do graduate, you wouldn’t get a job because we are not employed in government offices, which is the primary source of employment (in Myanmar).”

And, she added matter-of-factly, “you can’t vote”.

Rohingya girls, she said, drop out of school in Myanmar after class V for many reasons: “We weren’t allowed to wear a headscarf in school, or even on roads or public spaces. Within the community, educating girls beyond this (class V) would be frowned upon — people would say: what if your daughter is kidnapped, why is she going to school, how will she get married, why does she go out?”

Over the years, however, Tasmida said her parents were determined to get her educated — “because they knew this was the only way to escape our circumstances”.

Tasmida is the fifth of seven siblings, and the only daughter. Her elder brother is the only Rohingya postgraduate in India and works as a health liaison for the UNHCR in New Delhi and a translator for the community. The other siblings work as daily-wage earners with their father in Delhi.

Tasmida’s family fled Myanmar in 2005, when she was seven, after her father was picked up several times by the Myanmar police and sent to jail — the family lived in Cox’s Bazar. “My father did not get UNHCR cards made there — he always hopes the situation in Myanmar will improve and we will go home.”

While many Rohingya children were schooled within Kutupalong camp — said to be the world’s largest refugee camp — living outside it gave Tasmida the opportunity to enroll at a local school. “But they didn’t accept the education (up to class III) I had received in Myanmar. I had to restart from class I

She studied till class VI in Bangladesh. In 2012, the family fled once more — this time to India, and this time with no visible prospect of returning “home”. And this time they applied for, and received, their refugee cards. Initially, the Johars were sent to Haryana and lived in a refugee camp. In 2014, Tasmida came to Delhi with two of her brothers and stayed at a relative’s home and continued school. The others joined her soon after.

In 2016, she enrolled in class X at a school in Delhi’s Jamia, run by a non-profit.

Once more, Tasmida had to re-educate herself, learning a new language, a new culture. She is now fluent in Hindi, Bengali and Urdu, and has been taught English.

While she aspired to be a lawyer, “when I applied for graduation at Jamia, they said since I was a Rohingya, I would need permission from the Home Ministry”. Despite repeated attempts, she was unable to get it. So, Tasmida said, she did the next best thing — she studied political science, history and sociology through open school.

She received the DAFI fellowship for refugee women, granted by UNHCR in collaboration with the German government, to finish her studies in India.

Last year, Tasmida was one of 10 refugee students selected under a programme run jointly by UNHCR and the education app Duolingo to study abroad. The programme will aid 10 refugee students from India – seven Afghans and three Rohingya. Once she reaches Canada, Tasmida will have to re-school once more. “I will have to do my graduation again, but I don’t mind. All I want is to go abroad so our circumstances can improve,” she said.

Her story has been an inspiration in the Rohingya camp in Delhi. “After I got the DAFI scholarship, and now the Duolingo programme, Rohingya parents and children have realised how education can be a ticket to freedom. Woh sab bahut padhne lag gaye hai (they have all started studying hard),” she said.

Tasmida herself coaches several Rohingya girls. In the camp, she made sure that most women now at least know how to sign their name and tell their mobile phone numbers.

“After the earthquake in Turkey, I showed my mother the news and she was very moved,” Tasmida said. “She had two gold bangles when she came to India; they were kept for emergencies. She sold one bangle for surgery.”

Her mother, Amina Khatoon, 56, sold the second bangle for Rs 65,000. She bought dry fruits, sweaters, clothes and went to the Turkish embassy in New Delhi to deliver them for the quake victims.

My mother said who can understand better than us what displacement feels like,” Tasmida said. “When Turkish officials at the embassy heard that someone from Myanmar had come to contribute, they came out and greeted her personally. They wanted to talk to her but she doesn’t know Hindi or English. I told her that’s why education is important.”


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