Submitted by: Gary Butterworth, Refugee Program Manager, Voice of America (VOA - a government-funded independent international broadcaster).
Email: [email protected]
Introduction to the project
Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh
The project started in March 2019.
This project is ongoing with plans to wrap up in January 2020. However, an extension is possible, and VOA is actively seeking UNHCR and NGO partners to replicate this same project in other refugee camps. Preliminary but concrete discussions are in progress for the first expansion site.
A Voice of America team visited the Rohingya camps to train English teacher-trainers who will train 5,000 of their colleagues.
Voice of America’s Learning English project in Bangladesh seeks to develop the English language skills of Rohingya refugees via the development of the English-teaching skills of local Bangladeshi and Rohingya instructors.
For many years, Voice of America has broadcast news programming in English and more than 40 local and regional languages. Additionally, VOA also broadcasts news content originally known as “Special English,” but now known as “Learning English.” These are news broadcasts in English with a limited vocabulary and read at a slower speed designed to inform listeners of world events while also improving their English-language skills. Such broadcasts continue but have recently been complemented by English language lessons at a variety of levels. To further foster English-language instruction, VOA has begun building custom curricula for a variety of partners and holding on-the-ground trainings. As migration issues have become a leading news story, we realized that camp-based refugees could benefit from our content. We went to Bangladesh to begin an original curriculum for Rohingya refugees.
Challenges and how they were overcome
Education and language are both sensitive issues in the refugee camps of south-eastern Bangladesh. Officials fear that too many educational opportunities can incentivize additional irregular migration. This is compounded by linguistic issues: Rohingya persons are sometimes hesitant to learn Burmese which can be seen as an oppressor language, while Bangladeshi authorities fear that competence in the Bengali language will disincentive the eventual return to Myanmar. When considered along with the limited opportunities available to monolingual Rohingya speakers, one realizes that language itself is a factor partially responsible for the current limbo of the Rohingya people.
How they were overcome:
We found that training for English language instructors avoided the sensitivities involving other languages and other sorts of trainings. As an international language, English didn’t have ties to either the sending or receiving countries involved in the Rohingya crisis. And as a viable skill for economic development that is not focused on a particular place, no one objected. In short, English is neutral. Once we gained UNHCR’s support for this initiative, it was relatively easy to implement.
Results of the Good Practice
Capacity building: VOA sought to develop the English-language skills of refugees by teaching those with English skills how to be better teach. We note that these trainers came from both the refugee and host population. English language skills, and English-language teaching skills, have improved.
How the project meets the GCR Objectives
Objective 1: Ease the pressures on host countries
VOA seeks to increase the teaching skills of individuals with a sound understanding of the English language, regardless of whether they come from the refugee or host community. In general, English skills in Bangladesh are stronger than those of the Rohingya people. As a result, the immediate benefit of this program are host-community trainees. We note that both Bangladeshi and Rohingya societies are traditionally male-dominated. VOA made a point to include female participate in our tranings.
Objective 2: Enhance refugee self-reliance
English-language skills provide an avenue for refugees to tell their own stories and advocate on their own behalf. English provides a direct route to reach the international community.
Objective 3: Expand access to third-country solutions
Though Voice of America operates in Bangladesh and Myanmar, it is a U.S.-based institution. Our interest in the development of the English language provides a medium by which to access Western and international organizations.
Objective 4: Support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity
The marginalization of the Rohingya people pre-dates the current refugee crisis and includes the curtailment of access to education. The education that VOA is providing will provide empowerment and dignity to the Rohingya people, which should prove invaluable if/when they return to Myanmar.
VOA’s Learning English team is planning a return visit to the Kutupalong camp complex in early 2020 to distribute diplomas to this first group of participants. We are exploring the possibility of continuing this program in Bangladesh, and we are in preliminary talks to export this same methodology to refugee camps in other parts of the world.