India’s first woman Rohingya graduate who changed her name, nation & age to earn her ‘freedom’text_fields
Tasmida Johar, a 24-year-old Rohingya refugee from Myanmar who fled to India in 2012, has become the first woman from her community to graduate from a university in India.
Johar who strongly believed that education is a one-way ticket to “freedom”, changed her name, her age and her country twice, with a third likely later this year, learned new languages and assimilated into new cultures because of her circumstances- all this for wanting to get educated.
Johar fled to Cox’s Bazar in neighbouring Bangladesh, which houses the world’s largest refugee camp, to escape persecution in her country. From there, she reached India to pursue her dream of education.
Despite facing financial difficulties and limited resources, Rahima was determined to pursue higher education.
‘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 Johar.
Johar, 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, as quoted by The Indian Express.
‘For the 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’, she said.
‘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)’, Johar said adding that ‘you can’t vote.
Rohingya girls 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?” she said.
Johar said her parents were however determined to get her educated because they knew it was the only way to escape their circumstances.
Johar 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.
Johar’s family fled Myanmar in 2005, when she was seven after her father was sent to jail several times by the Myanmar police.
‘My father did not get UNHCR cards made there, he always hopes the situation in Myanmar will improve and we will go home’, Johar said.
Many Rohingya children were schooled within Kutupalong camp which is said to be the world’s largest refugee camp. But living outside it, gave Johar 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 said.
She studied till class VI in Bangladesh. In 2012, the family fled once more this time to India, 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, Johar came to Delhi with two of her brothers and stayed at a relative’s home and continued school. The others joined her soon after.
Once more, Johar had to re-educate herself, learning a new language and a new culture. She is now fluent in Hindi, Bengali and Urdu, and has been taught English.
Johar aspires 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, 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, Johar was one of 10 refugee students selected under a program run jointly by UNHCR and the education app Duolingo to study abroad. The program will aid 10 refugee students from India – seven Afghans and three Rohingya.
Once she reaches Canada, Johar 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 program, 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.
Johar 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,’ Johar 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,' Johar 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, ‘she added.
Johar's achievement is significant for the Rohingya community in India, who face numerous challenges due to their stateless status.
Rohingyas are not recognized as refugees in India and are not entitled to basic rights such as education, healthcare, and employment.
Despite these obstacles, Johar’s graduation has given hope to other Rohingyas who aspire to pursue education and improve their lives.