“I try to take their pain away through play”: A healing experiment in Rohingya refugee camps

Time to play.
Time to play.
Image: JennyAnderson
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Like all children, Rohingya kids love to play. Specifically, they love physical play—making human chains, leaping like frogs, and jumping over and around each other in “Iching Biching,” a game that looks like a variation of Simon Says. They also love rhymes. On a recent Thursday morning at the world’s largest refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in southern Bangladesh, a 10-year-old boy named Eshak* led a group of about 50 children in a rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” 

“We are not alone,” he sang boldly at the front of the room. The children repeated his words, imitating the gestures he had added to the song. Eshak said he’d learned the song back in Myanmar, before he had to flee when the government started to slaughter people in his family’s village.

The refugee camp where Eshak now lives is home to 902,984 Rohingya Muslims. It’s a community that has seen unimaginable trauma. Many of the children who live there have witnessed their parents, siblings, and neighbors being butchered or burned, and traveled for days to get to the camp, arriving hungry, tired, scared, and sometimes alone.

At a time where the world is considering how to stem the flow of migrants, Bangladesh, a poor country, opened its doors. There are now nearly one million Rohingya living in Bangladesh, a country of 165 million people packed into a space the size of New York state. The camps are an endless sea of one- and two-room tents crammed with families trying to eke out a living with little money and almost no space.

But things are different in the “play labs” where Eshak and his peers gather for a few hours every day during the week. The project, led by BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, and supported by a pair of foundations, aims to bring play to the poor and dislocated. The labs first started in Tanzania, Uganda, and Bangladesh, and have since expanded to 513; the model is now being adapted for humanitarian crisis settings. BRAC has 190 “humanitarian play labs” in Cox’s Bazar, and with a massive new infusion of cash, is planning to have 500 by March 2019. 

Visits to two play labs in the refugee camps in November suggest they offer a balm to children and their families—giving them a way to connect with other children, and a space where they can forget for a while about the cramped quarters they live in and the painful things they have seen. Part of the labs’ goal is to help children learn through play and prepare for school. But they also serve a simple, essential function in carving out time and space where Rohingya kids can find joy. 

“I try to take their pain away through play,” said Yasmin Akhter, 22, a “play leader” who is trained to work with the children and lead them through the play lab’s loose but well-deigned curriculum. 

Nine months ago, when the labs were being adapted for the camps, Akhter and other play leaders say the children had very different demeanors. ”They did not want to mix, they were not friendly,” said Rashida, a high-octane play leader who has worked in the camps for almost a year. “They could not share toys or play with each other.” 

Today? “I feel good here,” said Eshak, who walked for 15 days to find shelter one year and three months ago. For three hours, the kids are joyful and well-behaved. But they also get to spend time doing exactly what they want—a freedom of childhood not every child gets. 

Necessary play

No one is under the impression that a few hours of play a day can erase the trauma of what many Rohingya children have endured. In refugee camps, food, nutrition, and health take top priority. About 3% of all humanitarian funds go toward education, of which early learning and parenting support is a very small portion.

Still, many who work in the humanitarian sector recognize the importance of education in refugee settings. In 2001, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies was created to coordinate and consolidate how education was offered in emergency settings; in 2008, its first early childhood task force was created. UNICEF also runs child-friendly spaces in the camps, as do other NGOs.

But the play labs’ approach is distinct even among child services for refugees. Whereas a typical child-friendly space in a humanitarian setting would offer case management—tracking kids and making sure they have the food and immunizations they need—as well as child protection and recreation, play labs put recreation front and center. ”They look at it through the lens of protection; we look at it through the lens of play,” said Erum Mariam, director of BRAC’s Institute for Educational Development.

The scope of kids affected by the Rohingya refugee crisis goes far beyond the reach of the play labs. BRAC has 190 humanitarian play labs in the Rohingya camps. About 22,400 kids, or 13% of those under age 6 in the camps, have accessed them (UNHCR estimates that there are roughly 289,200 Rohingya refugees under 12).

But the camps have just received a big investment. On Dec. 5, the LEGO Foundation, which helped fund the original play labs, announced that it will invest $100 million in the nonprofit Sesame Workshop to promote learning through play for young children affected by the Rohingya and Syrian crises. Some of that will fund play labs: according to BRAC, within the next six months it will have 500 humanitarian play labs, reaching 35% of all Rohingya children aged 0-6 in the camps.

“The deliberate effort to invest in early stimulation in humanitarian responses is woefully inadequate right now,” sayid Sarah Bouchie, head of learning through play in early childhood at the LEGO Foundation.”We find little evidence that this is a priority for humanitarian actors.”

According to Mariam, all of play labs in the camps have three objectives: create a space that is safe, nurtures children’s natural spontaneity, and preserves the culture of the Rohingya. “At the heart of our humanitarian efforts is healing,” said Mariam—both for the kids and for their communities.

Inside the Rohingya play labs

The play labs model was created by architects and play scholars from around the world. Three years in the making, the idea is to offer children in poor communities—and now refugee settings—access to the kinds of activities that neuroscience shows helps to build young children’s brains.

Each play lab is culturally adapted. In the Rohingya camp, the entire curriculum has been reformatted. There is one play leader from the Bangladeshi host community, and one play leader who is Rohingya. As in mainstream play labs, humanitarian play lab staff are trained for six days in brain science, child development, and how to play and communicate with children. But they are also trained for an additional four days as “barefoot counselors,” learning about active listening, empathy, how to be non-judgmental, the tenets of confidentiality, and how to identify signs and symptoms of psychosocial issues in children. The idea is that barefoot counselors will act as a sort of first line of defense to support families in the camps and flag problems to para-counselors, who can offer more professional help.

The Rohingya play lab curriculum is also different from the typical model: songs have been converted to call-and-response rhymes, in keeping with Rohingya culture. Physical play has an enormous role in the curriculum, since Rohingya children “have a rich physical play, motor skills that are far more developed than typical Bangladeshi children,” according to Mariam.

The children’s day has a similar structure to what you’d find in any Western preschool: welcome time, rhyme time, then carefully managed transitions into physical play and free play, then goodbye time. Rashida started the day by chanting to the children, “Are you happy?” The kids responded loudly and enthusiastically that they were. They rhymed about an imaginary monster; Sabir performed “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” There was another group rhyme about a rabbit and a hen, followed by a song created by the charity Clowns Without Borders, about eating bananas. The energy level in the room was high.

Of course, many think traditional learning would be better. One mother, 40, asked a play leader: “Why do they only play? Why do you not teach?” The expectation that children be obedient feels far greater than the one that play is good. But unlike adults, who can perform for reporters, 50 kids cannot. They are unscripted. Their joy suggests something about the idea is working.

Building community in the camps

A key element of play labs is that they are not just for the benefit of children. They also help the young women—often between the ages of 18-25—who volunteer at the labs.

In the case of the Rohingya women, it is an odd twist of fate that the horrors that forced them to flee their villages for the camps have in some cases led them to more freedom. Says one woman: “In Myanmar, it was just the boys who were educated. But even being educated, they had no jobs. We have jobs here.”

Rohingya women, who would not typically work outside the home in Myanmar, say they enjoy helping out with the play labs. Morsida, 28, has three kids. She has volunteered at the labs since she arrived, for one year and two months. “Before i just stayed home and cooked,” she said. Now, she says, “I come in and play and it helps me too.”

BRAC has also had to adapt its play labs for the conservative Muslim culture of the Rohingya. For example, BRAC usually runs clubs for adolescent girls. But the girls in the camps would not come to the club because, once they get their period, they must stay home. So Rashida moved the club to their homes. Now the teen girls gather at one another’s homes and discuss everything from mental health to menstrual hygiene. One girl who was 15 and had two children was struggling to cope with all the responsibilities she faced; in the group, she could discuss these.

“They used to feel so shy as if I were a man,” said Rashinda. “They would not talk.” She invited the mothers to come so they would not be worried about what the girls heard. She told them, “I am like your older daughter, I can talk to them and I can make them feel better.”  Now the girls seem at ease. One even cracks a joke, a play on a word in Banladeshi and Rohingya. “Now they are happy and joking and they ask, ‘Why I can’t come all the time?'” Rashida says. 

In the play labs, the women gain a sense of community and are able to share their stories. One woman, 24, recalls that the military arrived in her village and asked who was married. Those who were not married were kidnapped and raped. Pregnant women were killed. ”They would cut the children up and make piles with the bodies,” she said. The military locked up the elderly and burned down their houses.

The woman has two children. She and her husband each carried a child for 15 days in order to get to the camps. “We are coping,” she said, adding that she would only go home if their rights as Rohingyas were accepted. Many speak of rape; indeed, a recent baby boom was the result of those who got pregnant from those rapes

Many volunteers note that their living spaces are cramped and have poor ventilation. The play lab, by contrast, has plenty of windows and is often filled with laughter. One volunteer says that in her former life, women were “trapped” at home. “Now we come out to work, it feels good, it feel different.”

“When we are here,” said Johora, “it is stress free.”

*All names except BRAC staff have been changed.