Thu Zar Moe, 12, lives with her father and four siblings at Thea Chaung displacement camp, near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. In 2012, her family fled their home in Ahnauk San Pya village.
They left behind a successful business and ended up dependent on food aid from the World Food Programme (WFP). Thu Zar was one of the brightest girls in her class, but she could no longer go to school. Without access to health care, her mother passed away.
Thu Zar sits with her father, Hla Kyaw, on the porch of their small house, built with wood, bamboo and part of an old tent from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. It is one of many such homes, tightly packed together. It’s raining, and the ground between the houses is wet and muddy.
“I preferred living in the village,” Thu Zar says. “We lived close to school, and I could go every day. My father owned a mechanic workshop and made a good living. My mother was still alive. Our life was much better then.”
“I still do some mechanic work here,” her father adds. “I earn 3,000 to 4,000 Kyats a day [US $2 to $3]. But it’s not enough to live on or pay for health care. We get handouts of rice, beans and oil from WFP. We’re safe here, but we cannot travel beyond the market. I don’t think we will ever be able to go back home.”
Luckily for Thu Zar, there is a way for her to continue her studies. She attends non-formal primary education at a temporary learning centre in the camp, supported by UNICEF and run by the Lutherian World Federation.
Despite the heavy rain falling outside, the children concentrate on their studies. Girls sit on one side of the classroom and boys on the other. A teacher writes Myanmar language on a blackboard, and Thu Zar and the other girls read it out: “The man is building a hut. He wants a string to tie. Please watch out for leeches,” they chant, raising their voices above the hammering of rain on the roof.
There are 115 children living in the camp who study at the learning centre. Last year, the top students got a chance to go to a new government-run middle school near the camp. Thu Zar’s teacher says that she is also likely to go.
“She learns very well,” he says. “I’ve seen her improve since coming here. She can already speak Rakhine in addition to her mother tongue, and is now learning Myanmar and English.”
Thu Zar rarely misses an opportunity to learn. “I go to the learning centre in the morning, and in the afternoon I read my books and help with the housework,” she says. “I like learning languages. If I can speak and write English well, it will be very useful in life.”
Although she has ambitions for her future, Thu Zar also assumes that she will still be living in the camp.
“When I grow up I would like to work for WFP, because they give food to other people,” she says.
Back to school
In a village not far from the camp, 11-year-old Hlaing Hlaing Oo’s family struggles with poverty. Conditions in their community are poor, and many children and families have some of their basic needs unmet, with limited opportunities to earn a living.