The elite Stowe School has taken a group of sixth-form students to visit Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh on a trip it hopes will make them more aware of their privilege.
“We wanted to take the children outside of their comfort zones,” says Jan de Gale, the teacher from Stowe behind the trip, “to open their eyes and develop their sense of social conscience.”
Twelve pupils from the school, all aged between 15 and 17, spent two days with children’s charity UNICEF, visiting learning centres and child-friendly spaces.
“The point was not to make them feel guilty but to offer perspective,” said Dr Fitz Smith, an English teacher, also leading the trip, “and to look at the privileges we have, not just as people from a first world country, but also a public school.”
Situated in in southern Bangladesh, the camps are home to 700,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority who have fled persecution from Rakhine state in neighbouring Burma.
Around half of the population of the underfunded and overcrowded camps are children, with around 50 per cent of those who fled without their parents having been orphaned by the conflict.
The majority have no access to education, as both Burma and Bangladesh have refused permission for their curriculum to be used in the camps, with Dhaka wary of lending any sense of permanence to the refugee population.
Learning centres run by UNICEF and other aid organisations fill the gap as much as possible. In bamboo structures dotted throughout the camps, volunteers teach basic lessons.
Their experience couldn’t be further from life at Stowe, one of the UK’s most prestigious public schools, where pupils pay up to £12,200 a term to receive an elite education in an 18th century mansion. Most expect to go on to study in top universities.
Visiting the camps “made me feel very lucky,” said 17-year old Hermione, who said she was was particularly moved by meeting teenage Rohingya girls just a few years younger than herself.
Young women and girls in the camps are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, with widespread reports of early marriage and human trafficking. Many are left to support younger siblings – “something I don’t have to do,” noted Hermione.
“As girls we can walk around by ourselves. We don’t have just one room or space to go to get away and feel safe. Wherever we are at Stowe is a child-friendly space.”
Mrs de Gale described the camp’s “child friendly spaces” as a “haven.”
“The spaces were so colourful and airy,” she said. “We were expecting doom and gloom and were surprised by how happy and positive the children were: they were inspirational.”
For the Stowe pupils the experience has been “sobering”. Hearing the stories of what the Rohingya children have been through left the pupils shocked. “I can’t even imagine,” said Amelia, 17, “and somehow they’re all still smiling.”