When I Grow Up: Reflections from Amnesty’s Youth Activists

Approximately 500,000 children (those under the age of 18 years) do not have access to education within the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. These children make up more than 50 percent of the Rohingya refugees. In June 2019, Amnesty International organized the “When I Grow Up” art camp with 160 Rohingya children from the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. This was themed around their aspirations for the future and what careers they wished to pursue. The children’s works of art were then produced in a book and an exhibition in Dhaka, which brought together the Government of Bangladesh, donor agencies, representatives of the foreign missions in Bangladesh and the UN agencies. The art camp and the subsequent exhibition – both titled “When I Grow Up” – were the start to an ongoing campaign aimed at encouraging access to education for Rohingya children.

Over the course of Refugee Week (starting June 15, 2020) and leading up to World Refugee Day on June 20, you can check out the artwork made by the children on Amnesty International Canada’s Instagram page. Follow along every day this week as we post the stories shared from the art camp.

Reflecting on this project, youth volunteers and members of AIC(ES)’s National Youth Action and Advisory Committee have shared how they connect to the individual pieces of art created by some of the children during the camp. Here are their thoughts:

Currently, there are over 3.8 billion people who lack access to healthcare. Health care is a ‘basic human right, as essential as food and shelter’. One’s health and wellbeing are fundamental indicators of their quality of life. The reasons why these rights are withheld from the many are great. An absence of affordable and accessible education for health professionals in areas that need them most create both a lack of health care providers and care prices accessible to few. Despite this, the dreams of boys and girls, very much like Mohammad, to push back against the system and to become doctors or nurses keep the candle burning.  It is their dreams of a better future for themselves and their communities that bring light to the darkness.

Noble and caring, doctors have played a significant role in both my life and the lives of my loved ones. They have helped us when we were ill and healed us when we were hurt. They have always acted as important supports in our lives. Looking back now, I realize that healing is not an easy profession. It can be a prickly path. It is not what it is far too often fantasized to be. It is not simply handing out prescriptions, observing symptoms, or giving IVs. It is far more than that. It is the long nights, the desperate hope for the sun to rise the next day for all under your care, and the moments of grief over loss. It is the future contributions of doctors that must be recognized- the hopes and dreams of those, like Mohammad, who are willing to take the step to dedicate themselves to this profession.  Doctors will become ever-more important in society, given the unprecedented growth in world population and the continual cuts in governmental education and healthcare budgets. The world needs doctors. It needs more people like Mohammed who will meet that desperate demand.  – Aidan Sander

Fashion: an expression of individuality. Deemed superficial and unimportant by many in our society, personal fashion gives every passing stranger a glimpse into your multifaceted life. Due to the western centralization of trends and fast-fashion, it has become rare to find originality and true passion for the fundamentals of fashion: originality, expression, and change. The fashion and trends of an era defines it, allowing it to make its mark in the history of our humanity. However, the legacy must be created by one brave soul like Nur who dares to pursue their often downplayed dreams. It takes one child who is bold enough to entirely express themselves in their work- creating permanent change in their society. 

As a girl who grew up putting on fashion shows for her family with clothes designed from old t-shirts and towels, fashion holds a special place in my heart. Being extremely shy in my early years, clothing gave me an outlet to put my personality on display. Constantly making new clothes designed uniquely for my loved ones, I was able to display my affection and understanding for those around me. Having grown up, I still find myself feeling the most confident in clothing that represents me, rather than feeling the pressure to succumb to norms. My heart goes out to Nur, and every child who aims to revolutionize their community in their own, innovative way. These are often the same children who are told to be more practical, resulting in complete suppression of the creative drive that every society needs. Being a tailor- on a big or small scale- is a highly overlooked profession. It is the product of this profession that allows every individual to display themselves as they please. Without children like Nur, being brave enough to act upon the need for change, our society would never progress. – Anjali Choudhary 

Ayatullah’s story really spoke to me. I cannot imagine the pain of losing parents or siblings, and I am very fortunate to have both of my parents still alive today as well as my sister. I admire Ayatullah for his passion and commitment. What strikes me about Ayatullah’s story is that he wants to be a weatherman because he does not want anyone to go through what he has gone through. When I was younger, I got diagnosed with PTSD before I was 7 years old and struggled with it throughout the majority of my childhood. Effects still come through today and make up the person that I am. When I was going through the diagnosis process and seeking help, I had one therapist who really helped me and made sure that I did not get pushed through and lost in the system. Her name was Stacey.

Even though I have successfully blocked out many years of my childhood as a result of my PTSD, I did not forget. I will never forget or discredit the impact that Stacey had and continues to have on my life to this day, even though I have stopped treatment over 10 years ago. Many of the specialists and therapists I saw as a child worried that I would not be able to leave home, form healthy relationships, or be able to stand out on my own one day. However, here I am. Stacey believed in me and worked tirelessly with me to ensure that I had a prosperous future ahead of me because she believed in me.

As a result of this, throughout high school, when I was trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew that I wanted to do something to help young people, like young Cassandra. I knew that I could have ended up a very different person who was not afforded the skills to be able to be out on my own, forming healthy relationships, and being able to cope with post-PTSD side effects and chain reactions. I always felt supported and empowered as a result of Stacey’s guidance, kindness, and skills. Therefore, I decided I wanted to get into social work in order to be there for people like my younger self. Now, I am in my fourth year of Honours Professional Social Work with a minor in Human Rights and Equity Studies. Like Ayatullah, I want to help others, not in weather, but to ensure that they feel supported and empowered throughout their journey. Thank you for sharing your story, Ayatullah. – Cass DeFreitas

Freedom of movement is a universal human right that I believe that Yeasir represents through his drawing and quotation of wanting to fly over to Malaysia in order to be reunited with his father. My heart goes out to the many children around the world who are limited in their ability to be able to travel and be with loved ones, and my emotions of frustration are inevitable when thinking about the fact that humanitarian crises often result in family separation in the first place. Conflict has the ability to force people to flee their countries of origin and make it so that it is very difficult to return, thus making it even more difficult to reunite as a family if separated in different countries. When one is relocated to another country, mobility becomes extremely limited in such a way that it impedes on the agency of individuals. When my mother was a child, the Lebanese Civil War resulted in her and her relatives becoming displaced to different places around the world. Much like how Yeasir’s father is in Malaysia while he is in Bangladesh, my mother was in Canada while some of her loved ones were in Germany or Lebanon. Oftentimes, financial and safety restraints make it inaccessible for refugees to have freedom to get outside of their current circumstances. Being so young, I can only imagine how much Yaesir yearns to be able to visit his father in a place he might imagine to better than where he is now.

Yeasir’s picture and message remind me of how much I have taken mobility and family in general for granted. I know how much it meant for me growing up being able to travel every summer to visit my relatives in Ottawa, and I cannot imagine it being any different. This past summer, my mother was reunited with her uncle for the first time in close to 40 years. It was a beautiful moment to experience, and I wish that for everyone. I want to be a part of a movement that fights for a future where children do not have to live in conditions where they are forcibly separated from their family members and unable to have the right to move around. I want a future where children like Yeasir do not have to draw themselves on a plane, but instead, just exist in a way that feels right and have all human rights honoured. – Fatima Beydoun

Ullah, a 10 year old boy from Burma, has a dream of becoming a driver in the future. Ulah took four days to get to Bangladesh from Burma, and he now lives in Lambasia in Kutupalong Camp. I lived in three different countries myself, I know how hard it is to move to a different environment. Reflecting my own experiences, I cannot imagine how hard it was for him to go through such a hard time at his age. But I believe that his dream of becoming a driver can be a support for him to go through hardships. One of the things that helped me get through tough times was the motivation I get from my goal or a dream. When you have a goal or a dream to aspire to, you feel motivated to overcome challenges that you are facing and to step forward. It is not easy to take a step toward dreams sometimes, especially in some places around the world. Here in Canada, children have access to education and there are many opportunities for them to explore and pursue their goal or dream. But, in some places, children do not have access to an adequate education nor get opportunity to pursue their goal. As he grows up into a young adult and to adult, I think the societies’ norm, expectations, role, and social institutions will have a huge impact on his life.

I was 15 years old when I came to Canada, and this transition had a positive impact on my life, by giving me an opportunity to have access to high quality education and life as well as it broadened my opportunity for future careers. I think this is because Canada has well developed social institutions of government and education that ensures everyone has access to a certain quality of life. But in some places like Burma or Bangladesh, I believe that children’s opportunity and access to resources are limited by society. For Ulah, he will need to get a licence to be a driver. Drivers licence is fairly accessible and easy to get in Canada, but it could be much harder for him. Education provides not only the academic bases such as the ability to read and write, but also to teach a variety of skills to grow up as a person and to survive. I believe those skills both academic and social are essential to not only raise one’s life quality, but to start making changes and to improve life for the future generations. Through learning about Ulah and living children around the world, I could learn how precious the environment and opportunities are that I have. I hope Ulah and other children from Burma will be able to get a better opportunity to have quality life and opportunity for their future, and children who do not have education will be reduced. – Azumi Koga

As each year passes, global migration continues to increase at rates that outpace the growth of the world’s population itself. This migration takes many forms including international immigration and forced displacement, but the commonality among them typically involves leaving a place that is home in an effort to build a new one. When I was very young my parents immigrated to Canada from Pakistan. Although it’s been about 16 years since I’ve been back, and I can happily say Canada is “where I am from”, I still consider Pakistan home – it’s a place that resonates deeply in terms of family, culture, language, etc. This is why I was very touched when I read Sabuku’s quote, because for me I recognized a yearning to return to a place that is irreversibly a profound part of who you are. 

Of course my experience and Sabuku’s are extremely different. I cannot begin to imagine the experience of an eight year old caught in the Rohingya crisis, trying to navigate life in a new environment after seeking refuge. Unfortunately the reality is that there are thousands of children like Sabuku currently in Bangladesh, and they are most susceptible to the risks and challenges associated with forced migration. I only hope that the Bangladeshi government will ensure that these children receive the education and social services that they need in order to have the health and standard of living that all human beings are entitled to. – Maha Asad

Right now, there are 131 million girls who are out of school. There are many reasons why so many girls are out of school – lack of safety to travel to and from school, devaluation based on harmful gender norms, lack of access to menstrual hygiene products or lack of access to affordable education. All these factors trap millions of young girls in the cycle of poverty and keeps generation after generation of girls out of school. But all it takes is one girl with a dream to break that cycle – one girl like Bristy. One girl who not only dares to dream of a better future for herself, but for the futures of all students to come. 

Growing up, teachers had a profound impact on me. Everything from how I learned to handle successes and failures, to developing a strong sense of self-esteem, to learning to believe in myself – some of my teachers have been instrumental in not only my academic growth, but my personal growth as well. Having grown up, I now realize how difficult teaching really is. It is more than just following a curriculum or grading papers – it is about providing meaningful support to each of your students day after day, year after year. It takes people with a special kind of heart to be a teacher, because it is not an easy job. 

We owe it to all the young people of the world, including Bristy, to recognize the power of teachers and aspiring teachers around the world. Right now, we live in an era of rampant education cuts and constraints – cuts to funding, cuts to free or accessible public school, cuts to accommodation and aides for neurodiverse children, rising tuition and student debt, and demonization of teachers in mainstream political discourse. Current and future teachers like Bristy have the power to make a positive impact on hundreds, thousands, even millions of children to break cycles of abuse and poverty. – Roshni Khemraj (Bristy, Age 12)

Don’t forget to follow our Instagram page to see the rest of the art work created by Rohingya children who participated in the art camp. For more ways to engage, Take Action for World Refugee Day.