On July 29, the Voice of America launched one of world’s most unique international broadcast language services: Rohingya. That service now reaches hundreds of thousands of displaced peoples in Bangladesh who for years have fled severe anti-Muslim persecution in neighboring Myanmar, or Burma.
The five day a week half-hour program, Lifeline, is broadcast via radio on medium wave and shortwave frequencies to more than 800,000 Rohingyas in the packed Kutupalong and Cox Bazar refugee camps in eastern Bangladesh near the Burmese border. It’s a unique brand new public diplomacy venture.
According to a VOA press release, the program focuses on the lives and needs of the refugees, providing vital information on security, family reunification, food rations, available shelter, and education. It also describes available services such as vaccination information and simple water purification techniques.
A daily program segment also offers the Rohingya refugees the opportunity to share their stories, greet family members wherever they may live, and learn about the hazards of joining extremist groups. The program is designed, as well, to counter Muslim extremist narratives and recruitment efforts in the camps and tell the Rohingyas how America and the international community are helping.
Learning English may, for example, be a vital way for the refugees to find and qualify for jobs to enable them to settle elsewhere after they leave the camps. I recall watching a VOA documentary a few months ago from one of the camps, Cox’s Bazar, and viewing tents and makeshift shelters as far as the eye could see crammed together over surrounding hills to distant horizons.
To prepare for inauguration of the Rohingya Service, a VOA Learning English team travelled to Cox’s Bazar last March at the invitation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The VOA instructors offered six days of intensive training on English teaching techniques for 100 selected residents in the camp. Those teachers, in turn, will use what they learned to train another 5,000 of their fellow residents in both the Cox’s Bazar and Kutupalong camps.
VOA Director Amanda Bennett recalled: “After visiting one of the refugee camps last year, it became obvious to me that we needed to address the informational needs of these people caught in the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world today.” (At last count, well more than a million Rohingya refugees have fled Burma over the past decade — perhaps even more). Their camps are overflowing, and continue to grow.
Their needs, Ms. Bennett told NPR’s David Greene, “include international news and information, but then we’ve hired contract Rohingya-speaking reporters and we’re going to be doing camp-based news and information as well. There are real big issues and rumors sweeping the camps, residents not knowing what is true and what to believe. We’re going to be interviewing people about the problems of their lives, the issues of their lives.”
“Providing them with a reliable and authoritative source of news,” Director Bennett added, “as well as practical information that will improve their lives, is what the Voice of America does well in various hotspots around the world.”
REFLECTING HEROISM IN ONE OF THOSE HOTSPOTS
As an example, there was a VOA report July 23 about young students in war-torn Syria who also tried to bring a sense of learning to a badly-damaged suburb of Damascus called Daraya, now recovering from Syria’s nearly decade long civil conflict.
VOA’s Nisan Ahmado reported about the effort, over several years, of a small group of young Syrian students who tried to bring normalcy to the civil war chaos by creating a secret library deep beneath a bullet-ridden building in Daraya.
For months, a British journalist named Mike Thomson, covered the students’ efforts and documented them in his book Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege. “They gathered these books under (Syrian government) sniper fire and sometimes under shell fire,” Thomson wrote. “They brought ladders with them to climb from windows. It was a dangerous exercise they often did during the night.”
For months, the students found and stowed more than 1,400 books, including some rescued from Daraya’s public library destroyed in a fire caused by shelling in 2013. “The secret library,” according to Thomson, “had become everything from a meeting place, tea room, education center and a book club, where everyone discussed a book they had read.”
The library grew to contain a wide collection of local and world literature, covering history, science, religion and culture and complete sets of encyclopedias. It included Shakespeare plays, books of Syrian poets like Adonis and Maram al-Masri and Agatha Christie’s translated works.
VOA reporter Ahmado dug deeper, and asked the British author why a group of Daraya’s besieged decided on re-creating a library in their besieged home town.
The siege on Daraya ended in August 2016 after the rebels made a deal with the Syrian government that allowed 700 fighters and 4,000 civilians in the city to evacuate with their families. They had to abandon the library, but why had they risked their lives to build it?
Author Thomson posed that question to Abdul Basit, a lead volunteer in creating the library and meeting place. “I asked: ‘You are living on a cup of watery soup every day. Why weren’t you out looking for food instead of books?” Abdul Basit’s response sums up the importance of knowledge to those denied it in the world today: “Like your body, the soul also needs food.”
What a tribute to journalists and authors, including international broadcasters, who around the clock hourly, create new proofs that the humanitarian reporting of a free press really matters!
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More