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Bangladesh's forgotten students: The Biharis struggle

They live in an impoverished slum, but they dream of bringing education to half a million.

DHAKA, Bangladesh — The slum in northern Dhaka is only slightly larger than an acre, but the tin-and-concrete homes packed inside its borders hold upwards of 25,000 inhabitants. The neighborhood, known as “Geneva Camp,” is crowded and undeveloped; families of ten people typically live together in single rooms, there is only one latrine for every ninety families and no more than 5 percent of the population has a formal education.

What sets this slum apart from others in Dhaka, however, is not the sheer density of its population or the inhumanity of its living conditions — but rather the fact that its inhabitants are Bihari, an ethnic identification that puts them in a minority comprising less than 1 percent of Bangladesh’s population.

The Biharis are descendents of Muslim refugees who fled from India in 1947 to escape religious violence. They speak Urdu, making them clear outsiders in a population in which 98 percent of people are ethnic Bengali and speak Bangla.

During Bangladesh’s war for independence from Pakistan in 1971, factions of Biharis continued supporting Pakistan, causing a conflict that escalated into a bloodbath which created enmity between the two groups that has lasted for decades.

After the war, thousands of Biharis were willingly deported to Pakistan. The 300,000 who remained in Bangladesh moved into refugee camps set up by the International Red Cross, awaiting flights to Pakistan that never came because of diplomatic wrangling. Today — 40 years later —  the stranded Biharis and their descendents are still living in these camps.

A stateless and forgotten people, they are the subjects of widespread discrimination. Forbidden to hold passports or even enroll in most schools, the Biharis count themselves among the poorest and most marginalized in all of Bangladesh.

Geneva Camp is the largest of these Bihari slums. It is here that childhood friends Rashed Ahmed, Noor Hossain and Sajid Hossain have grown up, managing not only to earn an education for themselves but also to launch an impressive effort to bring education to other children within the camp.