Climate migration: Indian children find hope in a new language

BENGALURU, India – Eight-year-old Jerifa Islam remembers only that the river was angry, its waters gnawed on his family’s farmland, and waves lashed their home during rainy season floods. Then one day, in July of 2019, the mighty Brahmaputra River swallowed it all.

His home in the Darrang district in the Indian state of Assam was wiped out. But the calamity started Jerifa and her brother, Raju 12, on a path that eventually led them to schools nearly 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometers) away in Bengaluru, where people speak the Kannada language which is so different from the language. native of children, Bangla.

Those first days were difficult. Lessons in free state schools were taught in Kannada and Raju couldn’t understand a word of the instructions.

But he insisted, reasoning that just being in class was better than months in Assam when submerged streets kept him away from school for months. “Initially I didn’t understand what was going on, then with the teacher explaining things to me slowly, I started learning,” he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of an ongoing series that explores the lives of people around the world who have been forced to relocate due to rising seas, drought, scorching temperatures, and other things caused or exacerbated by climate change.

The children were born in a low-lying village flanked by the Himalayas and the river. Like many parts of northeastern India, it was no stranger to heavy rains and natural floods.

But their father, Jaidul Islam, 32, and mother Pinjira Khatun, 28, knew that something had changed. The rains had become more irregular, flash floods more frequent and unpredictable. They were among the approximately 2.6 million people in the state of Assam affected by the floods the year they decided to move to Bengaluru, a city of over 8 million people known as India’s Silicon Valley.

No one in their family had ever moved this far from home, but any lingering doubts were overcome by dreams of a better life and a good education for their children. The couple spoke some Hindi, the most widely used language in India, and hoped it would be enough to get by in the city, where they knew that neighboring villagers had found work.

The two put what little they could save into a large suitcase which they hoped to fill one day with new personal belongings. “We left the house with nothing. Some clothes for the children, a mosquito net and two towels. That’s it, ”said Islam.

The suitcase is now filling up with school notebooks and the parents, who have no formal education, have said that their life is centered on giving their children more opportunities. “My children will not have to face the same problems that I have,” said the father.

The family fled the lower Darrang district, which receives heavy rains and natural floods. But rising temperatures with climate change have made monsoons erratic, with most of the seasonal rainfall falling within days, followed by periods of drought. The district is among the most vulnerable to climate change in India, according to a New Delhi-based think tank.

Floods and droughts often occur simultaneously, said Anjal Prakash, director of research at India’s Bharti Institute of Public Policy. The natural water systems in the Himalayan region that people relied on for millennia are now “broken,” he said.

Over the past decade, Prakash said, the number of climate migrants in India has grown. And in the next 30 years, 143 million people around the world are likely to be uprooted by rising seas, drought and unbearable heat, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported this year.

India estimates it has around 139 million migrants, but it is unclear how many have had to relocate due to climate change. According to a 2021 World Bank report, by 2050 cities like Bangalore will become the favorite destination of the nearly 40 million people in South Asia forced from their homes by climate change.

“Especially if you have aspirations for your second generation, you have to move,” Prakash said.

In the suburban area where Jerifa and her family now live, most of the people are from the state of Assam, many are forced to migrate due to climate change and dream of a better future: there is Shah Jahan, 19, a security guard who wants to become a YouTube influencer. There’s Rasana Begum, a 47-year-old cleaning lady who hopes her two daughters will become nurses. Their homes were also swept away by the floods.

Pinjira and Jaidul both found work with a contractor who provides cleaning staff in the offices of American and Indian technology companies. Jaidul earns $ 240 a month and his wife about $ 200, compared to the $ 60 he had earned from farming. Raju’s new private tuition costs a third of their income and the family spares nothing. But, for the first time in years, in their new home – a 3m by 3.6m room with a tin roof and sporadic electricity – they feel optimistic about the future.

“I love being able to work here. At home, there was no work for women. … I’m happy, “Pinjira said.

For now, Raju dreams of doing well in his new school. He benefited from a year-long program run by Samridhi Trust, a non-profit organization that helps migrant children return to the education system by teaching them basic Kannada, English, Hindi and math. Teachers test students every two months to help them transition to free state-run schools that teach in kannada or, in some cases, like Raju’s, in English.

“My favorite subject is math,” the 12-year-old said, adding that his favorite time of day was the bus ride to school. “I love looking out the window and seeing the city and all the big buildings.”

His sister, who wants to become a lawyer someday, has learned Kannada faster than him and happily chats with new classmates at his nearby government school, easily switching between her native and adopted languages.

Their parents work in alternating shifts to make sure someone is home in an emergency. “They are young and can get in trouble or get hurt,” Khatun said. “And we don’t know anyone here.”

Their anxiety is not unique. Many parents worry about safety when they send their children to schools in unfamiliar neighborhoods, said Puja, who uses a single name and coordinates the Samridhi Trust’s after-school program.

Children of migrants often tend to drop out of school, finding classes too difficult. But Raju considers her school’s “discipline” refreshing after the chaotic life in a poor neighborhood.

Her mother misses her family and talks to them on the phone. “Maybe I’ll come back during the holidays,” she said.

Her husband does not want to return to Assam – where floods killed nine people in their district this year – until the children have a higher grade. “Maybe in 2024 or 2025,” she said.

Each afternoon, the father waits patiently, scanning the street for Raju’s yellow bus. When he’s home, the boy entertains him with stories about his new school. He says he now knows how to say “water” in kannada, but that none of his new classmates know what a “real deluge” looks like.

Follow Aniruddha Ghosal on Twitter: @ anirudddhg1

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