Climate Migration: Indian kids find hope in a new language


GMT 22 September 2022

BANGALORE, India (AP) — Eight-year-old Jerifah Islam can only remember the angry river, its water engulfing her family’s farmland, and the waves crashing against their home during the monsoon floods . Then one day in July 2019, the vast Brahmaputra swallowed everything.

Her home in Darang district of the Indian state of Assam was washed away. But the disaster set Jerifa and her brother Raju 12 down a path that eventually took them to a school nearly 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometers) from Bangalore, where people speak Kannada, the children’s native language, Bengali different language.

Those early days were tough. Courses in the public free school were taught in Kannada, and Raju could not understand a word.

But he persevered, arguing that just being in class was better than a few months in Assam, where flooded roads kept him out of school for months. “At first I didn’t understand what was going on, then as the teacher slowly explained it to me, I started to learn,” he said.


Editor’s Note: This story is part of an ongoing series exploring the lives of people around the world who have been forced to migrate due to rising seas, droughts, searing temperatures and other things caused or exacerbated by climate change.


The children were born in a low-lying village flanked by the Himalayas and rivers. Like many parts of northeastern India, heavy rains and naturally occurring floods are no strangers.

But their father, Jaidul Islam, 32, and mother Pinjira Khatun, 28, knew something had changed. Rainfall has become more erratic, and flash floods have become more frequent and unpredictable. They were the year that an estimated 2.6 million people in Assam were affected by the floods and they decided to move to Bangalore, a city of more than 8 million people known as India’s Silicon Valley.

No one in their family had ever been this far from home, but any lingering doubts were overwhelmed by dreams of a better life and a good education for their children. The couple speak a little Hindi – the most widely spoken language in India – and hope that will be enough to make a living in the city, knowing that nearby villagers have found jobs.

The two packed everything they could salvage into a large suitcase, hoping to one day fill up with new stuff. “We left the house with nothing. Some children’s clothes, mosquito nets and two towels. That’s all,” Islam said.

The suitcases are now full of school workbooks – and the parents, who have no formal education, say their focus in life is to ensure more opportunities for their children. “My kids don’t have the same problems as me,” the father said.


The family fled the low-lying Darang district, which has experienced heavy rainfall and natural flooding. But with climate change, rising temperatures have made the monsoon unstable, with most of the season’s rainfall falling within a few days, followed by a dry spell.This area is among the most vulnerable Climate change in India, according to a New Delhi think tank.

Floods and droughts often go hand in hand, said Anjar Prakash, research director at the Bharti Institute for Public Policy in India. He said the natural water systems in the Himalayas, on which people had relied for thousands of years, were now “broken”.

Full coverage: climate shift

The number of climate migrants in India has been growing over the past decade, Prakash said. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported this year that 143 million people around the world could be displaced by rising sea levels, drought and unbearable heat over the next 30 years.

India estimates it has about 139 million migrants, but it is unclear how many will have to move because of climate change. According to “2021 World Bank Report.

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

In the suburbs where Jerifa and her family now live, mostly from Assam, many have been forced to relocate due to climate change and dreams of a better future: there is 19-year-old security guard Shah Jahan, who wants to be a YouTube influencer . Cleaner Rasana Begum, 47, wants her two daughters to become nurses. Their homes were also washed away by floodwaters.

Both Pinjira and Jaidul found work with a contractor that provides housekeeping services for the offices of U.S. and Indian tech companies. Jaidul earns $240 a month and his wife about $200 — compared to $60 he earns from farming. Raju’s new private school costs a third of their income, and the family has nothing to save. But, for the first time in years, in their new home — a 10-foot-by-12-foot (3-meter-by-3.6-meter) room with a tin roof and sporadic electricity — they’re optimistic about the future.

“I love that I can work here. Back home, no women’s work. …I’m happy,” Pinjira said.

Youtube video thumbnail

(AP Video/Padmanabha Rao)

Currently, Raju dreams of getting good grades at his new school. He benefits from a year-long project run by the Samridhi Trust, a non-profit organisation that helps migrant children return to the education system by teaching them basic Kannada, English, Hindi and maths. Teachers test students every two months to help them transition to public free schools that teach in Kannada – or in some cases, English in Raju.

“My favourite subject is maths,” the 12-year-old said, adding that his favourite time of day is taking the bus to school. “I like to look out the window and see the city and all the big buildings.”

His sister, who hopes to become a lawyer one day, is learning Kannada faster than he and chatting happily with new classmates at a nearby public school, switching easily between native and adopted languages.

Their parents take turns working to make sure someone is home in an emergency. “They’re young and can get in trouble or get injured,” Caton said. “And we don’t know anyone here.”

Their anxiety isn’t the only one. Many parents worry about safety when sending their children to schools in unfamiliar communities, said Puja, who uses only one name and coordinates the Samridhi Trust’s after-school programs.

Children of the migrant population tend to drop out of school because the lessons are too difficult. But Raju thinks his school’s “discipline” is refreshing after chaotic life in a poor neighborhood.

His mother misses her family and talks to them on the phone. “Maybe I’ll go back when they’re on vacation,” she said.

Her husband doesn’t want to go back to Assam — where floods have killed nine people in their area this year — until the children are in higher grades. “Maybe in 2024 or 2025,” he said.

Every afternoon, my father waited patiently, scanning the streets for Raju’s yellow bus. Back home, the boy entertains him with stories from his new school. He said he now knows how to say “water” in Kannada, but none of his new classmates know what a “real flood” looks like.


Follow Aniruddha Ghosal on Twitter: @aniruddhg1


AP climate and environmental reporting is supported by several private foundations.View more about the Associated Press climate initiative here. The Associated Press is solely responsible for all content.

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