Climate migration: India’s children find hope in a new language

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Eight-year-old Jerifa Islam only remembers the river raging, its waters washing away her family’s farmland and the waves washing over their home during rainy season floods. Then one day in July 2019, the mighty Brahmaputra river swallowed it all.

Her home in the Darrang district of the Indian state of Assam was washed away. But an accident set Jerifa and her brother Raju, 12, on a path that eventually took them to schools nearly 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometers) away in Bengaluruwhere people speak a Kannada language that is so different from a child’s native Bangla.

Those first days were hard. The free government school classes were held in Canada and Raju could not understand a word of the instructions.

But he persisted, claiming that just being in class was better than the months in Assam, when he was kept out of school for months due to sunken roads. “At first I didn’t understand what was going on, but then I started learning as the teacher slowly explained things to me,” he said.

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

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The children were born in a low-lying village surrounded by the Himalayas and a river. As in many parts of Northeast India, heavy rains and natural floods were no stranger here.

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

No one in their family had ever moved so far from home, but any lingering doubts outweighed the dreams of a better life and a good education for their children. The couple talked for a bit Hindi – the most widely spoken language in India – and they hoped this would be enough to survive in a town where they knew nearby villagers had found work.

They both packed what little they could salvage into a large suitcase that they hoped to one day fill with new things. “We left home without everything. Some clothes for the children, a mosquito net and two towels. That was it,” Islam said.

The suitcase is now filled with school notebooks – and the parents, who have no formal education, say their lives are focused on giving their children more opportunities. “My children will not face the problems I faced,” said the father.

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The family fled from the low-lying district of Darrang, which has been experiencing heavy rainfall and natural floods. But rising temperatures with climate change have made monsoons erratic, with most of the seasonal rainfall falling in days, followed by dry spells. According to a New Delhi-based thinktank, the district is among the most vulnerable to climate change in India.

Floods and droughts often happen at the same time, said Anjal Prakash, research director at India’s Bharti Institute for Public Policy. Natural water systems in the Himalayan region that people have relied on for millennia are now “broken”, he said.

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

India estimates that it has about 139 million migrants, but it is not clear how many have had to relocate due to climate change. By 2050, cities like Bengaluru are expected to become a popular destination for nearly 40 million people in South Asia forced to flee their homes due to climate change, according to a 2021 World Bank report.

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

In the suburbs where Jerifa and her family now live, most people are from the state of Assam, many forced to move due to climate change and dreaming of a better future: Shah Jahan, 19, is a security guard who wants to become a YouTube influencer. Here is Rasana Begum, a 47-year-old cleaner who hopes her two daughters will become nurses. Their homes were also washed away by the floods.

Pinjira and Jaidul found work with a contractor that provides housekeeping staff for US offices and Indian technology companies. Jaidul earns $240 a month and his wife about $200 – compared to the $60 he earned from farming. Raju’s new private school fees cost a third of their income, leaving the family with nothing to save. But for the first time in years, in their new home – a 10-by-12-foot (3 meters by 3.6 meters) room with a tin roof and intermittent electricity – they feel optimistic about the future.

“I love being able to work here. There was no work for women at home. … I am happy,” Pinjira said.

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

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

His sister, who wants to become a lawyer one day, picked up Canadian faster than he did and chats happily with her new classmates at a nearby public school, switching easily between her native and adopted languages.

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

Their anxiety is not unique. Many parents worry about safety when sending their children to schools in unfamiliar neighborhoods, said Puja, who uses only one name and coordinates the after-school program of the Samridhi Trust.

Migrant children often drop out of school because they find the lessons too difficult. But Raju finds the “discipline” of his school refreshing after the chaotic life in the slum.

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

Her husband doesn’t want to return to Assam – where floods have killed nine people in their district this year – until the children are in high school. “Maybe in 2024 or 2025,” he said.

Every afternoon, Dad waits patiently, looking for Raju’s yellow bus on the street. When he is home, the boy regales him with stories about his new school. He says he now knows how to say “water” in Canadian, but none of his new classmates know what a “real flood” looks like.

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Follow Aniruddha Ghosal on Twitter: @aniruddhg1

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

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