CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh - The first time I met Formin Akter, she wanted to talk about Helen Keller.
Formin was 18. She was sitting on a plastic stool in a bamboo shelter at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Like the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees around her, she and her family had fled a campaign of mass murder, rapes and arson in Myanmar the previous year.
But Formin wanted to talk about Keller, the deaf and blind American author she considered an inspiration. She wanted to talk about Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, another hero. She wanted to talk about her books ravaged in the burning of her house amid deadly violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state. She spoke of her dream of becoming a lawyer, and of inspiring other Rohingya girls deprived of education.
By then, I had spent nearly a year making reporting trips to the refugee camps, interviewing girls Formin’s age, many survivors of rape and sexual assault. Women and girls at the Rohingya camps are usually seen fanning cooking pots, cradling babies or tending to their family inside bamboo shelters. Most from the long-persecuted community who live at the camps are illiterate, and the few who did manage to study in Myanmar often only speak Burmese.
I had never met anyone like Formin. Between fits of shy giggles, sometimes burying her face inside her lap, Formin spoke with a burning passion about books and education. She was stateless and single-minded about the value of education. She had witnessed brutality in Myanmar, but she was determined to remain idealistic.
Reuters Myanmar Bureau Chief Antoni Slodkowski and I felt almost immediately upon meeting her that she had an important story to tell. It became a Special Report, published in December. (here)
And her story started to seem more and more remarkable as I learned more about her over the next few months. She came from one of the remotest villages in the poor Rakhine state. She was among a few Rohingya who had taught themselves English, she had counseled rape and sexual assault victims at the refugee camps and was among 25 girls selected to study at a university in Bangladesh.
Piecing together the rest of her story took effort. With help, I tracked down her uncle who had fled to Norway years ago as a refugee. In the sprawling camps, I found Formin’s teachers, including the one who first told her about Malala.
I learned that of the 150 girls who sat for the high school exam at Formin’s school in March 2017, she was among only four who passed. Nearly everyone who knew her growing up spoke of Formin’s determination and her talent for English. Math, they said, had been a challenge.
Friends and family also spoke of her equally bright and determined older sister, Nur Jahan. The girls had made a pact as kids to go to college together. But their family decided that Nur Jahan would be married instead.
When I interviewed Nur Jahan, her husband insisted on sitting next to her and her in-laws watched from behind a partition in the tent. I asked about Formin and their dream of going to college together, and Nur Jahan began to cry. Heavy rain lashed the tarp roof of the shelter as Nur Jahan wiped tears with an end of her scarf.
Over the months we talked, I saw Formin grow in confidence. At college, she wore jeans, lipstick, a scarf neatly secured with pins around her head, and walked toward me while waving around at multiple new friends she had made, among them refugees from Afghanistan who were teaching her Farsi, Formin said.
She was learning karate, guitar, and spoke of an Indian-American teacher she adored. “Her English is so good! I want to speak like her.”
But some things had not changed. At the library, she showed me her “favorite new book” - Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” - and spoke about the importance of education in Eyre’s life.
Shortly after the Reuters profile of Formin was published, Malala retweeted it with a link. Formin was thrilled. She remembered sitting in school back in Myanmar listening in rapt attention to her teacher who narrated Malala’s story. She could not imagine that Malala was now reading about her.
“I can’t explain how I feel,” she texted me. “U know I love her!”
Over the break between semesters, Formin said she planned to do some work translating for non-profit groups working in the refugee camps. Much of the money she had saved from a year of work had gone to Nur Jahan’s wedding, she said.
(The story corrects paragraph four to make clear the illiteracy is among refugees in the camps and ninth paragraph to make clear she was one of 150 girls in a single school rather than 500 students in all of Rakhine state.)
Editing by Lauren Young and Howard Goller