By ANIRUDDHA GHOSAL, AP Science Writer
BENGALURU, India (AP) — Eight-year-old Jerifa Islam only remembers the river running wild, its waters eating away at her family’s farmland and waves pounding their home during rainy season floods. Then one day in July 2019, the mighty Brahmaputra River engulfed everything.
His home in Darrang district in the Indian state of Assam was swept away. But calamity set Jerifa and her brother, Raju 12, on a path that eventually led them to schools nearly 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometers) from Bangalore, where people speak the Kannada language which is so different from the native bangla children.
Those first days were tough. Lessons in free public schools were taught in Kannada, and Raju could not understand a word of the instruction.
But he persisted, believing that just being in class was worth more than the months spent in Assam when submerged roads kept him away from school for months. “At first I didn’t understand what was going on, then with the teacher slowly explaining things to me, I started to learn,” he says.
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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 move due to rising seas, drought, scorching temperatures and more. 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 northeast India, it was no stranger to heavy rains and natural flooding.
But their father, Jaidul Islam, 32, and mother Pinjira Khatun, 28, knew something had changed. The rains had become more erratic, the flash floods more frequent and unpredictable. They were among an estimated 2.6 million people in Assam state affected by floods the year they decided to move to Bengaluru, a city of more than 8 million people known as Silicon Valley in India.
No one in their family had ever moved so far from home, but the lingering doubts were outweighed by dreams of a better life and a good education for their children. The couple spoke a little Hindi – the most widely spoken language in India – and hoped that would be enough to get by in the town, where they knew nearby villagers had found work.
The pair packed what little they could salvage into a large suitcase that they hoped to one day fill with new belongings. “We left home with nothing. Some clothes for the children, a mosquito net and two towels. That was it,” Islam said.
The suitcase is now full of school exercise books – and the parents, who have no formal education, said their lives were centered around making sure their children had more opportunities. “My children will not face the same problems as me,” the father said.
The family fled the lower district of Darrang, which is experiencing heavy rains and natural flooding. But rising temperatures with climate change have made the monsoons erratic, with most of the season’s rainfall falling in days, followed by dry spells. The district is one of 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, research director at India’s Bharti Institute of Public Policy. The natural water supply systems in the Himalayan region that people have relied on for millennia are now “broken”, he said.
Over the past decade, Prakash said, the number of climate migrants in India has increased. And over the next 30 years, 143 million people worldwide are likely to be uprooted by rising seas, drought and unbearable heat, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported this year.
India estimates that it has around 139 million migrants, but it is unclear how many have had to move due to climate change. According to a 2021 World Bank report, by 2050 cities like Bangalore are expected to become the preferred destination for nearly 40 million people in South Asia forced by climate change to leave their homes.
“Especially if you have aspirations for your second generation, you have to move,” Prakash said.
In the suburb where Jerifa and her family now live, most people are from the state of Assam, many have been forced to migrate due to climate change and dream of a better future: there is Shah Jahan, 19 years old, a security guard who wants to become a YouTube influencer. There’s Rasana Begum, a 47-year-old cleaner who hopes her two daughters will become nurses. Their homes were also washed away by the floods.
Both Pinjira and Jaidul have found work with a contractor who provides housekeeping staff to the offices of American and Indian tech companies. Jaidul earns $240 a month and his wife around $200, compared to the $60 he earned from farming. Tuition at Raju’s new private school costs a third of his income and the family saves nothing. But, for the first time in years, in their new home – a 10-by-12-foot (3-by-3.6-meter) room with a tin roof and sporadic electricity – they feel optimistic about the future.
“I like the fact that I can work here. In our country, there was no work for women. … I’m happy,” Pinjira said.
For now, Raju dreams of succeeding 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 the basics of Kannada, English, Hindi and mathematics. Teachers test students every two months to help them transition to free state schools that teach in Kannada – or in some cases, like Raju’s, in English.
“My favorite subject is maths,” said the 12-year-old, adding that his favorite part of the day was the bus ride to school. “I like to look out the window and see the city and all the tall buildings.”
His sister, who wants to be a lawyer one day, learned Kannada faster than him and happily chats with new classmates at her nearby government school, switching easily from her mother tongue to her adopted language.
Their parents work shifts to make sure someone is home in case of an emergency. “They are young and may 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 sending their children to schools in unfamiliar neighborhoods, said Puja, who uses only one name and coordinates the Samridhi Trust after-school program.
Migrant children often tend to drop out, finding the lessons too difficult. But Raju finds his school’s “discipline” refreshing after a chaotic life in a poor neighborhood.
Her mother misses her family and talks to them on the phone. “Maybe I’ll go back while they’re on 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 a higher grade. “Maybe in 2024 or 2025,” he said.
Every afternoon, the father waits patiently, scanning the street for Raju’s yellow bus. Once home, the boy regales him with stories about his new school. He says he now knows how to say “water” in Kannada, but none of his new classmates know what a “real flood” sounds like.
Follow Aniruddha Ghosal on Twitter: @aniruddhg1
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