Rohingya A Place to Call Home graphic

Shobirahman Amir Hossin is an 18-year-old Myanmar Rohingya. Shobirahman and his two sisters were living without their parents in an unsafe village in Narekoh, Rakhine for 7 years. In this village Shobirahman and his sisters were prevented from going to the mosque and school. They were also routinely mistreated by the Myanmar authorities. Shobirahman explained that his life was miserable. As such, he and his sisters trekked a dangerous month-long journey from Myanmar to Malaysia to join their parents in hopes for a better life.

In Malaysia, Shobirahman has seen a slight glimmer of hope. Not only is he reunited with his family, but he is also seeking education at the Rohingya Education Centre (REC) in Indera Mahkota. The REC was set up by the Future Global Network and is funded by the Albukhary Foundation. Its oversight is by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The school currently engages 130 Rohingya students of various ages and uses the national school curriculum of Malaysia. Shobirahman, who lives in better conditions than what he and his sisters faced in Myanmar, still feels homesick. When asked if he wanted to return to his home village in Myanmar, he explained “My relatives and friends are still there and I pray the situation in the village is getting better and I hope to return one day.”

Unfortunately, the circumstances in Myanmar have not improved to make it possible for the Rohingya to return to their native land. UNHCR’S Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk, recently embarked on a five-day mission to Myanmar. He saw first-hand the discrimination and lack of equal rights the Rohingya face in Myanmar. Türk explained that there are local orders in place that prevent the Rohingya from moving between villages, which in effect limits their livelihoods. He explained that they lack access to higher educational opportunities, and are denied access to Sittwe University – the only university in the Rakhine state.

Lilianne Fan, a research fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group of Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, specializes on conflict and sectarian violence in Myanmar’s transition. Talking about progress in the country, she explained that there has been some progress but in very small incremental steps. She explains, “We have seen statements from the authorities in the Rakhine State government about trying solutions to the displacement problems . . . there is a level of improvement but the incremental improvement is very, very far from what we need to establish enough stability.”

Sadly, though there a few developments, the Rohingya are still suffering. A heartbreaking story of family separation was recently posted in the New York Times. Hasinah Izhar, a 33 year-old mother of four, was living with her children as a single parent in Myanmar. Her husband was in Malaysia for the last three years, trying to earn an income to support his family. Alone with her children, Hasinah was very vulnerable as a woman in Myanmar. She was constantly living in fear, and would quiet her children at night and hide in the dark so as not to draw any attention to her. “How can I stay here?” she asked. “The old, the young, everyone has to keep watch on the village every night to protect the women.” As such, Hasinah negotiated with smugglers to secure a spot for her and her children to board a boat to Malaysia.

Although it may have seemed like the future looked bright for Hasinah and her children, it was quite the opposite. Boarding the boat to Malaysia was a strenuous process. “Troops are coming, troops are coming. Get on the boat quickly,” yelled one of the smugglers. Hasinah had no time to waste and had to make a life changing decision within seconds. This life changing decision involved leaving her oldest child, a 13-year-old boy named Jubair, behind.

During this time, Jubair was with some of his friends in another village. Hasinah had no time to fetch him. Hasinah had no time to think. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Hasinah gathered up her other children, packed a few things and left. A part of her decision was influenced by the cost to bring her and her youngest children on the boat: $2000.00. She only had $500.00 from selling her house. Taking Jubair could possibly double the price. Short $1500, Hasinah promised the smugglers she would come up with the money, hoping that her husband might be able to make up the rest and that eventually Jubair could also afford to come. Hasinah ultimately left Jubair behind hoping that one day he would be able to come to Malaysia. She wished she had the chance to explain her decision and to hug him goodbye, but she had no time. Hasinah’s life was changed forever. As a mother, I cannot imagine the emotions, heartbreak and anguish Hasinah was going through having to sacrifice leaving one child behind for the potential of a better life for the others.

Jubair was left homeless in his village of Thayet Oak, as his mother sold the house to afford the boat fees. A villager took in Jubair offering him a place to stay and work fetching water for around $9 a month. Hasinah calls her neighbor’s phone frequently who summons Jubair. She tells Jubair, “Son, don’t cry, don’t be sad, stay well.” When asked if Jubair misses his mother, he could not speak and began crying. Jubair hopes for a better future. He hopes to gain an education and hopes to be reunited with his family.

In Malaysia, Hasinah’s life did not turn out to be as great as expected. Relying on her husband to come up with the remainder of the $1500, Hasinah did not know that her husband was not making a decent living in Malaysia. As a result, Hasinah’s husband had to beg for money from friends to make up the rest. In addition, he is three months behind on the rent for the room he and his family live in and is facing eviction. Every day, he walks to a spot beside an expressway where he waits for building and maintenance contracts who might be looking for workers. On a lucky day, he might be able to earn between $8 and $16 a day carrying bricks, cutting grass, or other related work. He hopes that one day he can earn enough money to pay back his debts. He hopes that one day he can provide for a better life for his family. He hopes that one day he will be reunited with Jubair.

The story of Hasinah and her family is one that is all too familiar with the Rohingya. It is an example of the terrible atrocities occurring to the Rohingya on a daily basis as they struggle to find a place that they can call home.

I pray and hope that the Jubair can be reunited with his parents and siblings. I pray that Shobirahman can one day return to his native country and have equal access to higher education. I pray that the Rohingya can a find a place that they can call home where they have equal protection under the laws of Myanmar.