THEY started shooting randomly – woman, child, they didn’t care. I heard about 1,000 people were killed that day,” Rafik Shah Mohd Ismail recalls the violent attack of the national army on the Rohingya in Maungdaw, a town in the Rakhine State of Myanmar.
“No one dared to go out and we huddled in a corner of the house with all the windows and doors shut, praying the soldiers would not come for us,” he adds.
As the violence grew, his family decided to leave their home and escape to safety.
That was in 1981, and Rafik, now 41, has been living in exile in Malaysia for some 35 years.
“I was only six years old then, but I remember how scared and tired I was, walking and hiding in the jungle until we crossed the Thai border.”
To survive, they sold his mother’s jewellery and other valuables. After a few months in Thailand, his father managed to get in touch with his friend from Kelantan, who helped Rafik and his family of seven get into Malaysia.
With a little help from the friend, his father, who had been a businessman and community leader in Myanmar, managed to start a small business for them to build a new life here as refugees.
You can say Rafik is one of the luckier ones.
Most of the Rohingya refugees, especially the more recent ones, are forced to leave with only the clothes on their backs, the little possessions and money they have used to pay people smugglers to get them out of Myanmar.
Ali Ismail, 43, who has been in Malaysia for more than 20 years, not only had to leave everything behind but he was also separated from his family.
“I don’t know where they are now, I just hope they are all right,” he says.
Thirty-five-year-old Zafar, who has been a refugee in Malaysia for more than five years, survived by collecting scrap metal, cans and plastic bottles to sell for recycling. On a good day, he can make up to RM40, which he tries to save to get his wife and three daughters to Malaysia.
He has been worried sick about their safety since the reported violent crackdown by the Myanmar military in northern Rakhine, after armed militants, alleged to be Rohingya, attacked the border posts on Oct 9, killing nine policemen.
“What is clear is that the Rohingya’s plight is not new. Every five years, there seems to be fresh violence and one crisis or other in Rakhine,” says Rafik, or Ustaz Rafik as he is known among his fellow Rohingya and Myanmar Muslim refugees in Selayang, Selangor, after he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a community leader.
In 2012, he teamed up with a few of his Malaysian friends to set up the MyWelfare (Malaysian International Welfare and Humanitarian Organisation) community centre.
The main focus of the organisation, a registered society, is to provide welfare and support for refugees and asylum seekers in the area, particularly the Rohingyas.
Rafik has not been optimistic for peace or change in the Rakhine state.
“There has been no solution for 70 years, and even the new Myanmar government is not making a difference.
“The Rohingya have had no choice but to leave their homes and seek refuge in other countries,” says Rafik.
That is why like many of the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, he was heartened by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s resolute stand against the latest atrocities in the Rakhine state in a rally early this month.
Their hope is that the Malaysian government can lead Asean and the international community to engage with the Myanmar government to stop the violence and put pressure on them to recognise the Rohingya people as citizens.
Two weeks on, however, many are wondering if the issue, and their struggle, has been forgotten.
“We were hoping that, at the very least, people would start paying attention to the plight of the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia,” says Rafik.
Often described as the most persecuted people, the Rohingya – the Muslim population in northern Rakhine state with their own distinct language and culture – have been forced to flee from their home for decades due to alleged state-sanctioned violence and poverty.
Global advocacy organisation Refugees International estimates that at least 1.5 million Rohingya are exiled outside Myanmar.
In Malaysia alone, it is estimated that there are over 120,000 Rohingya refugees living in the country, out of which only 54,856 are registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR in Malaysia (as of Oct 31, 2016).
As Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, however, Rohingya refugees are considered illegal immigrants and have no or few livelihood opportunities, restricted freedom of movement, no access to affordable healthcare and no admission into government schools for their children.
And while a few have been resettled to other countries like the United States and Australia through UNHCR programmes, many Rohingya refugees are forced to make Malaysia their home.
But life is hard for the Rohingya refugees here, even for those registered with the UNHCR who carry the agency’s identification card.
“The challenge is to survive – it is difficult to earn a living and support your family,” stresses Rafik.
True, not allowed to work legally in Malaysia, the Rohingya are exposed to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and unsafe working conditions.
And even with a valid UNHCR documentation, many live in constant fear as they are at risk of arrests by the authorities.
Rafik believes around 2,000 to 3,000 Rohingya refugees are currently being held at the detention centres nationwide.
“The process of being released from detention can take up to two years. Many at the detention centres are worried that they would be sent home.”
The arrests, he says, have led to a high number of single mothers and abandoned children in the Rohingya community.
One is Senowa Ahmad, 38, who has been staying at the MyWelfare community centre for almost a year with her five children after her husband Hamid was arrested in an immigration operation. His arrest came three months after she had given birth to their youngest son.
“When we first found them, they were basically starving. It was difficult for Senowa to go out and work with the children – she had a newborn baby and her eldest here (she and her husband have four older children in Myanmar) was only 10 at that time,” says Rafik.
At MyWelfare community centre, she works as a kitchen help for the community-based “school” the centre runs for refugee children there, including her own.
Her family’s life has improved somewhat, but she and her children miss their father and count the days until he is released.
“Unfortunately, we heard that he may have died in detention, but we cannot confirm it. The saddest thing is that her case is becoming a norm in the Rohingya community here,” Rafik notes.
He understands the security issues the Malaysian Government is concerned about, he says, “But considering the situation, should the Rohingya refugees be detained?
“We do not want to burden the Malaysian government and people, but now that it’s clear that the Rohingya problem is a serious problem, we hope the Malaysian government can come up with a policy to look at the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia in a more positive light and give us some livelihood opportunities here,” he adds.
An urgent measure is to register the undocumented Rohingya refugees here, says Rafik.
“Today, documentation is essential, even to travel from our house to the shop, to get a job, access to education, for birth, medical care, and even when we die. The UNHCR card alone is not enough.
“If the Malaysian government and authorities can come up with an identification system on who is a Rohingya and give us some allowance to live, work and our children access to school here … that will help,” he proposes.
The Government’s recent announcement of a pilot project to allow 300 Rohingya refugees holding a UNHCR card to work in the plantation and manufacturing sectors has given Rafik and the Rohingya community here a glimmer of hope.
As Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed stated, it is one of Malaysia’s humanitarian initiatives in helping refugees and asylum seekers in the country despite not being a signatory of the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 and its 1967 Protocol. Signatories of the convention are obligated to ensure the rights of refugees are respected and protected.
Lauding the pilot project, Mohammad Sadek, the programme coordinator for the Rohingya Arakanese Refugee Committee (RARC), also believes it will go a long way in helping the Rohingya refugees here.
“We appreciate Malaysia’s stand and for allowing us to stay in the country on humanitarian grounds but the anxiety of trying to survive in Malaysia without being allowed to work legally is pushing many to the brink, what more with the pain of seeing what’s happening to their families back in Myanmar and worrying about them.
“We hope the project can be opened to more people soon – 300 out of 54,900 is too small,” the 44-year-old who has been in Malaysia for more than eight years points out.
Many of the Rohingya refugees here are struggling to put food on their table and pay the rent for the roof over their head, which is often a room for a family of six or seven, in a flat shared with two or three other families, he says.
“If not all Rohingya refugees can be allowed to work, we hope the Government can help with some provisions and food aid for them.”
Other than being allowed to work, Mohammad Sadek hopes humanitarian assistance can also be extended to allow their children access to school as well as support for their learning centres.
Like many other community-based learning centres in Malaysia, the informal school run by RARC, which provides lessons to some 103 children in the Ampang area, is struggling to survive.
“We don’t have a budget, so we can’t pay for the rental of the house where the school is held, pay teachers’ salaries or for materials for the children,” he says.
On the recent rally in support of the Rohingya’s plight, Mohammad Sadek says they really appreciate the Malaysian Government, civil society and the public for understanding their problem.
“It will also be good if the Malaysian Government can push for a dialogue between the Myanmar Government, international community and the Rohingya community to find a resolution inside Myanmar. A constant engagement with the Myanmar government by Asean and the international community can put pressure on them to stop the ‘genocide’ of the Rohingya people,” he says.
Rafik believes political will is key.
“I think it is an easy conflict to resolve if there is political will on the part of the Myanmar government, and here Malaysia can play a crucial role.
“If the conflict is resolved, I believe all the Rohingya refugees would want to go home and be reunited with their families.”
Mohammad Sadek agrees.
“If a political solution can be found, it will stop the Rohingya from fleeing to other countries. Essentially, the Rohingya want to be accepted as citizens in Myanmar.
“We all want to go home. No one wants to live outside the country. If there is peace and stability in the country, if the Rohingya are respected as human beings and citizens of the country, we will go back.”
It is a hope that Rafik is holding out for despite his deep pessimism, as he laments.
“Our biggest worry, especially for those who have been here for 10-20 years and more, is the future of our children – ‘What are they going to be without schooling? How will they survive? Are they going to be stateless people for the rest of their life?”
Next: Sunday Star looks at the state of education of the Rohingya children in Malaysia who are not given access to schools, even if they were born here.