Four Rohingya refugees tell how they beat the odds to survive
BY SUZANNA PILLAY – 18 DECEMBER 2016 @ 2:38 PM
THERE are four blocks of flats, each one in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. Located 14km away from the city centre, the housing project in Cheras has been warmly embraced by some Rohingya families in Kuala Lumpur. It is their home away from home.
At a grocery shop there, Nasir, a Rohingya who volunteered to be our interpreter, was happy to meet us.
Nasir introduced us to 12-year-old Senuar, who was there to get food for her family. Skipping ahead of us with the impatience of youth, Senuar was excited to show us her home and introduce us to her family.
Senuar’s home is on the sixth floor. To get there, you had to climb up two flights of stairs to take the elevator on the second floor. Ancient with machinery wheezing like a pair of bellows, the lift could only take us to the fifth floor. From there, it was another walk up another narrow flight of stairs to Senuar’s home. Several metres ahead of us, illuminating our way down the darkened corridor was light spilling out from an open doorway.
At its entrance, waiting to welcome us into their home was Senuar and her family. A huge six-seater dining table dominated the front of their living room, while the back was taken up by an armchair, a sofa and large white fridge.
The only other decorations in the room were two wind chimes — a rose-pink floral and a cobalt-blue dolphin — that spun prettily whenever the wind from the open window rushed into the room. Their pristine condition was a stark contrast to the peeling, green walls of the two-bedroom apartment. Eager to interact with her guests, Senuar sat besides me on the sofa as she cuddled her 1-year-old niece on her lap.
“The first thing I saw when we got out of our boat was a huge bird with large outstretched wings by the water,” recalled Senuar, who made the journey from Myanmar to Malaysia in 2012 with her parents and four siblings. Senuar was only 8 then. Although she is unable to name Langkawi, she has not forgotten the northern hospitality that she and other refugees were given there.
“Everybody was kind. They brought us food and water. They also brought enough water for us to bathe,” she said in halting Malay interspersed with some words in English. With her was her mother Anuar, 45, who was babysitting her three younger siblings and a few neighbourhood kids. Senuar goes to the United Nations School in the area, and is enjoying her school holidays. She had just completed Year Two and will be moving to Year Three when school opens next month. School is a fun place for Senuar, who loves making new friends. “I miss my friends. I can’t wait to start the new term and meet my friends and teachers, and to learn new things.”
Senuar doesn’t have a watch but has devised a novel way of keeping track of time — by making a mental note of the arrival and departure times at both places. When asked how far her school was from home, she said the journey by foot was about half an hour. “It is very far. My mother wakes me up at 6.30am or 7am, and at 8am, I walk to school with a group of other children who live in our flat. “When we arrive, it is just in time for school to start,” she said, adding that school ended at 1pm. She said there were seven people in her class. “Some are bigger than me and some are smaller.
“We are of different ages. In school, we learn Bahasa Malaysia, English and Mathematics.” The joyful expression on her face turned into sadness as she remembered that her best friend in school would not return when school reopens. “She’s 14 now. She has to quit school to work as a cleaner at an LRT station to help her family earn a living. “She lost both her parents in Rakhine, and came to Malaysia with her two brothers.”
Senuar’s mother recalled that after four months in the refugee detention centre in Langkawi, the family was transferred to the Myanmar Rohingya Human Rights Organisation (MERHROM), where they spent two nights before a relative, who lives in Selayang, Selangor, took them to Kuala Lumpur. “He helped my husband and son-in-law get jobs as office cleaners in Klang where they worked for the first year,” she said from the doorway of her bedroom where she sat with her other children.
Anuar seemed more cautious of strangers than her young daughter but she patiently answered our questions when prompted by Nasir. She said Malaysia was her home now and that she was grateful to have been welcomed to stay in the country. Her family, she said, was forced to flee their home in Myebone, Rakhine, because of the arson attacks and atrocities committed against the community there.
“The homes of my father, friends and relatives were set on fire. I feared for the safety of my family.” she said. Anuar’s husband now works in a factory and his monthly salary of RM1,000 is barely enough to cover daily expenses for 10 people in the family. Besides her four younger children, Anuar also shares her home with her eldest daughter’s family. The family’s two-bedroom flat costs RM700 per month. Other expenditure includes RM900 for food, and school fees for her two sons, who are studyingcurrently in an Islamic boarding school, totalling up to RM200 per month. Anuar earns an extra income of RM350 per month from babysitting her neighbours’ children.
Her son-in-law also works in a factory and chips in for expenses. Just a floor up from Senuar’s flat is another Rohingya family. It is home to 22-year-old housewife Rokeya, who was waiting for her husband Mohd Zakri, 33, to return from work when she welcomed us in. The living room of her sparse two-bedroom flat was dominated by an old 24-inch television, two fridges and a standing fan whichthat had seen better days. Sprawling on the floor of her living room was a friend of her co-tenant, a Rohingya who needed somewhere to stay for a few days. Rokeya has been living in Malaysia for three years, after she came here to marry Mohd Zakri (who made the journey earlier with friends).
“We have two children. My son Mohd Alam is 2tw and my daughter, Ashiah, is only 5 five months old,” said the young mother as she rocked her daughter to sleep. She said there were seven people in her flat and she shared her home with another family. Rokeya also remembered being given fish and rice to eat on the boat which brought her to Malaysia. She said she could not recall much of anything else.
Just then, Mohd Zakri arrived home for lunch. Zakri’s journey to Malaysia in 2010 was more harrowing. A victim of human trafficking, he ended up in Thailand first where he was jailed for one month. He claimed that he was beaten so badly by his agent in Thailand that he had to be hospitalised. Upon his release, he was purchased by another human trafficking agent who then sold him to an agent in Malaysia in 2010. He was then taken to work in a oil palm plantation in Johor Baru for one year. After a year of work, he decided that he had had enough and ran away.
He ended up at at he Johor Baru bus stop with no belongings or even enough money to purchase a bus ticket. While he was waiting there, he met a fellow Rohingya who told him that there were plenty of jobs in Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, his new friend was also cash-strapped and unable to help him purchase a bus ticket. “I waited for another two days at the bus stop before I met another Rohingya, who was kind enough to buy a ticket for me. “Finally, I made it to the KL Pudu bus station.
“There, I met someone who offered me a job by cleaning drains for RM800 a month. “I did this for a couple of months but it was difficult for me because of my previous head injury. So, I left and looked for other sources of income.” he said with a faint smile. Today, Zakri earns a meagre income from collecting and selling used household items for recycling.
He makes about RM30 to RM40 a day. On the day of this interview, he said he only made RM9. 434 reads (From left) Mohd Zakri and wife Rokeya, with Aishah in their sparse two-bedroom flat in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. Rohingya refugees Anuar (seated) and Senuar (standing, left) in their flat in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. With them are their neighbours’ children. Pix by Saifullizan Tamadi/ NSTP Anuar Begom Senuar Begom Senuar sweeping the floor in her crowded flat.