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From the Blog
A Rohingya Muslim: Journey of fear and survival
Mohammed Anas could be best described as an unlikely hero. He is a Rohingya Muslim who fled his native Myanmar (Burma) out of fear of persecution and discrimination and found himself on a boat with seventy-four other Rohingyas sailing the Indian Ocean in search of a haven in Malaysia. Instead, fate had other plans for him and his co-religionists. InFocus interviewed Anas who spoke candidly and passionately about his experience from his home in Chicago, IL.
InFocus: Why did you leave Burma?
Mohammed Anas: I left because I was persecuted. They hate Muslims in Burma, I mean the Buddhists. I left because I didn’t have any freedom and wanted a better life elsewhere.
IF: How did your family react?
M.A.: My father was opposed to it but he knew I wanted to leave so badly that he let me go. I have three sisters and two brothers. They are all in Burma. Last time I called, which was last week, my mother was crying and told me they didn’t even have food to eat. She told me I did the right thing when I left.
IF: Where did you want to go when you left Burma?
M.A.: I wanted to go to Malaysia but had to go to Bangladesh first. In the beginning, there were about 90 of us, all Rohingyas. We left Burma on February 9, 2008 but when monsoon rains started, 20 among us went back. The rest stayed in Bangladesh for ten days long enough to buy a boat and leave.
IF: Did you ever make it to Malaysia?
M.A.: After seven days at sea, our boat engine broke. We were left stranded out in the ocean and after three days we ran out of food and water. We were out in the sea for a total of 18 days without food and water. We managed to survive by drinking rainwater but that was all. What made it worse was a hole in the boat that forced us to empty excess water day and night. We prayed everyday on the boat and asked Allah for help.
On day 27, a miracle happened. We saw fishermen nets. We tied the net to the boat and hoped that the fishermen would come to fetch it. When they came and saw us they were afraid. About fifteen people jumped out of the boat and swam as hard as they could. Before they could get to the boat, they all perished from fatigue except for one who was pulled out of the water and was able to tell our story. More people jumped in the water to help the dead but three of them ended up also dead.
The fishermen’s boat took 55 people alive and gave us food and water. In the morning, a Sri Lankan Navy boat came and thought we were terrorists trying to infiltrate the country so everyone of us was checked thoroughly then they took us on board and gave us medicine and took care of us.
IF: And then what happened when you arrived in Sri Lanka?
M.A.: Government agents took pictures and interrogated us. We were put in a detention center and interrogated for days on end. They did give us food and medicine and took good care of us. Representative from the Burmese Embassy came to see us and wanted to send us back, but we told him we would never go back to Burma.
IF: How long did you stay at the detention center?
M.A.: We stayed 9 months then a representative of UNCHR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) took us from the center and gave us housing in a building in Colombo. Sri Lankan government refused to grant us asylum so we asked UNCHR to find a country that will take us. When they asked us which country we wanted to go to, we all said the USA.
IF: Did you have any freedom of movement when you stayed in that building in Colombo?
M.A.: Yes, we did. The Sri Lanka government gave us a temporary resident permit. We were able to go to the mosque and move freely in the country. Sri Lankan Muslims always came to visit us and give us food and clothes. They told us not to worry and helped us a lot.
IF: How did you live? Did you get donations?
M.A.: UNCHR paid for our living expenses during the entire time in Sri Lanka. They gave each one of us 9,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (about $100 USD) and we lived on that. Local Muslims helped us a lot during this whole period.
IF: When did you leave Sri Lanka?
M.A.: In January of 2012, the UNCHR told us we were granted asylum in the USA. We were very happy. There were 53 of us when we left on February 15 because two people died of illness in Sri Lanka. They took us to the airport and we flew on Nepal Airlines and went to Doha, Qatar, where we stayed one day and one night. From there, we took a flight to New York. Alhamdulillah, Allah has been merciful.
IF: If you knew what would happen to you, would you have left anyway?
M.A.: Yes. It was worth it. The situation in Burma was so bad that putting my life at risk was worth it. As a Muslim in Burma, you have no rights. For example, if you want to get married, you have to pay the equivalent of $700 to get a marriage certificate. A Buddhist doesn’t have to pay it. To show you how bad the situation is, many Muslims are forced to do labor for the Burmese government for free. You would have to go to a police station and clean the dishes and bathrooms, and don’t get paid for it. Discrimination against Muslims is very bad.
IF: Did you have a passport when you left?
M.A.: No, I didn’t. I am a Rohingya. I have an ID paper. Rohingya Muslims are given normal IDs, but no passport. They don’t recognize us as citizens. We are considered stateless.
IF: What is the situation of the Rohingyas in Burma right now?
M.A: Right now, many Muslims are being killed by the Rakhine Buddhists. Myanmar government is quiet about the killings. In fact, they support the Buddhists.
IF: Buddhists are usually peaceful. Is that not the case in Burma?
M.A.: No. They are killing and terrorizing Muslims in Burma. No, not peaceful at all. They are engaged in (an) ethnic cleansing campaign.
IF: Are the Rohingyas originally from Bangladesh as the Rakhine claim?
M.A: No, it’s not true at all. Rohingyas are originally from Burma. Their history goes back hundreds of years. Rakhine claim we came to visit from Bangladesh then didn’t go back. But that is not true.
IF: How many Rohingyas have been killed so far since June of this year?
M.A.: I called my mother in Burma last week and she told me 60,000 Muslims have killed and 700 are missing. About 6,000 Rohingyas have been arrested. I heard from my village that close to 700 Rohingya Muslim women were raped. The government claims only 20,000 died but that is not true.
IF: Who killed them?
M.A.: The Buddhists and the Burmese military.
IF: The Buddhists claim the rape of a Buddhist woman by a Rohingya triggered this killing. Is that true?
M.A.: The woman was a prostitute and took money for her services. She was not raped. It’s not true. Buddhists cornered and killed 11 Muslims as they came back from Jumaah prayer. The Rakhine Buddhists took this [rape] as an excuse to start their ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas. They always hated us, now they have an excuse to get rid of us.
IF: What do you think is going to happen? How do you see the future of Rohingyas?
M.A.: Many Rohingyas now are persecuted and live in fear. They can’t go out of their homes. They can’t go to the market. If the U.S. or the world community doesn’t do anything, Rohingya Muslims are going to be exterminated. One by one, they will be killed, all of them, by the Buddhists. During Ramadan, Rohingyas were not allowed to pray. The government locked up all mosques and [as a result] Muslims weren’t allowed to pray Taraweeh prayers or Eid.
IF: How do you manage to live now?
M.A.: UN gives me $200 in food stamps and $240 in cash. I don’t have enough to send home to help my family eat. I am looking for work but it is very hard to find anything.
IF: What do you want American Muslims to do to help the plight of the Rohingyas?
M.A.: I want to ask not just American Muslims but the world community to help the Rohingyas. They are in need of help. They can’t even go out to buy food. They are imprisoned in their homes. Some entire villages were burned to the ground. Other villages have been cut off and are being starved now. Many Muslims have disappeared. They were arrested and nobody knows anything about where they are now. Many people are dying. They need help. It’s terrible.