Resilient and resourceful, Rohingya diaspora carve out new lives

RAKHINE: Driven from Myanmar over decades, Rohingya Muslims have been labeled the most persecuted people on earth. But resilience and ingenuity have led members of the stateless community to carve out new lives — everywhere from refugee camps in Bangladesh to the hospitals of Europe.

Many fled Myanmar as children. Some have been granted refugee status, others live in the shadows with no legal status or protection.

Half a million of the Muslim minority remain in their ancestral homeland of Rakhine state inside Myanmar — the country that denies them citizenship — in camps or hemmed in by hostile neighbors.

Their history is of oppression. But success stories are being forged and those who have escaped are often willing to give back to those left behind.

‘The Yorkshire Boy’

A “proud Yorkshire boy”, Nijam Uddin Mohammed arrived with his family in Bradford, in northern England, in 2008 after 17 years in a Bangladeshi refugee camp.

He is 36, or close enough.

Like many Rohingya, his parents were barred from registering his birth in Myanmar, part of a bureaucratic drive to erase their existence.

As a result, around half of Bradford’s 400-strong Rohingya community has been officially given the same date of birth: January 1.

“My father, mum, my wife, my brothers, my grandmother, we all have the same birthday party,” he says, joking about the celebration expenses saved.

Nijam learned English and now drives a taxi and works as a part-time interpreter for the National Health Service.

But as the head of the British Rohingya Community charity, he says his real calling is advocacy work for his people.

“I hope my children will (also) work for the Rohingya people to free them,” he says.

The Taekwondo champ

Freedom is a long way off for the hundreds of thousands of new refugees who have poured into the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, since last year, driven out by a merciless Myanmar army crackdown.

Their lives are on pause. But Mohammad Selim is refusing to waste time.

Inside his mud-walled hut deep in the Kutupalong mega camp, he is teaching eight-year-old daughter Nasima Akhtar taekwondo.

Selim, now 34, was a Taekwondo champion in his youth but as a Rohingya was denied use of official sports facilities in Myanmar.

So for 18 years, he crossed between Bangladesh and Myanmar to fight, ultimately representing his adopted country before violence made a return to Rakhine impossible.

“We’re poor and have never been given respect,” he says. “But after I entered this sport, I learned what respect is… so I’m teaching it to my daughter,” he says.

Nasima, whose shyness evaporates when she trains, wants to follow her dad in competitive bouts.

“When I grow up I want to fight,” she says.

The Doctor

Life was a battle from a very young age says Anita Schug, who was forced from Myanmar in the early 1980s but soared through education in Europe to become a neurosurgeon, working in German hospitals.

“If others worked 100 percent to achieve their goals I had to work at least twice as much as them,” the 37-year-old says from her current home in Solothurn, Switzerland.

“I got used to the challenges and as a result, I went for the challenging tasks. Neurosurgery, I saw it as a challenge and that’s why I went for it.”

Rohingya inside Myanmar are locked out from education and healthcare, destroying the human resources of the community.

For Anita and her two sisters, who are also doctors, their education will help to serve their community, one they say has “endless needs”.

Activism runs in the family, and Anita is now a prominent advocate working with the lobby group the European Rohingya Council.

A warping of history by Myanmar’s army has cast the Rohingya as “Bengali” infiltrators to the Buddhist-majority country.

But, says Anita, “there is historical evidence that both Rakhine and Rohingya community existed peacefully side by side for generations”.

The Peacemaker

In Yangon, Aung Kyaw Moe, 35, works to diffuse tensions between all communities in a nation cross-stitched by different ethnicities and civil wars.

“We’re a peace-building organization,” he says from the Yangon office of the Center for Social Integrity.

Through leadership seminars for young people from different minorities, education projects in Rakhine and the provision of basic humanitarian aid, he hopes his organization can make a small but important contribution to building tolerance.

But from bitter experience, Aung Kyaw Moe knows what it is to be on the outside.

“My registration says “Bengali”… it’s not something I claim to be. I am from Myanmar,” he says.

“I don’t want young people to go through my life.”

The Activist

One of the largest overseas Rohingya communities is in Malaysia, a Muslim country where 75,000 Rohingya have fled.

But few Rohingya — especially women — have access to education, jobs and health care, something Sharifah Shakirah is trying to amend.

In a Kuala Lumpur classroom, more than two dozen Rohingya women study languages, crafts, religion, and drama.

“I want women to feel like they can do things so they can stand for themselves,” says the 25-year-old founder of the Rohingya Women Development Network.

“Education gives people hope.”

Originally from Buthidaung near the Bangladesh border, Sharifah joined her family in Malaysia when she was about five.

She challenges traditional values inside her community, railing against issues like domestic violence and child marriage. That has prodded a negative reaction from some men, but Sharifah has no intention of stopping.

“They feel that (way) because they’re losing their power, and feel I should be in the kitchen,” she said.

But with Rohingya women on the very margins of an already vulnerable refugee community, Sharifah says her work is too important to be stopped by prejudice.