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“EMP-065” Finds His Voice: The Education Of A Rohingya Writer

Living in a refugee camp is like being in limbo. In jail, at least a prisoner has a release date to look forward to. To refugees, there is no future in sight. I was detained repeatedly as I tried to save my life by seeking safety in another nation.

Despite having an ancestral homeland, I have been stateless, an asylum seeker, and a refugee for my whole adult life. As a Rohingya, I faced persecution and had no chance to be at school in my own country. I fled Myanmar (Burma) and made it to Malaysia by boat, at a very young age. I was a child but was working as a construction laborer in Malaysia. I saw kids going to school and hoped I would have the opportunity one day. 

I left Malaysia to go to Australia and got arrested by the Indonesian police on the way. I was detained for nearly two years in the Manado Immigration detention center. I didn’t know how I would survive because I had nothing to keep myself occupied. I couldn’t speak Indonesian or English to communicate with the officers to explain that I and other refugees had health issues like asthma, diabetes, heart problems, sight problems, dental problems, joint pain, growths on the eyes. We didn’t have access to interpreters which made the communication process so difficult with everything on a daily basis.

I wanted to write letters to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but I didn’t even k.now all the letters of the English language. So much money was spent to keep us inside four walls but not a single effort was made to provide us some education while we were waiting for our refugee case determination. All the refugees in the camp faced hopelessness. 

“EMP-065” Finds His Voice: The Education Of A Rohingya Writer
By Imran M

 

Imran studying English

 

I tried hard not to disappear into a sea of depression. I learned to speak other languages while I was moving from one country to another. Though I couldn’t write those languages, I used them to communicate with other refugees in the camps. I saw one of the Afghan refugees teaching some of his friends and I asked him if I could join his group. I talked to him in Urdu and started learning English from him.   It was the first time I began to write a few words in English. It wasn’t easy to communicate in broken English but it was a good start for me and I was already able to recognize the letters of the English alphabet, and some words. I could speak to the officers from The International Organization for Migration (IOM) who were in charge of taking care of refugees and asylum seekers in the camp. I used my broken English and body language to ask for educational material… but we barely received anything. 

I used my broken English and body language to ask for educational material... but we barely received anything. - Rohingya Refugee Click To Tweet

Two long years finally came to an end when my refugee status arrived. I left detention with some basic knowledge and was so determined to obtain an education when I was released in the community. However, I found that being free was not easy, as refugees were not allowed to go to school or work and some had been waiting for ten to fifteen years to be resettled in a third country. All I had was a tiny room with another refugee. 

There was no one around for us to ask questions or share our concerns. IOM or UNHCR officers came once a month but we never knew the dates and times so we could not prepare ourselves to speak to them. 

I didn’t want to put myself on a boat again, but to make the dream of getting an education a reality, I didn’t have any other choice.  So I decided to go to Australia by boat and made it to Christmas Island in September 2013, where I was detained for two months, after which I was transferred to Australia’s offshore detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.  I had faith that Australia would treat me as a human being, but because they had changed the refugee policy, they locked me up, took away my name, and for more than five years I became EMP-065, my boat ID.

I had faith that Australia would treat me as a human being, but because they had changed the refugee policy, they locked me up, took away my name, and for more than five years I became EMP-065, my boat ID.

The outside world would not be able to comprehend life in this prison unless they experienced it. We were surrounded by security guards watching our every move. They knew our names, but we were called by our numbers. We were treated like animals. No books were allowed, but cigarettes were supplied; staff lost their jobs as a result of bringing reading material to refugees. The thoughts stir too many emotions as all these frustrations became torture when lived day after day.

We were surrounded by security guards watching our every move. They knew our names, but we were called by our numbers. We were treated like animals. No books were allowed, but cigarettes were supplied; staff lost their jobs as a result of… Click To Tweet
We Need An Education
Rohingya Refugees Ask To Be Educated

Imagining A Different Life

My imagination entered into an unknown world and I slowly learned to paint a picture of my emotions and feelings, with words. It all began with scratch papers from the floor or garbage bin and a pencil. One day I started writing while I was teaching myself in English. 

I didn’t have access to books, the internet, or a cell phone so I sat with a caseworker or security guard to practice my English. A fascinating moment in my learning came when I was able to describe my past events in a new way and enter into a fantasy universe. My imagination allowed me to convey complicated abstract concepts in an infinite number of possible ways. I thought all day and night long. At times, I forgot to eat and wrote for 16 hours.

Without knowing where I was going, I lost myself in a stream of words as I linked one after another. I escaped the cruelties through the sound of pencils scratching on paper. Writing gave me hope and a purpose when I woke up every morning.

Each event of Manus prison became Art to me and helped me to form words, and words combined to form sentences. I captured them in my universe of art. Over time my one hand-written scratched page became eleven hundred, organized into twenty-one chapters. As I boarded the plane from Manus to Port Moresby in November 2017, I carried my life story with me, both mentally and in my bag-full of papers. I taught myself English and I emerged as a writer; my heart had found its love. I was surrounded by Australia’s cruelty, but I survived. 

I taught myself English and I emerged as a writer; my heart had found its love. I was surrounded by Australia’s cruelty, but I survived. 

Manus Island vs Imran 

Life on Manus felt like psychological warfare. For example, guards would bring different things like bananas, biscuits, bread, or cookies. They put them on a table and invited some of us refugees. Then they sat back and watched what we all did. Obviously, the people who were around the table would take most of what was there. Others ran towards the mess to get whatever was left. It was certain that there would be a lot of sad faces. That is to say, those who didn’t get a piece of biscuit would be depressed for the rest of the day about not being able to eat a biscuit. There had been so many fights for a biscuit, a slice of bread, etc. This was a kind of place in which we could be injured for a banana or even lose our lives for a biscuit.

In a way, the utter cruelty of this modern prison was very interesting because I noticed that it was destroying the inner nature of human life systematically, both psychologically, and emotionally. I saw how everyone’s behavior was altered in just a couple of weeks. The very nature of the environment was effective in crushing everyone’s hope and we had no clue of our future and the world beyond the fence. I sensed and could imagine them but I didn’t have words to describe them.  I had painful psychological pictures playing in my head, but no one could see them except me. As a detainee, I realized it was up to me to bring them to reality for the world to see. 

Education of a Rohingya

I arrived in the United States as a refugee in June 2018, and today I live in Chicago. My first mission was to obtain my High School equivalency diploma. It was the only thing that I could think of and I was successful in just nine months. I became the first person in my family not only to attend school but also earn a High School certificate.

I am a college student now and can pursue my educational dreams. I see that the majority of people in my community are illiterate. Of the few who can speak English, most cannot communicate all the different struggles they have endured. Many don’t get the chance to recover from the psychological effects of persecution, statelessness, and the genocide being committed.

I constantly think of the almost half a million Rohingya children who are growing up without any education and access to the internet, and the Rohingya refugees in India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. We all have suffered decades of persecution at the hands of Myanmar’s military but the majority of my people won’t be able to express themselves to explain the true nature and gravity of the crimes that we all have endured. 

We as a collective community of the world need to put all of our efforts into educating the Rohingya population so they understand the oppression committed against them. The history of the Myanmar military’s crimes needs to be described from the perspective of the Rohingya refugees in their own words and it can only be possible if we receive the education we deserve. 

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