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by Jennifer Sawicz
Media Relations Director, Burma Task Force
This story is adapted from the transcript of an interview taken in May 2016 at the ICNA relief center in Chicago. To protect her privacy, the Rohingya refugee woman’s name has been changed.
When I first met forty-one-year-old Maryam, she was very shy. She refused the tea and cookies I offered her, refused to answer any questions, and rarely looked any one in the face. Then, the social worker presiding over the meeting explained to her in Urdu, her second language, what Burma Task Force was and what we were trying to do to help the Rohingya people. Their conversation was lengthy, & I understand about two words of Urdu, but in the end she consented to be interviewed through an interpreter. Her tale gives a glimpse into the thoughts and emotions of someone who has been displaced and disenfranchised her entire life.
I’m Muslim. In my childhood I was suffering in Burma. I lived there until age 7. I lived in both rural and urban areas. We got along well with neighbors for a long time, only now there are issues. My parents did not tell me exactly why they left Burma, but we moved to Malaysia when I was seven & that’s where I grew up. I have no family in Burma; I would never want to return. My feeling is that the injustice in Burma is mostly toward Muslims. If we can address Islamophobia we can solve the problem. But Burma is a “Buddhist country”. They’re set. There’s no way to change that.
I want people to stop killing Burmese Muslims. Every day they kill in Arakan state. I am worried about the future of children growing up there. Here in the US, I’m living with out fear. I haven’t experienced Islamophobia in the US. I want the people in Burma to feel the same way. If someone can make a better future in Burma, they need food, housing, and jobs. It is very difficult. How can I describe a story that happened in Burma? People do not want to know what happened. Right now I feel emotional & bad for the people there.
The greatest need in our community is jobs. I am not working right now. I am looking for a job. My kids are going to school and will be okay in future, but I want a factory job. My husband is working. I’m taking E.S.L.
I request help for Burma from Americans. I know nothing about the N.L.D. or even Malaysian government. I only care about working and finding something to eat, no politics. But I want to secure the Rohingya future with the Burmese government. I want to pressure our government in the U.S. to help. I want to know how the Burmese orphans can be helped. That is my biggest goal – to help the orphans. What ever you can do for them is what I think would be the most effective. I feel very upset thinking about the Rohingya people.
Maryam’s story is so poignant for several reasons. First, she exhibits a selflessness that is rare in western society & one wouldn’t imagine would be present in someone so focused on survival. I asked her “what’s your biggest goal?” expecting her to answer something like, “learn English,” “finish high school” or “make sure my children live in freedom their whole lives.” But instead, she expressed hope & compassion for all Burmese orphans. The most motivating image she can think of is not her own family but oppressed, suffering children inhabiting a country she has not visited in over thirty years.
Second, she has been tossed around the globe like a piece of driftwood in the Pacific for almost her entire life. Her parents took her to Malaysia when she was 7, which is actually quite geographically far from Rakhine State, despite still being a part of Southeast Asia. But that was not the end of her journey – she traveled all the way to Chicago, having to start over and learn a completely different language, culture, and climate. Islamic Circle of North America, and Devon Street in general, provide clothing, food, and worship materials reminiscent of home; Maryam, though poor, was resplendent in a deep blue dress and hijab. How ever she’s taking E.S.L. classes in the hopes of obtaining a factory job; her integration into the surrounding society is far from complete. Westerners expect to be fully “settled” and “established” in their early forties, and while Maryam has a husband & kids, socially and emotionally she’s far from “settled”. She is still a refugee, a foreigner, with a handful of almost-suppressed traumatic childhood memories and a staggering set of worries for the future of her people. Five minutes with Maryam is enough to convince the staunchest skeptic that the Rohingya’s rights must be restored immediately, so they never have to live like that again.
Finally, her pessimism about the enduring Islamophobia in Burma must inspire us to find multiple in-roads to Burmese hearts and minds, not simply pressure the government as Maryam explicitly asks. Yes Maryam, we’ll pressure the government too. But we must continue to seek and pursue those means of gently, slowly, opening the hearts and minds of ordinary Burmese, so the government will not find it politically inconvenient to protect the Rohingya. This, in deed, is the only path to lasting peace & social harmony in Burma: using the power of human story to eradicate racism and irrational fears.
I hope Maryam’s story has inspired you and provoked your thoughts. I am so grateful to have had the chance to meet her and expand my knowledge of the Rohingya people. They are tenacious but altruistic survivors, and we continue to pray for the betterment of their lives.