A ROHINGYA refugee who fled to Malaysia as a child before later resettling in the US has appealed to those who oppose her countrymen’s presence to sympathise with their plight, recalling her own experience traversing deadly seas to escape the violence in Myanmar.
Speaking at an online forum organised by People’s Vision Project (PoWR), Sharifah Shakirah, now 27, said she was grateful to Malaysia for giving her refuge.
But she said many Rohingya were willing to return to their homeland.
“Don’t blame us. Help us. We don’t have a choice about coming here,” she told the forum titled “What’s up with the Rohingya?”, organised on the back of a rise in xenophobic comments targeting the refugee community in several parts of the Klang Valley during the movement control order (MCO) period.
Sharifah was only five when her neighbours handed her to human traffickers to be brought to Malaysia, where her father was working.
It was the late 1990s, a time of violent attacks against Rohingya Muslim villages by extremist monks with the help of the Myanmar junta.
The junta did not recognise the Rohingya as citizens, a policy Yangon maintains until today.
Close to a million Rohingya, whom the United Nations has described as the most persecuted minority in the world, have sought refuge throughout Southeast Asia.
Sharifah remembers boarding a rickety boat packed with people.
She was placed with the other children, all hidden in the lower part of the boat.
A few days later, they were told they had arrived in Malaysia.
“I thought that was it, but there was more nightmare awaiting,” she said.
For many days, they walked through the jungles of Myanmar and Thailand. At other times, they risked their lives hiding from the authorities.
“We were put in a car boot, with one person piled up on top of another.”
In the end, Sharifah said, many of her fellow Rohingya died.
In Malaysia, she was reunited with her father. Three years later, her mother, who was jailed by the Myanmar junta, joined them.
She did not have any Malaysian friends, and people sometimes made fun of her.
“I wanted to crawl back to Myanmar,” she said.
Now resettled in the US, Sharifah considers herself luckier than her fellow refugees.
She said it was sad that Malaysians felt the Rohingya were stealing jobs from the locals or demanding citizenship.
“We are in Malaysia for protection. It is very hard to be a refugee and a Rohingya. It is very painful,” she said as she fought back tears.
Another speaker, Lilianne Fan, from Indonesian-based humanitarian group Geutanyoe Foundation, said the government should allow the Rohingya to work in certain sectors.
“They do not want charity and they want to give back to society,” she said.
Fan agreed that Asean must pressure Myanmar to restore the Rohingya their rights.
“They are not asking for citizenship in Malaysia but in Myanmar. They want to return,” she added.
Local charity worker Tini Zainudin of Yayasan Chow Kit said the recent spate of hateful comments by Malaysians had affected Rohingya children who are social media savvy.
“They say it is hurtful.”
She also said those who condemn refugees were ignorant of the circumstances that brought them here.