• Starting Over: The Story of a Rohingya Refugee in Portland

    When Muhammad Noyeem first touched Indonesian soil on May 20, 2015, he had no idea how much his life would change.

    Muhammad Noyeem
    Muhammad Noyeem is a refugee and a member of the
    Rohingya ethnic group, which the United Nations calls one of
    the most persecuted minority groups in the world.

    Just three months earlier, in February 2015, he had fled his home country of Myanmar (also known as Burma), leaving behind his father and mother, seven brothers and sisters, and dozens of cousins, uncles, aunts, and extended family members. At the time, Myanmar was embroiled in ethnic clashes, primarily in Rakhine State (where Noyeem and his family lived).

    Noyeem and his family are Muslim Rohingya, whom the United Nations calls one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world. For centuries, they lived primarily along Myanmar’s coast. Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as one of its 135 “national races." In Myanmar, Rohingyas lack basic freedoms, including the ability to vote and serve in office, and they’re frequently the target of harassment by the Burmese military and police forces. Within the last decade, these clashes have turned increasingly violent, resulting in what the United Nations has described as genocidal attacks on the Rohingya by the Burmese military in 2016 and 2017.

    It was at the start of renewed conflict between the Rohingya and the Myanmar government that Noyeem’s parents decided the best opportunity for their son was in another country. By paying off smugglers, they secured Noyeem passage aboard a boat with more than 1,000 other Muslim Rohingya people also fleeing the persecution of the Myanmar government and military.

    In fact, though more than one million Rohingya people lived in Myanmar at one time, the Burmese government considered them outsiders, encroaching residents of neighboring Bangladesh. The rest of the world considers them stateless.

    So, Noyeem fled.

    “My parents wanted me to have a bright life and to help others,” says Noyeem, an ESL student at Mt. Hood Community College. “My parents always taught me to help others…They wanted me to tell their story, the story of the Rohingya people.”

    On Feb. 11, 2015, Noyeem boarded a boat near Zawmadat, located in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, with a goal of reaching the safety of Malaysia. He and hundreds of other Rohingyas had enough food and water for two months. At two months, the smugglers responsible for getting Noyeem and his fellow Rohingya to safety abandoned them, taking with them the compass, maps, and guidance equipment. The smugglers, concerned about the Myanmar government’s recent decision to prosecute state smugglers, sabotaged the boat hull and motor before fleeing in hopes that a sunken ship would eliminate survivors that could identify them to government authorities.

    "My parents always taught me to help others. They wanted me to tell their story, the story of the Rohingya people."

    The Rohingyas aboard temporarily fixed the boat hull. However, without enough food and fresh water, they became ill. Some simply leapt into the ocean to drink the water and, too tired and weak to get back aboard, drowned.

    “Every day, people were dying,” describes Noyeem. “Without enough water, people became dehydrated and sick.”

    The damaged boat motor left the refugees adrift. They tried rigging a giant plastic sail, but Noyeem said “it didn’t work,” so they drifted aimlessly. After three months, the boat started sinking. Now, in the Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and Sumatra, an island in Indonesia, hundreds of people jumped overboard – men, women, children, old and young. Those who couldn’t swim, were forced to stay aboard as it sank.

    “Over 500 people died,” says Noyeem. “25 children, from 5 to 7 years old, were aboard. I saw many die in front of me, people who couldn’t swim.”

    It was a tragedy that no person should ever endure.

    Noyeem escaped. He and other survivors swam and floated for hours before fishermen from nearby Pangkalan Susu in Northern Sumatra rescued them. The surviving Rohingyas were brought back to the fishing village. Noyeem estimates that about 450 Rohingyas from the boat survived and were brought ashore to Indonesia, where they were fed, clothed and cared for by the local people.

    A “Life” in Myanmar

    Noyeem was born Jan. 1, 1999, to Basa Mia and Iessha. He grew up in Myanmar’s Rakhine State along the Indian Ocean’s Bay of Bengal. Noyeem’s father, Basamie, was a businessman, farmer and fishmonger. He was a leader in their village of Shil Khali, near the city of Rathedaung. In Shil Khali, Noyeem attended school when he was seven years old but stopped a year later because of the government crackdown on Rohingyas in the region. He would never attend a formal school again while living in Myanmar. Instead, he helped his father and siblings in the family business, learning to sell fish and other seafood at the market.

    In 2012, a series of riots between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims led to military rule in Rakhine. In June of that year, Rohingyas began protesting their treatment, including long histories of targeted arrests and violence by the Myanmar army and police. The resulting riots left nearly 90 dead – most of them Muslims from several different ethnic groups in the region – and more than 2,500 houses burned and destroyed. As a result, Myanmar implemented a state of emergency in Rakhine and implemented martial law. The military restricted the movement of Rohingyas in the region, confining many of them to their villages.

    In October, more fighting broke out, resulting in 80 more deaths and the burning of thousands of more homes. Rohingyas and other ethnic groups began fleeing the region for nearby countries. Roughly 140,000 Rohingya were displaced that year, fleeing to Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

    In Myanmar, Rohingyas lack basic freedoms, including the ability to vote and serve in office, and they’re frequently the target of harassment by the Burmese military and police forces.

    Noyeem was 12 years old when the riots began. He still bears the scars and injuries on his back from a brutal beating he and his father received at the hands of local police. Noyeem and his father were caught sleeping at a local shop, where they’d occasionally stay to avoid being picked up by local police while walking back to their home. They were arrested, beaten with guns, and detained for two hours.

    “The military surrounded the shop and kicked down the door,” recalls Noyeem. “When they caught us, they asked ‘Why are you here?’”

    Noyeem says he and his father were lucky to get away alive. Others were not so lucky. The military was “looking for people to arrest” at the time, even for actions as simple as leaving one’s village.

    “When we were in Burma, we had no rights, no opportunity for schooling,” describes Noyeem. “If you were to make a few thousand MMK (1,500 Myanmar Kyat = $1 USD) in a day, the police would come and take half of that.”

    He describes needing official documents just to travel outside your village. Not having those documents could mean up to five years in jail or require bribing state officials. Noyeem’s father, Basa Mia, was arrested on three separate occasions while Noyeem was growing up. Twice, he was able to bribe his way out of a six-month jail sentence. The third time, he was unable to pay and, after receiving a brutal beating by the police, spent half a year in jail. This kind of treatment was common toward the Rohingyas by local police and military, says Noyeem.

    The struggle of the Rohingya goes back far earlier than Noyeem though, arising from the religious and social differences between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines occupying the same space. During World War II, Rohingyas allied with British and fought against the Rakhines, who allied with the Japanese. Under British colonial rule beginning in the early 1800s, Burma gained independence in 1948 and became a predominantly Buddhist nation. The new government denied citizenship to the Rohingyas, which began a long history of discrimination. From the 1940s to the 1960s, Rohingya para-military groups fought against the government to keep Northern Rakhine State primarily Rohingya populated in hopes that the predominantly Muslim Bangladesh would annex the region. From the 1970s to 1990s, the Burmese military led efforts to “expel” Rohingyas from the region while Rohingya insurgent groups fought back. In 1982, the Burmese government enacted a citizenship law that neglected to list the Rohingya as one of the country’s 135 “national races,” leaving the ethnic group stateless.

    Muhammad Noyeem
    Noyeem relocated to the Portland area in March 2018 and
    soon after began taking classes at Mt. Hood Community College.

    In 2016 and 2017, as Noyeem was living in a hotel in Northern Sumatra with more than 100 other Rohingya refugees who were applying for refugee status in the United States and other countries, violence between the Myanmar military and the Rohingya of Northern Rakhine peaked, reaching genocidal levels, as described by United Nations reports. In October 2016, Rohingya insurgents attacked several border posts along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, and until August 2017, the Burmese military and Rakhine State police began a military crackdown that included arrests, curfews, and attacks and killings of Rohingya throughout the region. By February 2017, the United Nations accused the Myanmar military of ethnic cleansing that included mass killings, gang rapes, and the burning of entire villages during what the military referred to as “clearance operations.”

    On August 25, 2017, the military attacked Shil Khali, burning it and other local villages and killing many. A few days after the attack, Noyeem heard from his family, friends and fellow villagers. They described indiscriminate shooting and killing and more than 150 villagers killed.

    “The government came at 1 a.m.,” he says. “They fired rocket launchers directly at people’s homes. It was often the eldest and the youngest who were killed first as they tried to escape.”

    “My family fled in the middle of the night and hid in the nearby hills for days,” Noyeem adds. “My father snuck back to the village to get burned rice for my brothers and sisters to eat. Soon after, they hiked for a week to the Bangladeshi border and paid a smuggler to take them by boat across the border.”

    One of his cousins was killed in the attack. Noyeem said the attack lasted nine hours and that the military stayed for three days before leaving. Estimates ranged from 150 to 900 dead, and more than 800 homes burned to the ground.

    Noyeem’s parents and his siblings, who range in age from 22 to 28, now live in Kutupalong, a refugee camp located near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. It has been described as the world’s largest refugee camp with an estimated population of more than 900,000, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and making it roughly the same population size as the city of San Francisco.

    Noyeem is still able to keep in touch with his family, although he has not seen them since leaving Myanmar in 2015. Until he receives his green card, he cannot leave the United States for an extended length of time to visit them.

    Noyeem’s family and other Rohingya share photos from that 2017 attack with their friends, family, and anyone willing to see and listen to their story. They want to remember the faces and people they lost. From 2016 to 2017, an estimated 25,000 Rohingya and other ethnic Muslims in Rakhine State were killed. Noyeem’s parents tell him they want him to “be their voice.” To speak for the Rohingya, to tell others what’s happened (and still happening) to his people.

    There are a reported 1.3 million Rohingyas now living as refugees in Bangladesh, most of them in or near Kutupalong. Another 500,000 live in Saudi Arabia and 350,000 in Pakistan. Approximately 400,000 remain in Myanmar. More than 12,000 live in the United States.

    There are a reported 1.3 million Rohingyas now living as refugees in Bangladesh, most of them in or near Kutupalong. Another 500,000 live in Saudi Arabia and 350,000 in Pakistan. Approximately 400,000 remain in Myanmar. More than 12,000 live in the United States.

    In June 2018, the United Nations and Myanmar signed an agreement to rehouse Rohingya within the country’s borders, however the plans of this agreement have not moved forward. In addition, the Bangladesh government has proposed a plan to move many of Rohingya living near Cox’s Bazar to the remote and flood-prone island of Bhashan Char, where it claims there is more space and better facilities for them. However, human rights groups say the relocation will leave the Rohingya isolated in the Bay of Bengal and living on a flood-prone strip of land. Much like Noyeem aboard the refugee boat, many fear they will be left to the mercy of the ocean and natural disasters, alone and outcast.

    Starting Over

    Upon arriving in Indonesia, Noyeem and his fellow refugees were greeted with kindness and hospitality. He remembers the villagers giving them “a lot of food,” which was welcome after eating little to nothing for nearly four weeks aboard the smuggler’s boat. Noyeem and about 100 Rohingya were brought to the Hotel Beraspati in Medan, North Sumatra, where they took classes in English, math, and computer basics offered by the local college and by NGOs. They also began applying to refugee status at local embassies with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Indonesia, a local NGO, and the UNHCR.

    “There were a lot of interviews, a lot of waiting,” says Noyeem. “Every refugee has to interview with embassy staff from every country that’s accepting refugees.”

    In June 2015, Noyeem was granted refugee status. He spent the next few years interviewing with consulates from several embassies, including Indonesia, the United States, Thailand, Australia and Canada. The consulates would come to Medan and hold interviews. Noyeem estimates that he interviewed with the American consulate 10 to 15 times before he was approved for resettlement in the United States.

    Back at Hotel Beraspati, Noyeem continued taking classes and eventually began teaching English classes to Rohingya children and adults. He started serving as a spokesperson for the group.

    “The other Rohingyas came to me, said you are supporting us, you should be the speaker for us,” he describes. “You can speak English well and you can talk to people who don’t know about the genocide, who aren’t talking about it.”

    As Noyeem’s English improved, he could share the history of his people and talk about his life back in Myanmar. He could better describe the atrocities happening there and educate people about the suffering and persecution of the Rohingya. In 2017, he was invited by IOM to talk at the University of North Sumatra in Medan.

    “Here, the UN agencies, such as the UNHCR and IOM have been facilitating education for Rohingya’s children. [They’ve] also arranged language classes for others, so many of us are now learning English and Bahasa Indonesia,” Noyeem told the attendees. “In my country, we never got such an opportunity. Now, we are dreaming of a new life with prosperity.”

    “These days, there are misconceptions about refugees in some developed countries,” he continued. “[But people] simply don’t understand that refugees are also human beings who deserve to have a normal life, equal rights, and opportunities like others.”

    “There are misconceptions about refugees in some developed countries. [People] simply don’t understand that refugees are also human beings who deserve to have a normal life, equal rights, and opportunities like others.”

    On March 10, 2018, Noyeem learned that he was relocating to Portland, Oregon. Eleven days later, on March 21, he boarded a plane for the final leg of his journey.

    “When I found out I was going to live in Portland, I googled the city,” recalls Noyeem. “I remember seeing beautiful bridges, lots of trees – I was so happy that I was going to this place. It also meant I could fulfill my dreams for education and for serving my people.”

    In the Portland area, he’s built a new life but hasn’t forgotten his past. He attends regular Rohingya community meetings at a local mosque with the over 100 other Rohingyas living in the area. He continues to improve his English and computer skills with classes at MHCC. He stays in touch with his family in Bangladesh and volunteers as an interpreter with the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) and with Outside In.

    And he has goals – goals of finishing his GED, earning a degree in political science, becoming a journalist, and one day speaking internationally for the Rohingyas and sharing his story and the stories of other ethnic groups worldwide that have experienced extreme persecution and genocide. And someday soon, he hopes to see his family again; to hug his mother, father and siblings; and to catch up on more than five years of being apart.

    “There are over 135 ethnic groups living in Burma,” Noyeem says. “But the military there targets us. We want Burma more like other countries, where people live equally and there is freedom for people to go to school, to live peacefully.”

    “When I talk with my community leaders, I say I want to volunteer to be a speaker to encourage people to pursue education so they can get jobs and other benefits,” he adds. “I want to talk about these problems, and about the persecutions that people in Burma suffered and still suffer today. And tell them that there’s freedom, and equality, in education.”

    According to the UNHCR, there are 25.4 million refugees in the world and about 10 million people also qualify as “stateless.” More than half of the world’s refugees come from three countries: South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria. One person is forcibly displaced about every two seconds due to conflict or persecution. The journey of refugees like Noyeem can take years, possibly decades, until they’ve resettled. And, depending on where they’re resettled, they may face all new persecutions and mistreatment. Forced displacement breaks up families too, and it can often take years for them to reunite. For Noyeem, it already has been.

    You can learn more about the Rohingya refuge crisis here: https://www.unrefugees.org/emergencies/rohingya.

    Muhammad Noyeem
    Noyeem has taken ESL classes at MHCC since summer 2018.