By Saifullah Muhammad,
For those few lucky Rohingya, gaining resettlement in Canada has opened up a future of possibilities and excellent opportunities to start a new life. The more than 300 Rohingya refugees who call Waterloo Region home are thankful for the chance to get a good education for their kids, a better life for all of them and the opportunity to have a voice for their community facing genocide in the Arakan State of Myanmar.
The first generation of this community is learning English, finding jobs and enjoying the dividends of a peaceful and stable country. Their children are doing even better, going to universities and getting their first professional jobs. They are succeeding.
However, all of them carry horrible memories with them. One such refugee is Nurul Haque, 19, from the Maungdaw Township of the Rakhine State of Myanmar. He can finally relax now that he is in Canada, after being sponsored by Jim Estill of Guelph on Dec. 21, 2018.
Haque, 19, a handsome young man with shiny black eyes, said he didn’t know what to expect from his resettlement interview with an officer from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office in Malaysia in May 2018.
“When I found out in Malaysia that I was accepted to come to Canada, my happiness filled my body with energy,” Haque said.
Eight weeks after arriving in Canada, in an interview at Forest Heights Collegiate Institute, the high school he attends in Kitchener, he paid tribute to the Canadian government and his sponsor Jim Estill, who sponsored more than 50 Syrian refugee families two years ago.
“It is a humanitarian crisis. I did not want to grow old and say I stood by and did nothing,” Estill said. “One of the phrases I repeat all the time is ‘Do the right thing.’
“It is actually how we try to run Danby Appliances. So, I am simply trying to ‘Do the right thing.’ I want to help bring refugees to safety in Canada faster, and settle as many people as possible with the amount of money and resources that I have available.”
Since 2015, Estill has sponsored 89 refugee families consisting of 300 people. He is the president and CEO of home appliance manufacturer Danby Protoducts Ltd.
Haque knows he is fortunate compared to the thousands of other refugees who live in Myanmar and Bangladesh refugee camps. In fact, his parents are still languishing there.
His family fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in 2012, shortly after sectarian violence against Rohingya by the Rakhine mob and Myanmar armed forces. Two months after his family arrived in Bangladesh, a friend of his father’s called to tell him that he could go to Malaysia and no payment should be made in advance.
“Before the violence in 2012, our life was perfect. My father was a farmer, but we had farmland to cultivate and a beautiful house to live in. I was studying. Life was flexible. Then the violence began. Within a few months, everything changed, and we had to leave the country,” Haque said.
UNHCR reported new spontaneous settlements sprouted overnight, raising concerns over the lack of adequate shelter, water and sanitation, access to basic services and general protection considerations such as safety for women and girls. The Kutupalong refugee settlement in Bangladesh has grown to become the largest of its kind in the world, with more than 600,000 people living in an area of just 13 square kilometres, stretching infrastructure and services to their limits.
The Bangladesh government has responded generously throughout the latest crisis. Local Bangladeshi villages have also taken in new arrivals. They spared no effort to help, straining their already limited resources.
The humanitarian response in Bangladesh remains focused on meeting the massive humanitarian needs and on mitigating the impact of the seasonal monsoon rains. However, additional international support is urgently needed to step up the assistance from purely humanitarian and day-to-day support towards addressing medium-term challenges, including resilience, education, registration and programs to protect the most vulnerable refugees – including children, women and persons with special needs.
Haque arrived in Thailand at the end of January 2016 after 10 days of being squeezed into a fishing boat. Then the traffickers called his parents and demanded $2,000. His parents were refugees and didn’t have money to rescue Haque.
“My parents begged for money from many people. Fortunately, some of my relatives in Malaysia helped me, paying $2,000, and managed to rescue my life after a week.
“As soon as I arrived in Malaysia I took a job in a condo as a landscaper to help pay my living costs and debt I took from my relatives. Life was just about manageable until I was diagnosed with an unknown disease in my throat,” Haque said.
Treatment was expensive, so he applied to the UNHCR office to pay for his surgery. When it became clear that more complex surgery was going to be necessary, UNHCR added him to its resettlement process. He qualified because of his urgent medical problem and because he was particularly vulnerable as he was without family in Malaysia.
Haque misses his home in Myanmar and parents in Bangladesh. “I have many remembrances – studying at my village school, playing with friends, always with my family, the food my mom cooked. Leaving everything … it is a bad feeling when there is no family members and you don’t get anything you wish for,” Haque said.
On Dec. 21, 2018, he first tasted Canada’s extreme winter when he arrived at the Muslim Society of Guelph to pray. When Friday afternoon prayers finished, he exclaimed he felt “pleased” because he is in a safe country.
Haque was with his Pakistani friend Mohammed Faisal who helped him create a TD Bank account while they both were living in a hotel. The two men were from different countries, and they met while flying together to settle in Guelph. They didn’t know the same gentleman sponsored them through the Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) program.
Under the SAH program, the Canadian government and the private sponsor cover initial costs for essentials such as food, furniture and clothing, as well as a monthly living allowance. This assistance lasts for one year after which it is expected the refugees will find a job.
Haque was happy to meet with fellow community members when the Muslim Society of Guelph introduced him to Ahmed Ullah, Farid Ullah and Mohammed Rafique.
“I was so glad to meet the first Rohingya in Canada. I didn’t know there were Rohingya living in Canada,” Haque said.
Since the conflict in Myanmar began, around 2.5 million people have been displaced by the Myanmar government because of their different religion, ethnicity and language. Bangladesh is now home to almost 1.3 million Rohingya refugees while another 1.2 million have gone to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Europe, Canada and other countries. Under a UNHCR-backed government resettlement scheme, Canada has resettled about 300 Rohingya since 2006. Most of them are in Waterloo Region.
Farid Ullah sits bound in layers of clothing under his black hoody and blue hat. A decade ago he was a small refugee boy who was sponsored by the Government of Canada along with his parents and five siblings.
Ullah’s family was among 13 Rohingya refugees – all genocide survivors from the Arakan State of Myanmar – the first batch that Canada accepted for resettlement under the UNHCR procedure from camps in Cox’s Bazar at the southern tip of Bangladesh.
“We lived in limbo for 17 years in the Kutupalong and Nayapara Refugee camps in Bangladesh. Our families struggled to survive facing limited access to food, water, shelter, health care and education.
“When we arrived in Kitchener on Dec. 14, 2006, with hope to settle into a new home, culture and environment, we didn’t believe that we were in a country where there was no more persecution and hardship in life,” Ullah said.
Ullah’s parents, along with 260,000 others, fled to Bangladesh in 1991 to escape the slow-burning genocide by Myanmar forces because of their different religious practice and ethnicity.
“I am not too worried about these new Rohingya refugees,” said Ahmed Ullah, a community activist from the Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative (CRDI). “They will do very well because they are very motivated, and our community is super helpful and always ready to respond.”
CRDI is a registered not-for-profit organization established by members of the Rohingya community in Canada. CRDI works with leaders from communities both local and abroad, humanitarian organizations and governments to bring awareness of the cause and to advocate for the Rohingya people in Canada and overseas. The organization promotes education, health care and humanitarian aid alongside durable solutions for refugee crises, including a recent plan to help privately sponsor and settle hundreds of Rohingyas in Canada.
“We are thankful to Canada and we are thankful to Waterloo Region,” Ullah said. “It is a city of peace and harmony. The people here are nice and helpful. Teachers and all social workers are superb. We can help more than a few hundred or a few thousand Rohingya a year.
“We are now working closely with the government and local agencies to empower the Rohingya youth and give them a better understanding of Canada and its rule of law so they can one day contribute to the local community and stay away from any kind of crime or illegal activities,” Ullah said.
Jaivet Ealom 22, a Rohingya youth currently studying political science and economy at the University of Toronto, has been continuously supporting the organization and newcomers within his capacity.
Ealom is the only Rohingya student accepted at the Toronto university after arriving as a landed immigrant in December 2017.
He was raised in the Maungdaw Township of Rakhine State in Myanmar and partly in Yangon, the former capital city of Myanmar. He said life in Myanmar was difficult because he had to change his identity for school and lived a life always in fear because he was Rohingya.
“Being able to make it all the way to Canada is like a dream come true,” Ealom said.
“Being able to get refugee status in Canada still feels unreal. Although the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) promptly scheduled me a refugee hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) in about four months from my arrival date, IRB cancelled it along with hundreds of other applicants.
“It took me about nine months to get my hearing. However, this is an exception and not the case for others,” Ealom said.
Ealom struggled to find a job without legal documents. He had a hard time paying for accommodation and nothing was sure about his future studies.
Ealom said adjusting to life in Canada was not a comfortable experience with tons of barriers and challenges. The university didn’t accept his ID cards as legal documents even though he was accepted,
and getting medical treatment was a bigger problem without legal documents. It was especially hard for him during the first few months.
“I was lucky to have some community supports in the Kitchener area. Otherwise, it could have taken even longer for me to adjust to a new life here.
“But the best assistance I received was from people I never knew. Most of the Canadians were friendly and helpful when asked.
“There isn’t a distinct culture, at least not a visible one. It is more like a melting pot. At least that’s the case for Toronto.”
Ealom hopes his studies will give him a better understanding of the politics and economy of Myanmar and how they function and how the Myanmar government survives the heavy sanctions imposed by the international community.
“Knowing that the economy is the pillar of a country’s stability, I hope the understanding of it will assist me in the future to serve the Rohingya community and their prosperity through our organization,” Ealom said.
Mohammed Rafiq, 24, a member of CRDI and a former refugee from Myanmar, helps new arrivals. He was a genocide survivor who left his home to escape persecution of the Myanmar government.
“I have no idea how I am here today. I never dreamt I will be in a place where I can say I have a country and I am a Canadian. I understand what the differences between Myanmar and Canada is,” said Rafiq, who is from the Buthidaung Township.
He agrees his fellow Rohingya have shown a remarkable degree of adaptation, especially considering they are in a country, with a culture and a language barrier and they are from diverse backgrounds.
In a Nov. 19, 2015 article, The Globe and Mail reported Rafiq’s story, along with those of five friends who also resettled in Canada under the resettlement process.
According to the story, in 2013 129 young men including Rafiq tried their luck on a long and dangerous boat journey to Malaysia.
The men, all Rohingya fleeing state repression in Myanmar, were at the limit of their endurance. They lay listlessly in the open boat as the sun sapped their will. Some drank sea water, some chewed shards of wood from the deck to remind themselves what it was like to feel food in their mouths.
The small fishing vessel, its engine disabled, rolled aimlessly with the waves. Rafiq prayed. Maybe tomorrow they would be saved, he thought.
After 38 days at sea they were finally spotted by Sri Lankan fishermen, who radioed for help.
According to the article and an image published in the Globe and Mail after their rescue that day in February 2013, Rafiq and the other survivors lay on the deck of a Sri Lankan navy ship, their skin stretched tight across their faces, cheeks hollow, ribs sharply defined. Of the approximately 129 men who began the journey, 97 perished and only 32 remained.
A group of six Rohingya refugees including Rafiq were resettled in Canada on Nov. 21, 2014, through the government sponsorship program. Their stories of fear, escape and survival are a shocking illustration of the tyranny the Rohingya face and the risks they are prepared to take for a chance at a better life.
“I am privileged enough to be in Canada,” Rafiq said with a broad smile. “We are free here and can go anywhere we want. We can go to school and learn English.”
He also said that’s entirely different from his life growing up as a Rohingya in Myanmar. He shows a white card called a National Verification Card (NVC) with his photo on top and some text in Burmese identifying him.
The government of Myanmar’s issued ID says he is a Bangladeshi even though he was born in Myanmar. The citizenship of the Rohingya was barred by the former military government in 1982 who introduced a so-called 1982 citizenship law.
“It was a really horrific life in Myanmar and hard to survive,” Rafiq said, adding he can’t even begin to describe how bad it was. “The Myanmar government targeted young Rohingya and educated people. They wanted to make us illiterate and leave the country on our own.”
Before he fled, Rafiq ran a small grocery store in his village. However, the taxes and bribes he had to pay were burdensome, so he decided to sell the store and leave the country for a better life.
“When we were going to bed, every night we hoped to see the next morning because every night military entered the village, raped women, killed the young people and took away our belongings.
“We sometimes slept in the jungle to avoid trouble, and then we decided to leave the country with my two other friends,” Rafiq said.
He didn’t even say goodbye to his mother, who is now languishing in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.
In The Globe and Mail article, Rafiq said when he was rescued in Sri Lanka, he was initially kept in jail before being moved to a United Nations-supported camp. It was there that he was selected to come to Canada, along with five other men who had made a similarly perilous journey before being plucked from the sea. However, the other five were from another boat.
Mansoor Alom was one of the six men who was fortunate enough to be selected for Canada. The Thai navy had captured Alom’s ship as it tried to enter Thailand and then dragged it back out to sea without enough oil and fuel according to The Globe and Mail.
His captain tried to navigate back into Thai waters, but the navy repelled them by firing over their heads. After two weeks of drifting, they spotted a large fishing vessel. Despite weeks of starvation, he was able to swim to the larger container and pull himself up by the anchor rope that hung from the side. The startled fishermen chased Alom away with knives, forcing him back into the water, but soon saw the condition of those aboard the migrant vessel and radioed the Sri Lankan navy for help.
Rafiq and Alom didn’t know each other before they fled Myanmar but now consider themselves brothers, living together in an apartment until the Canadian government sponsored Alom’s wife and two children from India on an emergency basis.
In a bright apartment in a modest 1950s building in a quiet corner of downtown Kitchener, Alom and his wife were teasing each other. “This is how I see Canada,” said Senewara Begum, Alom’s 25-year-old wife. “Children come from school, I cook and feed them and at last, the man who is in front of me comes and eats and sleeps!” They both laugh.
“In Myanmar our life was simple,” Alom said. “We were going to work, my wife was making dinner, and we spent time with family or friends until we noticed the horrific violence against our people in June 2012.
“I had many dreams. We were saving up to build a big house – a place to raise a child. You know, stuff that everyone wants,” Alom said.
“Our house was right in the middle of the village and very close to a military camp. One day the armed forces shot and killed one of our neighbours, just because he refused to give the military a goat.”
Alom wants his daughter, Noor Taaz, 10, to be a doctor and his son, Mohammed Omar, 8, to be an engineer.
“Now being in Canada, our dream is to educate our children and grow healthy families and maybe one day our children will contribute to Canada which has given us a new life.”