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Born in Malaysia, yet Rohingya have no right to schooling, work

Rohingya refugee Banu Hassan and her granddaughter Zahida Ismail have been living in Selangor for 10 years and are keen to contribute to the Malaysian economy. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Afif Abd Halim, December 25, 2015.

By Nabihah Hamid 
December 25, 2015

At a time when Malaysia is giving special treatment to Syrian refugees, a Rohingya family tell of how they have been here for three generations yet are still denied the right to earn a living. 

All six of Banu Hassan’s children were born in Malaysia and the 60-year-old has four grandchildren. But none has permanent residency, much less citizenship.

All they want is the right to finish schooling, to earn a living, freedom from harassment and a chance to contribute to the Malaysian economy.

“If the Malaysian government does not give us citizenship, at least give us the opportunity to go to school like other children,” pleaded 17-year-old Zahida Ismail, one of Banu’s granddaughters. 

“When we do not have (education) certificates, we cannot work safely. When we work, our employers take advantage of us and they do not even pay us our wages,” told The Malaysian Insider recently.

“We were born in Malaysia but we are denied the right to live like everyone else.

“We know we are refugees but we can also contribute to the Malaysian economy if given the chance,” said Zahida, who was denied the chance to sit for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) with her other Malaysian friends.

According to Rohingya community researcher Azlinariah Abdullah, there are about 40,000 individuals who fled to Malaysia from Rakhine state in western Myanmar, starting in the early 1980s.

The United Nations considers the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted in the world.

The Myanmar government does not recognise them as citizens and they are forced to live in squalid camps along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

In May, Malaysia accepted about 7,000 more Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants found adrift at sea.

Though they are still vulnerable to harassment, the Rohingya’s welfare has improved since the UN office in Kuala Lumpur was allowed to open its High Commission for Refugees.

The Rohingya have been working informally, said Azlinariah, who wrote a book on the community titled “Air Mata Kesengsaraan Rohingya”.

About 15% were children, said Azlinariah, and they collected scrap metal while some youths were able to find work in factories.

She said UNHCR refugees were not allowed to work but there were companies willing to use their discretion and employ them.

Some local authorities, too, were willing to allow them to operate their own businesses, resulting in some being able to open food stalls and sundry shops, Azlinariah said.

She said in Klang, many furniture stores employed her compatriots as carpenters.

But the majority still struggled to find decent work.

“In Malaysia, I raised my kids on money I made selling Quranic verses and collecting tins and bottles to recycle,” said Banu, who has lived here for the past 30 years.

She and her husband first fled from their village to Thailand in the early 1980s and worked there for six months to save up money for the trip to Malaysia.

“We did everything we could to escape our village. I walked, took a boat, trekked through the jungle to reach Thailand,” said Banu, who has been living as a refugee for two-thirds of her life.

In Malaysia, the couple found that Banu’s features made it easier for her to blend among locals compared with her late husband.

“My husband really looked like a foreigner so he stayed out of sight at home to take care of the children. I lived two years in Kelantan, two years in Pahang and 20 years in Banting, Selangor. I have lived in Klang for the past 10 years.”

Before the UN opened its refugees division, Banu said she and her husband were detained many times and sent to the Thai border because they did not have identification papers.

She said each time they returned after they were freed by the Thai authorities. They crossed the poorly guarded borders in the north of the country with little difficulty.

“When we were registered with the UNHCR we felt that we could breathe easier,” said Banu, who speaks Bahasa Malaysia, Rohingya, Tamil and Thai.

Banu’s daughter, Rokiah Mohd Ali told how her dreams of becoming a doctor were dashed after she could not continue schooling.

“My last class was in Primary Six. After that I could not continue to Form One because I was not accepted,” said Rokiah, who is now 26.

“It was then that I realised that I am the child of refugee without citizenship and without a chance to further my studies.

“My father always told me to study hard so that I could succeed in life. But I cried in front of him when I realised I could not continue going to school.”

Rokiah is now a teacher at the El-Shaddai refugee learning centre in the Klang Valley.

Zahida, Banu’s granddaughter, also experienced a similar fate as she, too, only finished primary school. She is now a preschool teacher at the El-Shaddai school.

Zahid is fluent in Bahasa Malaysia, English and Rohinya and is paid RM500.

“We are grateful that our lives are better than our grandparents who had to suffer through so much.

“I hope that one day, I can continue my studies. If we are accepted in a third country, I want to better myself and become a good human being.”

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