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'Honouring Guests': How Aceh welcomed Rohingya refugees with open arms

January 17, 2016

Three NTU students are working on a documentary on how the Acehnese welcomed thousands of Rohingya refugees and provided them with food and shelter.

NTU students Goh Chiew Tong and Clarissa Sih, working on the Peumulia Jamee documentary en route to an Acehnese fishing village. (Photo: Jade Han)

SINGAPORE: The Rohingya refugee crisis was one of 2015's top stories. Thousands escaped Myanmar, drifting for months in treacherous waters in the hopes of being accepted by neighbouring countries to start anew. 

While many sought to find refuge in Malaysia, Aceh has received thousands of Rohingya refugees with open arms, providing them with food and shelter.

And when a group of three students from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) heard about this, they decided to help shed some light on the ongoing issue. 

Communication Studies majors Goh Chiew Tong, Jade Han Hui Jing and Clarissa Sih are working together on a documentary named Peumulia Jamee, which means "Honouring your Guests" in Acehnese, for their final-year project. 

"When we read about the ‘human ping pong’ that went on between some of the South-East Asian countries, and how Aceh was an exception when its fishermen immediately saved the Rohingya that were stranded at sea, we felt that that was a story worth telling," said Ms Goh, the documentary's director. 

The trio, who are funding the documentary themselves and via a crowdfunding campaign, have spent time in Aceh meeting with both the local Acehnese and the Rohingya refugees to better understand the situation.

They found that the Acehnese welcomed the Rohingya refugees into their country, even putting themselves at risk to ensure their guests would be safe.

“Their main priority was to rescue them from their boats, and they did so without knowing where the refugees came from, if they were Christian, Buddhist, Muslim; or even if they carried any diseases or weapons with them. They just wanted to save the refugees and bring them to shore. Once they brought them to shore, they offered them food and drink, this despite themselves having so little,” said Ms Sih, the project’s director of photography. 

Willy, a cook, serves lunch to Rohingya children at the Lhok Bani refugee camp in Langsa, Aceh. Together with other Acehnese volunteers at the camp, he provides three meals a day for the Rohingya living at the camp. (Photo: Goh Chiew Tong)

When they arrived, the Rohingya refugees were severely malnourished and dehydrated after being on the smuggler boats for at least three months, surviving on half a glass of water and a handful of rice a day, said Ms Goh. 

“According to the Acehnese who were involved in the rescue process, when the Rohingya first landed, their hair were long, their bodies were literally skin and bones, and many of them were very ill. The Acehnese quickly gathered water and snacks from their homes, neighbours and shops to feed the Rohingya,” she added.

The trio said the refugees were visibly grateful, especially after being persecuted for their faith and after their ordeal in getting to dry land.

“Some had seen their fellow passengers die on the journey, and were on the brink of giving up hope when the Acehnese rescued them,” said Ms Han.


The relationship between the Acehnese and the refugees however, is not as straightforward as one may think. Many of them hope to move on to Malaysia to reunite with their families or to seek work, despite their gratitude towards the Acehnese, said Ms Han.

“There were several refugees who were very grateful for what Aceh has provided them with, but the desire to work and to reunite with their families clearly still exist,” said Ms Goh.

She added that she met a few Rohingya refugees who were very vocal about their unhappiness while in Indonesia, as they are unable to find employment due to their status as asylum-seekers by the UNHCR.

“Many of them complained openly that all they do in camps is to sleep and eat and idle,” Ms Goh said.

Minara, a Rohingya, giggles in delight as she shows off the drawings displayed in her brightly decorated room at the Blang Adoe refugee camp in North Aceh. Minara lives in the camp with her parents, and loves drawing and colouring. (Photo: Jade Han)

The Rohingya are also only allowed to stay in Aceh until May 2016, exactly a year from when they arrived. Hence, some of them believe it may be better to leave sooner rather than later.

“The unfortunate thing is that many of them know the dangers that exist in escaping — falling into the traps of illegal smuggling networks, slavery, women being sold into prostitution — but they would rather risk their lives and get a shot of employment in Malaysia, than leave their families to starve in Myanmar,” Ms Goh said.

However, there are those who remain thankful to the Acehnese and their generosity. Ms Goh recalled one particular refugee who called his friends who escaped to Malaysia “fools”, and those who made the escape “have no memory of what the Acehnese did for them”.

“You could really see his gratitude and how he has made Aceh his home,” Ms Goh said.


Ms Goh said the Acehnese take the spirit of “Peumulia Jamee” to heart – to treat their guests well and not expect anything in return.

“I was curious if the Acehnese felt as though they were not appreciated - the Rohingya have been given a new life, a safe shelter where food and water is provided, and they can even openly practice their Muslim faith," Ms Goh said.

NTU students Goh Chiew Tong and Clarissa Sih pose for a photograph by a Rohingya boy. (Photo: Teo Aileen)

"The Acehnese would tell me that the spirit of ‘Peumulia Jamee’ is to welcome your guests and not expect anything in return. One of them used the analogy of an injured bird - when you find its broken wing, you mend it. But when it heals, the bird would of course, fly away. It will move on and your job was to simply provide for it when it most needed it, the Acehnese told me," Ms Goh added. 

The three women spearheading the project hope that it will help many understand what is known to be a complicated issue. Prior to taking it on, they admitted to not knowing much about the refugee crisis.

"Many of us in Singapore know little or nothing about something that is happening so close to our shores. We as Singaporeans are very protected, and we need to step out of our very comfortable shells and understand what's going on around us and there are segments in the region that desperately need our help," said Ms Sih. "This issue spans across various countries in the region, and we all need to work together to solve it. But first, we need to educate people and let them know that there is this issue happening."

Beyond the 24-minute documentary, which is still in its production phase, Ms Goh said the group hopes it will create a movement across South-East Asia. 

"It is our ultimate wish that (people around South-East Asia) will take concrete action in providing aid for the Rohingya Muslims, who are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world,” she said.

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