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Stateless Rohingya Family

Photographer: Fazry Ismail and Lynn Bo Bo


This is the story of one Rohingya Muslim family. But it is also representative of the stories of many thousands of Rohingya families trying to find a country to accept them as citizens and their search for basic human rights, of statehood, of a place to call home, with no resolution. This is a story of fear, displacement, and uncertainty. Of wanting to belong, to have citizenship, have normal human rights of freedom and access. This is a desperate story of waiting and hoping for many Rohingya.


Jamal Husein cries as he peers at the screen of his mobile phone in Malaysia. He looks at the face of his wife Noor Jahan and his children that look back at him from a Rakhine state displaced person camp in Myanmar. In both places their lives are insecure, they are stateless. They are Rohingya, a Muslim minority that is not wanted by the Buddhist majority state Myanmar, despite generations of their families have lived there they were never been accepted as rightful citizens.


Jamal, 40, made a desperate journey from the Rakhine camp with a smuggler to reach Malaysia, leaving behind his wife and four children and the grave of his baby. He misses his family with a pain in his heart that does not go away, more than three years has gone by and he still waiting and hoping that his family is accepted in Malaysia. Return to the Rakhine means to return to a stateless condition, denied of citizenship. To face arrest for breaking immigration laws and remain powerless to craft a better future for all. Stay, means remain separated and waiting, clinging each day to the hope he will be accepted as a refugee and allowed to become a citizen and one day reunite his family.


Wife Noor Jahan remains at the makeshift shelter in the refugee camp, built on the field where the couple was moved by Myanmar authorities with thousands of other homeless Rohingyas after their village called 'Nazi' located on the outskirts of the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, was burnt down in conflict on 12 June 2012. Jamal Husein and Noor Jahan walked from the burning remains of their village supporting their children Mohammad Shuku, now 16, Ruqayyah Baksh, now 14,  Nabeel Hyseub, now 10 and Noor Rumki,  now 7. The dusty and poor village they called home were among those destroyed in 2012, in the bloody conflict between the Rakhine ethnic Buddhists and the Muslims at the Rakhine State’s capital. “I carried my six-month-old child and walked with my family and all other villagers. We couldn’t even bring any belongings, just some money and the clothes we were wearing at that time,”  Noor Jahan said.


Thousands of Rohingyas left 'Nazi' and took refuge in a field near a small Muslim village, 8.5 kilometers away from the town. Food and basic sanitary facilities were lacking and five months later, their baby died. Noor Jahan blames the death due to malnutrition. Later that year, the Rakhine State authority built shelters with the help of NGOS and named it the Thet Kel Pyin Internally Displaced Person (IDPs) camp. The camp grew to 125 shelters, divided into eight units. There are now 5773 Rohingya people listed as living there.The villagers have not been allowed to return to Nazi, their former home. They have been blocked by security forces, and may only stay in the camp area or other IDP camps and some known Muslim neighbourhoods around the city.


In mid-2014, desperate to find a solution that would bring his family a future, Jamal Husein fled. He took a boat transporting Rohingya to Malaysia, he had to pay 13 million Myanmar Kyats (about 1350 USD that period) on landing in Malaysia.  The journey took five months. The boat ride was 20 days long and headed first to Thailand. There he faced another agent with additional demands for money, who kept him captive until he committed to paying another MYR 6000 (1270 EURO) before he could move on to Malaysia. Jamal was held by the transporters until the money was paid.


In the camp, Noor Jahan and the children are the 'lucky’ ones. They have contact with their husband and father. They know he is alive. Other wives and children wait, hope, but have no news of their loved ones.  Days, months and years have passed, with no word about the fate of those who left looking for a way to a better future and there is no way to find out.


Jamal Husein has also managed to send the family about 1.5 Myanmar Kyats (about 1100 USD) since he has left. It helps the family to survive and also to buy medicines for Noor Jahan who has heart disease. The food in the IDP camps is controlled, each Rohingya gets 44 cups (12.3 kilograms) of rice, some beans, oil, and salt per month, all provided by the World Food Programme (WFP),   some additional nutrition is also provided for the children. Work in the camp is normally not allowed and rare. Permission is needed for movement and their oldest son Mohammad Shuku has no regular job, he dreams of joining his father to help support the family.  Sometimes, he gets the chance to work as a general laborer at construction sites outside of Sittwe, hired by the regional government and military he earns 3000 Myanmar Kyats (2.2 USD)  per day.


With the situation uncertain in both places, Noor Jahan says: “I want to see my husband and have a family reunion, and I would like to follow him with the whole family. But none of those seem possible. I can only hope my eldest son can go to Malaysia and get a better life there.” Jamal Husein tries to get by, but his life is filled with worry and concerns, without legal documents, his life is very uncertain, his status insecure. He misses his family, and his sadness is palpable. At least in Malaysia, he has a sense of religious freedom. “Here in Malaysia I can practice as a true Muslim in peace, and can do any ritual, not like in my country Myanmar,” he says. For this, at least, he says, he is very thankful to Allah.