My first encounter with a Rohingya family was in March of last year during my time as an intern with Partners Relief & Development. We flew to the West-coast of Myanmar to a city called Sittwe. There I got my first glance of what you would call a concentration camp. We visited a family living there. They had lost everything they owned, and lived in a very simple house. Although it was simple, it was still nicer than many of the shacks and broken-down tents most of the IDPs were living in. I got sick while we were there and the family took me into their home and let me lay on their floor. They checked up on me regularly, giving me water to drink. They constantly apologized for the “lack” of cleanliness in Rohingya food. I remember feeling safe and loved despite our obvious differences.
Last week I was sitting at a coffee shop in Oslo, happy that the sun was shining enough for me to be able to wear sunglasses and a t-shirt. I was there with my mom, my sister and a girl named Shabana. We were enjoying our bagels with cream cheese and fresh-pressed OJ. Shabana is a Rohingya girl who escaped from Myanmar and came to Norway when she was seven. Other than the color of our skin, we had few differences. We discussed the difficulty of moving to a country halfway across the world at an age where one still remembers where “home” used to be (I also moved to a different country at a vulnerable age). We discussed school, and what it is like to have a job alongside school and how it is hard to balance everything. We wore similar clothes, ate the same food and spoke the same language.
She told me about her family, and how her father made sure to keep their traditions and mother tongue alive at home. Shabana’s father, mother and sisters are safe in Norway, but the rest of her family members are still in Myanmar in the chaos and violence hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are trying to escape.
As Shabana told me about her past, I felt a lump forming in my throat. As shallow as it sounds, this was the first time I felt a deep urge to help. I wanted to tell her that there was something I could do, someone I could contact, but all I could do was sip my refreshing orange juice and wipe my pathetic tears.
Aung San Suu Kyi used to be the Rohingya’s only hope for freedom. Like so many others, they thought she would be an advocate for human rights. She has not done what we hoped she would do. For the Rohingya she has contributed to making their lives a lot worse. What can one say, when not even the one person who could have helped them does so?
“My father was there in August of 88.” Shabana told me.
“He believed in her, alongside so many other Rohingyan people.”
Meeting Shabana and hearing her story made me feel hopeless. At the time, I felt like I couldn’t do much except support her and listen to her story. However, as I have been reading the headlines and articles on the news, I’ve felt a need to write about my short, but meaningful encounter with the Rohingya people.
The Rohingya never disrespected me, threatened me or mistreated me. It would never even cross my mind that these beautiful and hospitable people would be a threat to anybody, whether it is Norway or Myanmar.
I have never felt that their religion or culture would be a threat to Norway’s the way the authorities of Myanmar believe they will impact theirs.
Shabana and her people are human beings just like me. Shabana is just like me. She likes to listen to music, to put on makeup and wear nice clothes. She probably dreams of visiting her home in Myanmar again, the same way I miss being back in my home in Chiang Mai. The difference is she can never go back.
I haven’t written or spoken out about the situation in Myanmar other than to my friends and family. Because I feel like such a small and insignificant person in a world filled with war and conflict. I assume that for most of you reading this, loving your neighbor means loving all human beings, whether they are black, white, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Buddhist. We’ve been taught since we were children that no one has more worth than the other based on religion or appearance.
I can’t go on reading the news about the terrible things happening to my brothers and sisters in Myanmar without saying anything or doing anything. Therefore, I will say this: I am 21 years old, 162 cm tall. I don’t have a bachelor’s degree yet, and I don’t know how to change the tires of a car. Sometimes I fail miserably at making a fire to keep the house warm and I lose my temper too often. But I do have a voice. It’s a small one, but it’s there. Right now this voice is for the Rohingya, because I believe that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.