By Chris Buckley
New York Times
For Hasinah Izhar, it seems a lifetime since she scrambled onto a boat on a muddy shore of Myanmar, clutching three of her children, and joined the exodus of the persecuted Rohingya minority, hoping for a better life in Malaysia.
But in the year since she told her story to The New York Times, little has changed. The burdens of caring for three children and a jobless husband, while separated from the son she left behind in Myanmar, are still hard to bear.
“I’d like to fly like a bird back to Myanmar, but there is no peace and security there,” she said in the cramped rented room she shares with her husband and three children in Penang, Malaysia. “But we don’t want to stay in Malaysia, because we cannot work and live in freedom.”
The biggest change came in March, when the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Kuala Lumpur certified Izhar and the three children as refugees. Their refugee cards give some protection from frequent police checks and better access to health care, albeit at a price still out of reach for many.
The family also received nearly $12,000 in donations from Times readers who were moved by the article and wanted to help. Izhar said she and her husband had used the money to pay debts owed for her and her children’s journey from Myanmar, as well as to pay rent and school expenses for the children.
But Izhar’s husband, Dil Muhammad Rahman, did not receive a refugee card. The couple said they thought that was because the authorities had made a priority of giving cards to women and children.
The U.N. refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur said by email that it did not comment on specific cases but that in general its “limited capacity requires it to prioritize refugees who are most in need of international protection.”
Even if he did have refugee status, Rahman would not be allowed to work legally. Like many Rohingya, he hunts for off-the-books jobs in construction, gardening or home repair. But even lowly work has been hard to come by, because Rahman cannot speak Malay, and employers and other workers are worried about his unregistered status, he said.
Perhaps even worse, the son Izhar left behind in Myanmar, about 1,200 miles away, remains trapped there. Jubair, now 14, has become increasingly bitter.
“When I call him,” Izhar said, “he starts crying and complains to me — ‘Why don’t you take me to Malaysia? You always say that you will bring me there soon. How much longer will you keep cheating me?’”
Izhar left Jubair, her eldest child, in part because she could not afford the smugglers’ fee, which cost much more for young men, but she had hoped to be able to have him rejoin the family. She felt compelled to flee persecution in Myanmar, she told The Times last year, but vowed when she left, “If I can stay alive, I will bring him to Malaysia.”
That goal has remained out of reach. Myanmar does not recognize Rohingya as citizens and does not allow them to leave. Smuggling has become even more difficult since governments in the region cracked down on the trade after it exploded into a crisis last year.
Nor can Izhar return to Myanmar even to visit, because she arrived in Malaysia as an undocumented migrant. Not only would any journey abroad be perilous, it would be nearly impossible for her to return legally to Myanmar.
She has phoned Jubair occasionally and sent money, but he has not found stable work or a warm home, though he is staying with one of her brothers, an instructor in Islam who has also been unable to find steady work. Jubair made a little money as a farm laborer, carrying water and planting paddy rice.
Izhar has fixed her hopes on winning resettlement for her family in America, Australia or Canada as refugees. She said: “Then we can advance our children’s lives.”
But those opportunities are very few, and even if the family were offered resettlement, her son Jubair would not qualify.
Of the nearly 1,500 Rohingya whose arrivals in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were officially registered last year, only 46 have been resettled by a third country.
Illness has also dogged Izhar’s family. She said she suffered from numbness, constant tiredness and heart palpitations. A doctor visiting her sons’ school, which is supported by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, has given them medicine.
But the drugs have not worked, and she said she had also been losing her temper with her 5-year-old son, Sufaid, who has difficulty controlling his bowel movements and often soils his clothes. He also cries about bullying by boys in the neighborhood.
“I don’t want any peace and happiness for myself in this lifetime,” Izhar said. “But I am thinking about my children’s future.”