'In Canada, it's freedom for us'
For a lucky few Rohingya, gaining refugee status in Canada has opened wonderful new avenues, writes Joe Friesen, chief among them a chance for an education. But to a man, they carry memories of horrific journeys, lost friends and the absence of loved ones half a world away
They had been adrift at sea for more than a month and the food and water had long ago run out.
The hunger was unrelenting. The 129 men, all young Rohingya fleeing state repression in Myanmar, were at the limit of their endurance. They lay listlessly in the open boat as the sun sapped their will. Some drank seawater, some chewed shards of wood from the deck to remind themselves what it was like to feel food in their mouths.
At night, Mohammed Rafiq, a shopkeeper from rural Myanmar, rarely slept. He sat in the moonlit darkness and waited for the sound of a splash, the signal that yet another of his companions had thrown themselves upon the mercy of the sea.
"So many of them jumped and died," Mr. Rafiq said. "They said 'We don't find any boat. We'll be dead soon. We don't want our life.'"
The small fishing vessel, its engine disabled, rolled aimlessly with the waves. Mr. Rafiq prayed. Maybe tomorrow they would be saved, he thought.
After 38 days at sea they were finally spotted by Sri Lankan fishermen, who radioed for help.
In an image taken after their deliverance that day in February, 2013, Mr. Rafiq and the other survivors lay on the deck of a Sri Lankan navy ship their skin stretched tight across their faces, cheeks hollow, ribs sharply defined. Of the approximately 130 men who began the journey, at least 97 had perished and only 32 remained.
Today, Mr. Rafiq is one of a group of six Rohingya refugees who have begun new lives in Canada. Their stories of fear, escape and survival are an astonishing illustration of the oppression the Rohingya face and the risks they are prepared to take for a chance at a better life.
Described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted peoples, the Rohingya have become Asia's unwanted, marginalized in Myanmar's Rakhine state, where the bulk of the approximately one million Rohingya reside, as well as in neighbouring countries where they try to seek refuge.
During the recent elections, Rohingya were not allowed to vote. With few good options, many young men try their luck on a long and dangerous boat journey. A small number who made it out have been accepted as refugees in Canada.
Kevin Van Paassen/for The Globe and Mail
A new home
The young men gathered in their classroom at Kitchener's Eastwood Collegiate recently to recount what they've been through. Without exception, all six say the opportunity to go to school, something denied to them in Myanmar, has been the greatest of the gifts bestowed on them by Canada.
"Wonderful, wonderful," says Mr. Rafiq, describing his life here, breaking into a broad smile and letting out a huge sigh. "In Canada, it's freedom for us. We can go anywhere here. We can study."
That's quite different from his description of life growing up as a Muslim in Myanmar. To explain he pulls out his wallet and removes a white card with his photo and some text in Burmese script. The government-issued ID says he was born in Bangladesh. That's the government's long-standing justification for not granting citizenship to the Rohingya, but Mr. Rafiq said he was born in Myanmar and his family has lived in the country, which is majority Buddhist, for generations.
"I have such a hard life in Burma," he said, referring to Myanmar by its former name. "They target many young Rohingya people. They put them in jail. That's why we had to go."
Before he fled, Mr. Rafiq ran a small general store that sold groceries. But the taxes and bribes he had to pay were onerous, so he sold the shop. His village was close to a military encampment and at night soldiers would enter the village looking for young men to lock up and young women to rape, he said. He slept in the jungle to avoid trouble and then decided with two of his friends to set forth in secret for the coast. He didn't even say goodbye to his mother, he said, for fear that knowing he was leaving would put her in danger.
In Canada, it’s freedom for us. We can go anywhere here. We can study.Mohammed Rafiq
When they reached the coastal town of Fatung Sa, they heard of a boat departing soon for Malaysia. The price to get on was roughly $20 up front, a significant sum to him, plus a promise to pay $2,000 more in indentured servitude once they reached Malaysia.
He and his two close friends boarded a tiny, overloaded fishing vessel on Jan., 7, 2013 at midnight. The boat was so cramped its passengers had room only to crouch with arms wrapped tightly around their knees.
After about a week at sea, the boat drifted into Thai waters, where it was intercepted and towed to land by the Thai navy. For a moment the passengers thought they would be given asylum, but after 24 hours in port the navy towed their boat back out to open water. The navy also removed the boat's engine, Mr. Rafiq said, and when they cut the tow line the migrants were left to drift (the Thai navy denied the allegation at the time). At that moment they knew their prospects were grim.
Mr. Rafiq took courage from his two childhood friends, Syed Hossain, a farmer and Hamid Ullah, a vegetable seller. They had brought small bottles of water and some puffed rice for the journey, but their supplies ran out after a week. They drank salt water out of desperation.
Mr. Hossain was the frailest of the three and the first to falter. One morning, after 25 days at sea, Mr. Hossain took a last drink of salt water, lay down and stopped breathing. Mr. Rafiq said a prayer over his body. He sat with his friend for a time and after about 30 minutes the stronger ones lifted the corpse and hurled it over the side of the boat. With more people dying every day Mr. Rafiq thought it was only a matter of time for him.
The following morning the captain descended from his perch and beat the passengers with an iron rod. Mr. Ullah couldn't take it. He turned to Mr. Rafiq and said: "If you reach any country in the world, please let my parents know I jumped off the boat." Mr. Rafiq pleaded with his friend, but he stepped to the edge and jumped. Mr. Rafiq scrambled to the side. He watched as his friend bobbed in the ocean and then disappeared behind the swell.
A new life
In Sri Lanka, Mr. Rafiq was initially kept in a jail before being moved to a United Nations refugee camp. It was there that he was selected to come to Canada, along with five other men who had made a similarly perilous journey before being plucked from the sea.
Just like Mr. Rafiq's boat, they were intercepted by the Thai navy and then dragged back out to sea without enough oil and fuel. The captain tried to navigate back into Thai waters but the navy repelled them by firing over their heads. After two weeks of drifting, they spotted a large fishing vessel and one of the men, Mansour Alom, despite weeks of starvation, was able to swim to the larger vessel and pull himself up by the anchor rope that hung from the side. The startled fishermen chased Mr. Alom away with knives, forcing him back into the water, but soon saw the condition of those aboard the migrant vessel and radioed the Sri Lankan navy for help.
None of the men knew each other before they fled Myanmar, but today they consider themselves brothers.
They arrived in Canada nearly a year ago, when five of the six presented themselves in the office at Kitchener's Eastwood Collegiate. The five – Mr. Rafiq; Ali Johar; Anam Ullah; Anayath Hossain; and Shofi Aktar – were all given the same birthdate in the UN refugee camp – Jan. 1, 1995 – and so they were allowed to enroll in a high-school English literacy development stream. The sixth, Mr. Alom, is a few years older so he attends adult English classes and works part-time in a store.
Lara Shantz, a guidance counsellor and teacher at Eastwood, was there to greet them on the first day. She knew a little of how they came to Canada, but the young men were very different than she expected.
"They were so friendly and eager to engage," Ms. Shantz said. "I guess I expected them to be more broken or fearful or shy. I've just been blown away with the joy they have in them and the gratitude and respect."
Only one of them had ever attended school before, and then only for a year or two. Ms. Shantz points out that Rohingya culture is primarily oral, not written, so not only are they learning English, they're also learning basic literacy.
I’ve just been blown away with the joy they have in them and the gratitude and respect.Lara Shantz, Eastwood Collegiate guidance counsellor
Their teachers say they've embraced learning with an enthusiasm that enlivens those around them. At the moment they're working at about a Grade 4 level, but they're quickly making progress. In their math class, which is made up of refugee children from Iraq, Syria and Somalia, they all sit near the front, smiling, excited, shouting answers as they try to resolve fractions with chocolate bars drawn in chalk as a point of reference.
In the three-bedroom apartment they share, most of the men have yellow post-it notes above their beds with new words they are trying to learn. In Mr. Rafiq's case, the carefully copied words include: rebellious, responsible, thoughtful, cheerful, powerful, inventive.
"I practise when I go to sleep and when I wake up, because I never learned in Burma. I never got to go to school," Mr. Rafiq said.
Free weights are scattered around the apartment, a sign of their growing enthusiasm for exercise and bodybuilding. They also take turns preparing large meals they eat together. At night, they sometimes watch Bollywood movies, talk to relatives via Skype and scan the Internet for news about Myanmar. One shows gruesome images of beheaded bodies in Rakhine state, saying "This is happening right now in my home."
Several express profound sadness for their families who, as long as they are ineligible for passports in Myanmar, are unlikely to ever be able to rejoin them in Canada.
"We are happy here, but our insides still cry for them," Mr. Aktar said.
Anam Ullah proudly shows off his bedroom, which features Canadian flags taped up by the window, stacks of books on the chest of drawers and a map above his bed. Because of the government restrictions on their movement in Myanmar the young men had never travelled before they set out for the sea, and the vastness of their new country still awes them. He's surprised to learn that the map is not all of Canada, but just the Kitchener-Waterloo region.
He says his dreams often take him back to his childhood, to the killing and violence he witnessed, and he wakes with tears on his pillow
"I saw many things in my village," Anam Ullah says. "I have fishing boat back home [and] when I'm going to work I saw a lot of people dead in the river, dead bodies. That's what I remember."
Kevin Van Paassen/for The Globe and Mail
Ms. Shantz has become very close to the young men, visiting their apartment to check on them (they recently learned they could save leftovers by refrigerating them) and keeping a close eye on their academic progress. The young men refer to her as their Canadian mother and break into smiles when she appears.
That bond became even closer this year when Mr. Aktar, likely the youngest of the group, was riding a new bike in Kitchener and, unfamiliar with traffic rules, was hit and badly injured by a van. The others, who had been riding the bus, found him bloodied, barely conscious and struggling to breathe. He was lucky to survive and spent nearly a month in hospital recovering.
With no family to handle his care, Ms. Shantz and others stepped in. Recently, Mr. Aktar told Ms. Shantz that when he asked his mother in Myanmar how she would one day approve of his future wife, she said his Canadian mother would have to take on that role.
"We lose our mom and we find another one," Mr. Aktar says.
Kevin Van Paassen/for The Globe and Mail
The students have formed a strong bond with their school, but they will have to leave on their 21st birthday, which will be this Jan. 1, according to their UN-issued birth certificates. They say that's unfair, because their birthdays were assigned more or less at random, and they would benefit greatly from staying in school. They've written to the local superintendent to see whether it might be possible to extend their time at the school.
"When we came to Sri Lanka we did not know our real age and we were half-dead," the boys wrote in a letter. "If we can stay here we will be very thankful. We don't want to give up on our education."