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A Sumatran fishing town's message for Rohingya refugees: Welcome

Why We Wrote This

The Rohingya’s plight has generated few lasting solutions. In a world where sanctuary for refugees is growing scarcer, it’s notable when host communities continue to welcome them in.

Michael Holtz/Christian Science Monitor
The Rohingya refugees are fed three meals a day at the temporary shelter in Bireuen, Indonesia.

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Bireuen, Indonesia, isn’t the place Nur Hakim risked his life to reach. But it’s certainly better than what the 15-year-old left behind in Myanmar. Nur and his family are Rohingya, a Muslim minority in the majority-Buddhist country; last fall, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights condemned their persecution as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” After soldiers burned Nur’s village, his family was forced into a camp for the displaced, leaving him unable to attend school or leave for work. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled for Bangladesh, but tens of thousands more, like Nur, set sail for Malaysia. Thai Navy ships intercepted his boat, however, and when the 79 men, women, and children were eventually guided ashore by fishermen, they were in Indonesia. More than 1,740 have landed in Aceh province, where some Indonesians say their faith prompts them to welcome the newcomers. But the refugees say this is a temporary respite as they wait for authorities to decide their fate. “The people here have beautiful hearts,” Nur says. “I’m not sure how much longer I’ll stay here, but at least for now I know that I’m safe.”

The plan was to go to Malaysia. That’s where 15-year-old Nur Hakim had hoped to reunite with his older brother, who fled Myanmar years ago and has since found work in construction.

Nur might have made it there if it weren’t for the two Thai Navy ships that intercepted the wooden boat he shared with 78 fellow Rohingya refugees. Instead, the Navy escorted the boat toward the Indonesian island of Sumatra. On April 20, after nine days at sea, it was guided ashore by fishermen and docked at Bireuen, a small fishing town in Aceh province.

The town was quick to welcome the refugees. Those who needed medical care were taken to a nearby hospital, and a government training center was turned into a temporary shelter. Volunteers soon arrived to cook meals, give haircuts, and teach Indonesian. A local imam stopped by during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to offer his prayers.

At a time when the West is growing increasingly hostile to refugees, Bireuen residents have taken the opposite tack. Local officials and aid workers — with support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations refugee agency — have pledged to look after the new arrivals for as long as necessary.

“We know what they went through in Myanmar,” says Mr. Saburuddin, a worker with the Indonesian Red Cross Society, who like many Indonesians, uses only one name. “If not us, who else will take care of them?”

Nearly three months after their arrival, the 79 Rohingya men, women, and children are still waiting for Indonesian and international authorities to decide their fate. They are happy to have found refuge, but they know that the most Bireuen can offer is a temporary respite from the uncertainty of their lives as citizens of nowhere.

“The people here have beautiful hearts,” Nur says one morning after eating a breakfast of steamed white rice and fried noodles. “I’m not sure how much longer I’ll stay here, but at least for now I know that I’m safe.”

Search for someplace better

Nur is grateful for his new life in Bireuen, however short his stay may be. Although it isn’t the destination for which he risked death on the high seas, he readily admits it’s far better than the place he left behind.

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, have faced intense persecution in Myanmar, a majority-Buddhist nation, for decades. Despite origins in the country’s Rakhine state, they’re considered outsiders and deprived of many civil rights and economic opportunities. The UN’s high commissioner for human rights condemned an especially violent period last year as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” and possibly even genocide.

For the past six years, Nur and his family were forced to live in an internally displaced persons camp after Burmese soldiers burned their home village. His cousin was shot and killed during the attack. Nur was unable to attend school in the camp or go outside to find work. After tensions flared up again last August, his parents pushed him to leave.

Michael Holtz/Christian Science Monitor
Rohingya refugees kick around a ball made of woven bamboo at a temporary shelter in Bireuen, Indonesia.

“We have no freedom in Myanmar,” says Mohammad Rofik, the captain of the boat that carried Nur to Bireuen. “If we stayed there, we would die.”

The number of refugees from Myanmar — the majority of whom are Rohingya — more than doubled from less than half a million at the start of 2017 to 1.2 million by the end of the year, according to the UN refugee agency. Most of them now live in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, but more than 100,000 have packed onto rickety vessels in attempts to cross the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. Hundreds have died along the way.

Many boats set sail for Malaysia, where tens of thousands of Rohingya have found work as undocumented laborers. But to get there they must pass the isthmus of Thailand. Though once complicit in the region’s multimillion dollar smuggling trade, Thai officials started to crack down after mass graves that held the remains of Rohingya migrants were discovered in 2015. This year, three Rohingya boats were reportedly pushed away from the Thai coast.

In early April, Malaysia authorities intercepted the first boat and took ashore the 56 Rohingya on board. A few days later, off the coast of Aceh, Indonesian fishermen rescued five Rohingya left on the second boat. (Two people reportedly died during the 20-day journey, and eight others jumped overboard in search of land, according to the IOM.) Then came Mr. Rofik’s boat on April 20.

“We were expecting more this year,” says Mariam Khokhar, the head of the IOM office in Medan, a city 250 miles south of Bireuen. “We were worried about the perilous journey they would take, but so far we haven’t heard of anyone making it out again.”

'Brothers and sisters'

This year isn’t the first time Aceh has welcomed Rohingya refugees. The IOM reports that more than 1,740 have landed in the province over the past decade.

In 2015, a wooden boat crammed with nearly 800 Rohingya was towed to the city of Langsa. Fishermen also rescued a smaller boat carrying 47 others about 15 miles south of Langsa that year. Local authorities provided shelter for the refugees in two small warehouses.

The shelter in Bireuen consists of about a half dozen single-story concrete buildings and a small mosque. Two of the buildings are being used as separate dormitories for men and women. Another one serves as a logistics center. Inside are sacks of rice and stacks of boxes filled with everything from instant noodles and cooking oil to disposable diapers and toothpaste — much of it donated by local residents.

Several local volunteers point to their shared Muslim identity by way of explaining why they have been so hospitable. Aceh is the only province to have formally established sharia law in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority nation with a relatively secular government.

“They are our Muslim brothers and sisters,” says Muhammed Hussein, a volunteer cook at the camp. “It’s our duty to look after them.”

But Mr. Zulfikar, a local official in charge of the camp, maintains that religion has nothing to do with it. Sitting at a table inside the logistics center, he invokes the law of the seas that requires passing boats to try to save a vessel in distress.

“I don’t care if they’re Muslim or not,” he says. “When you see someone who needs help at sea, you don’t ask them about their background first. You just help them.”

Ms. Khokhar says Achenese authorities plan to soon move the refugees 150 miles south to a more permanent shelter in Langsa. Yet few want to stay in Indonesia. Of the five that arrived on April 6, four have already fled. Khokhar says that they likely crossed the Strait of Malacca to Malaysia, where they can more easily blend in with the Rohingya who live and work there.

Malaysia is still where Nur would like to go in the short term. In preparation, he’s been practicing Indonesian, which is closely related to Malay, with aid workers at the camp. He’s also been studying English in the hopes of fulfilling an even bigger dream.

“I want to go to America,” Nur says. “I heard from my uncle there that people in America are happy.”

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