Life as a refugee: One father’s story

It’s easy to forget that refugees are people just like us – parents, brothers, wives. This is a first-hand account from a Burmese father about living as a Rohingya refugee, and his family’s plight.

Abu’s Story

Abu Ahmad is a 52-year-old father of eight. His 11-year-old daughter Rukia became paralysed shortly before the violence erupted in 2017. After arriving in Bangladesh, Rukia spent over seven months at MSF’s (Médecins Sans Frontières) medical facility in Kutupalong. Here, Abu Ahmad recounts how the family fled, what life is like in Bangladesh, and their hopes for the future.

Abu Ahmad
Abu Ahmad

Before the conflict

Before the conflict, we had cows, goats, land, all those things. We had business and livelihoods, but we faced many threats and torture from the government in Myanmar. Our movements were very restricted; we were not allowed beyond the checkpoints. Other people, like monks and different ethnic communities, were free to move everywhere.

Then the conflict began – fighting, stabbings and the burning of houses. Not long before that, my daughter Rukia somehow became paralysed. She complained of pain and then stopped being able to feel anything below the waist. One night, I called all my children together to discuss what to do. We did not see much hope; we could be arrested or killed, no matter what we did. My eldest son told me that when the fighting starts, we would not be able to run with Rukia. “There will be no chance to save her life,” he said. “You and mother should take her to Bangladesh now, ahead of us. We can join you later.” So, I told my other children to get ready, and my wife and I left for Bangladesh with Rukia.

Fleeing Myanmar

After we left the house, we were unable to openly leave our village because everywhere we looked we saw government people with weapons. We trekked miles through the mountains, hiring men to carry Rukia. We finally arrived at the shoreline opposite Bangladesh late at night. By the time a boat eventually came, there were around 20 to 30 other people at the shore with us. The captain took all of us safely across to Bangladesh. When we arrived, the Bangladeshi border police were waiting. They helped us a lot; welcoming us and giving us food, water and biscuits. In the morning, they hired a bus and brought us to Kutupalong camp.

Refugee crisis

I was anxious after we got off the bus. We had never been to Bangladesh before. I didn’t know where to take my sick daughter and I was asking everyone I saw. People told us about the MSF hospital in Kutupalong. The medics there took Rukia from my arms and admitted her as a patient. She spent almost seven and a half months at the hospital. She had X-rays, blood transfusions and was seen by the doctors several times a day. We were given regular meals.

After arriving, I had no news from my children that were left behind. Other people told us that our house had been set on fire and that our children had fled. We didn’t have a phone or any other way to contact our children; we were so worried. After some time, we heard from people that they had arrived in Bangladesh and were looking for us. They made it to Kutupalong and were able to find us at the MSF hospital by asking people about Rukia. When I was finally reunited with my children after two months, I began to feel calm again. I felt like I had my world back.

Life as a Rohingya Refugee

The government gave us wood, bamboo and plastic sheeting to make a house here. We get rations of oil, rice and dhal. We sell some of the oil and dhal they give us, earning between 100 and 200 Taka (a few Singapore dollars). After that, we buy some fish, vegetables and chillies. With that 100 or 200 Taka, we have to survive for one month; and even if we don’t have money, we have to survive. If we could work, life would be easier. We aren’t given the chance to do so. I have no opportunity to work and I’ve lost my strength. I cannot work outside and earn money to feed my children.

We are not stateless; we’re still from Myanmar. Our ancestors are from there; our great grandfathers were born there. The country in which we cut our umbilical cord is Myanmar. We will return if the country becomes peaceful, but we will return with conditions. We will return if we get our freedom back; if they return our house, our land, our cattle and our goats. God brought us here and if God wishes, he can take us back to our house and our country. We are ready to go back to our country, but how can we go back while there is still conflict there?

The role of MSF

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) started working in Bangladesh in 1985, and for the past nine years has operated a medical facility there for the Rohingya refugee population. In response to the influx of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar on 25 August 2017 into the area, MSF significantly increased its operations. It now covers water, sanitation and medical activities for the refugee population, totalling 919,000 refugees.

MSF is a Nobel Peace Prize-awarded international medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid in over 70 countries to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from healthcare. For details about contributing to the mission in Bangladesh, email office@hongkong.msf.org or call 2959 4229.

This article first appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.