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August 29, 2012

A stateless people seek their place in the world

Jacques Gallant

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Burmese Rohingyas resettled in Kitchener offer glimpse into ongoing persecution in their native region.

KITCHENER — Aziz Nur has only a few clear memories of the first years of his life in his native country.

He remembers going fishing, looking after his family’s dogs, and playing with his cousins, experiences not unlike those of many preschoolers.

But Nur, now 23, also recalls military officers knocking on his door asking for money, and taking livestock from his family for their own consumption.

Most of all, Nur remembers the night he and his family fled their home in Arakan (Rakhine) state in western Burma and embarked on a 10-day trek to a refugee camp in neighbouring Bangladesh.

They never looked back.

Living in Canada since 2010, Nur is a Rohingya, part of Burma’s Muslim minority and a people who the United Nations has identified as among the most persecuted minorities on Earth.

Rohingyas have been in the news lately after the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, called for an independent investigation earlier this month into allegations of human rights abuses in Arakan, where Rohingyas are primarily concentrated.

His request followed clashes in June between members of the state’s Buddhists and Muslims. The government said 77 people were killed, although human rights groups have said the number is probably much higher.

Ever since a 1982 law stripped them of citizenship rights, Rohingyas have been effectively stateless. Despite spotty media coverage from within Burma, rights groups and Rohingyas themselves have painted a dire portrait. Rohingyas must request permission to marry (it can take up to five years to receive approval), they must sign a commitment to not have more than two children, their livestock is considered state property, they are randomly asked to cough up money or face arrest, and some are forced into labour projects.

The southeast Asian nation has 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. The Rohingya is not one of them.

Burma’s military junta, formed by members of the Buddhist majority, cast the Rohingya minority as nothing more than Muslim migrants from neighbouring countries, primarily Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Burma for generations, say rights groups. Bangladesh has also disputed Burma’s claims.

The UN estimates there are still 800,000 Rohingyas living in Burma.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent nearly two decades under house arrest for opposing the junta, has been uncharacteristically quiet on the Rohingya situation.

Nur spent 20 years in one of two officially recognized refugee camps in Bangladesh, which currently house approximately 30,000 people. It’s a relatively small number compared to the estimated 200,000 Rohingya and other asylum seekers living in makeshift camps around the official site.

Bangladesh has not allowed any newcomers into the official camps for at least 20 years, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ branch in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.

Nur remembers arriving with a bevy of relatives, all squeezed into a few small shelters made out of bamboo, with plastic sheets for roofs — far from ideal during the rainy season.

Tayaba Khatun, Nur’s mother, has not forgotten why she decided to get her family out of Burma over 20 years ago.

Her son acting as the interpreter, Khatun says that the military had been using her husband as a labourer, and she had heard of young girls in the area being raped by officers. Khatun had three daughters at home.

Nur and Khatun both arrived in Canada in 2010.

Last week, mother and sonknew they were in a safe place to share their stories with the wider world for the first time. They were sitting in the backyard of the Kitchener home of Nur Hasim, who founded the Canadian Burmese Rohingya Organization in 2008 to facilitate the adaptation of resettled Rohingyas in Canada.

Among those gathered were Hasim and his mother, Bodu Zama, as well as Sayed Alam and his mother, Sazida Begum. All had dark tales to share, as well as pleas for peace.

None of the women speak English. Their sons acted as interpreters.

“I had to leave because they were taking my teenage children and forcing them to work,” says Begum, 55, who fled Burma with Sayed, now 30, when he was about 12 years old.

Hasim, then a student, fled in 1989 in the aftermath of the 1988 popular uprising against the junta. He said police forces were looking for him as he was an active campaigner for democracy.

His parents and other relatives eventually joined him in Bangladesh. For 13 years, he was head teacher at the UN primary school in the camp. He got married and had four children while living as a refugee, and had a fifth child following his resettlement to Canada in 2007.

Canada became a leaderin the resettlement of Rohingya refugees when, between 2006 and 2010, it resettled over 300 refugees in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, according to statistics from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Several other western nations soon followed in Canada’s footsteps.

The process allowed for registered refugees recommended by the UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) or a private sponsor to be taken in. Rohingya refugees resettled in Canada received government financial assistance and temporary living accommodations during their first year in the country.

But in November 2010, Bangladesh halted the resettlement process, refusing to grant exit papers to eligible refugees.

Rights groups have mused Bangladesh doesn’t want to be seen as granting extra support to Rohingyas by assisting them with their exit, which could potentially encourage more Rohingyas to spill into Bangladesh from Burma.

More worrying still is the Bangladeshi government’s order two weeks ago to three NGOs — Doctors Without Borders, Action Against Hunger and Muslim Aid — to stop helping unregistered refugees living around the official camps.

To date this year, the Canadian International Development Agency has provided $400,000 to the UNHCR and $500,000 to the World Food Program in support of their refugee assistance programs in Bangladesh, as well as $400,000 to UNHCR, $3 million to WPF and $200,000 to the International Committee for the Red Cross to support their operations in Burma.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s press secretary Rick Roth says Canada has also asked Bangladesh not to block Rohingyas from seeking asylum in that country.

In a statement emailed to the Star, the Burmese embassy in Ottawa says reports of the violence in Arakan in June were “exaggerated and distorted,” saying they were nothing more than “communal clashes.”

“People of different faiths, including Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus have been living together side by side in peace and harmony in every part of this multi-religious country for centuries,” the statement concludes.

The Bangladeshi High Commission in Ottawa did not respond to requests for comment.

Those gathered in Nur Hasim’s backyard know they are among the lucky ones. They were resettled before Bangladesh shut down the resettlement process. They are now leading productive lives in their new country, where they enjoy the full rights accorded to a permanent resident for some, and citizens for others.

Sayed Alam is working on getting his high school equivalency, while Aziz Nur is studying mechanical engineering.

But despite the peace they now enjoy in Canada, a country they thank repeatedly for accepting them, they live in constant worry. They still have relatives in Burma and in Bangladeshi refugee camps, and it is almost impossible to get in touch with them.

They want the Canadian government to put more pressure on Burma to repeal the 1982 law and stop the violence.

Nur and his mother desperately want Nur’s two older brothers, his sister, her husband and their children to be with them in Canada. One of his brothers is very sick, and pleading to leave. Canada has approved his entry, but Bangladesh is not letting him out.

“He keeps trying to call us every day. He doesn’t have his mother and he isn’t getting much help where he is,” says Nur, his voice breaking, while his mother watches closely, almost as if she’s trying to decipher what he’s saying in English.

“He keeps asking us to help. Every time I hear this, it is very emotional.”

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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