IN her line of work, Zakiah Aris (pic) comes across many depressing stories. But none is more disconcerting to her than the accounts of people who lost everything in the blink of an eye.
A senior resettlement assistant with the UNHCR, Zakiah deals with refugees.
“I feel a lot more for people who had it all (and lost). It’s not easy to adapt if you have lost everything. Some people move on, but at the end of the day, they are brave to go through the challenges,” she relates.
Zakiah still remembers vividly an elderly Vietnamese professor among the refugees at the Vietnamese refugee camp in Pulau Bidong, Terengganu. The professor who spoke fluent French held a high position in Vietnam but was forced to flee for fear of persecution.
“Just imagine if your parents had to go through the same traumatic experience,” she says.
Zakiah, 48, has been working with UNHCR for 22 years, starting at the camp in Pulau Bidong, in 1988. When the Pulau Bidong camp was closed in 1991, she worked at the Sungai Besi refugee camp.
Zakiah remembers an incident where staff of the UNHCR had to be evacuated from the island because the refugees were protesting the visit of a Vietnamese official to Malaysia. They were burning effigies and blocking access to the jetty.
She remembers Pulau Bidong as a beautiful and hilly island and that the refugee camp had a kampung-like setting.
In those days, refugees would arrive at the island day and night and the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS) had to continuously build makeshift camps while waiting for materials to arrive from the mainland.
The refugees, she recalls, lived in cramped longhouses with sewage pipes hanging above. Rats were common and sanitation was always an issue.
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