Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Undiminished Hope of Malaysia's Burmese Refugees



By Meagan Floyd

 During preliminary research, most of the articles I came across relating to the Chin in Malaysia were written in 2009 or 2010. In the past two years, Burma’s leadership has made moves towards a functioning democracy and the Malaysian government has implemented some practices aiming to ease the struggle of refugees in the country. I thought maybe our research came a few years too late.

 It took only one interview until I realized this fear to be unfounded and for the lack of recent information on the plight of the Chin in Malaysia to be upsetting. Tenement home to a refugee organization A community leader from a local Chin organization led me to the apartment building where many refugee families live. The streets were littered with trash and a few chickens wandered aimlessly as the locals sat smoking cigarettes in their doorways.

 I followed the leader towards a crumbling apartment building taking each step carefully to avoid falling in the deep trough of sewage running parallel to the sidewalk. We went up a narrow case of cement stairs to an unmarked door. The main living space was bare aside from one low table holding a rice cooker and small stack of bowls; the dry wall crumbled to piles on the floor and the air inside hung stagnant and thick. There were four bedrooms surrounding the main room and a bed sheet partitioned another square plot, creating a fifth. 

My guide explained that five families shared this apartment to save money on rent; one family occupied each bedroom and another lived behind the sheet. Before he brought me into the first room a few children scurried out, pausing to stare at the unannounced interloper in their apartment. A quick headcount tallied 27 occupants in this apartment.
 A refugee run learning center Each room was remarkably similar: a single mattress pushed against the wall, drying clothes hanged from a window sill, and a single plastic dresser holding the family’s few belongings. Yet the families bustled at the sight of our entrance and hurriedly tidied up their rooms. 

As I questioned them about their lives as refugees, the list of hardships faced in Malaysia seemed endless: spinal tuberculosis, police raids in the home, and children without a school. But the shocking part was that these were not made as complaints but as an acceptable improvement from the life left behind in Myanmar. One woman told me, “the only thing that happens is sometimes I am robbed going to buy vegetables. 

So really, nothing that bad.” At the end of each interview, I asked if there was anything else the individual wanted me to record. All three families answered thus: “We want to come to the United States. Could you just tell your country we have been waiting and would really like to come?” Most of the refugees have been waiting a couple of years for a UNHCR card that will then allow them to apply for a resettlement interview with the regional office of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Some have been waiting as long as six years. 

Despite this the hope for a new life in the 'land of the free' remains undiminished.