He had no reason to lie to us. The tears on his face said it all. They appeared suddenly, streamed clear lines on his dark skin. The first, the only tears I saw during my time meeting with refugees in Malaysia, listening to their stories of survival, of exile, of suffering and displacement. Tears precious to me. I wish I could have collected them in the palm of my hand or in a small vile that I could seal with a lid, bring back with me to Canada to show you. Perhaps we could have found a seed or a small sapling to plant in the ground once the snow melts. Break open the vile of tears to water the soil. A single tear enough to grow a whole tree, the kind of nourishment that only comes with suffering.
We met Noor mid-afternoon, after the heat of the day had reached its peak and the humidity had rolled out like a large cloud, invisible but heavy, covering everything with its weight and presence. We wanted to walk with him out into the jungle, deep into the trees where his small community of 55 people, mostly men, live in huts made carefully out of tree branches and plastic bags, cardboard, garbage, whatever things you use to make shelters out of when you hide away in the jungle.
But we didn’t go with him to see the community because it was not safe. The police were raiding their makeshift village over the last few days as police in Malaysia must do when local residents complain about illegal aliens in the area.
So we sat with him, the six of us, in a quiet restaurant at the bottom of an apartment building on a block of concrete lined by green. Vegetation in Malaysia is vibrant and alive. Turn your back on it for only a moment and it grows, jealous and hungry trees stretch out their limbs, vines creep and advance toward the edges of all things. But there we sat, on the edge of the jungle we could not enter for fear of the police, though at any moment it seemed the jungle would advance on us, so both parties might have their wish.
I asked questions which Stanley, the aid worker from a local Catholic parish relayed to Noor in Bahasa. His story came in pieces, was interrupted by memory that covered his soft features in shadow, and interjections from the other parishioners who had joined us to assess the needs of the community. By his tears.
Noor is a Rohingya, a Muslim from Burma, one of the millions of people suddenly stateless and internally displaced when the government announced in 1982 that the Rohingya were no longer citizens in the country where they had always lived. The policy that made them a stateless people was the first of many injustices that would lead to the exodus of millions of Rohingya from Burma over the subsequent decades.
Noor left with his family the following year, in 1983, and like so many others, went to Bangladesh. Only thirteen years old at the time, with his whole life ahead of him, little did he know he would spend the next fourteen years in a refugee camp and be witness to horrors, both small and great.
Described as “a siren call [that] will… forever take us from our complacency to the plight of so many lost, lonely and hurting”
Photographs by Jonathan Kwok
Stories by Andrew Kooman
Reflections by Melanie Hurlbut
with a Foreword by Ambassador Dato’ Dennis Ignatius Former High Commissioner of Malaysia to Canada
Quietly, in a near whisper, Noor recounted the story of his imprisonment, seven years of jail in Bangladesh. A girl in the camp, beautiful and young, only eleven years old, was raped and killed by a group of worthless local men. It’s the kind of thing that happens to refugees. To women. To girls. Helpless and displaced. The violence against the young woman one injustice among countless others that occurred in the camp. The community Noor was apart of had been ambushed and mistreated by locals many times and it was all too much. Noor went and spoke to the officers who had authority in the camp. The community was furious that the perpetrators of the crime against their innocent daughter had not been brought to justice and that no legal process was underway.
When Noor had spoken his mind and left, after vocalizing his anger, after speaking up for his community, he was accosted by junior officers, severely beaten and thrown into jail. There was no trial. There was no accusation. Only a clear message from the powers that be that it was better for him and his community to keep the collective mouth shut.
And there Noor stayed. In jail. For Seven years until he somehow he escaped, fled to Malaysia.
Like a puzzle spilled out on a table top, many of the pieces of his story are disconnected for me, flipped over. The border is framed and I have a sense of the greater picture, enough of the context to understand the scope of his suffering. I am unable to connect it all and can only imagine the bits in between. Limited by language, by the short time we had, these are the pieces of his story I was given.
Stanley and Noor had a long conversation in Bahasa about life in the camp. The others, all Malaysians, leaned into the table in silence. Occasionally shaking their heads in disbelief, looks of surprise on their faces. Stanley did not repeat it all, did not want to, his own heart raw and exposed, filled with enough of its own sadness, after learning only hours earlier that the nephew his family eagerly expected, died days before birth in his mother’s womb. But I could tell they were talking about the different ways refugees in the camp in Bangladesh died at the hand of cruel men. As he spoke, Noor extended his hands, shaped them into the shapes of guns and knives, grabbed at his abdomen, sliced at his own limbs as he described the violence.
The tears trailed across Noor’s face, wove quietly into his narrative when he told us that his family – siblings, a mother, and two sons – were still in the camp. In this place where horrors were not only conveyed in dreams of the night. In this place that he fled. Still living, forever just sitting there, away from their country and, worse, away from him. His wife had run. He had no knowledge of her whereabouts.
If the stories themselves, the experience of sitting with this man was not surreal enough already, his mobile phone which rang mid-conversation, would underscore that the experience of refugees is impossible – anything can happen and does. On the other end of the phone conversation was one of Noor’s sons, calling to say hello to the father he had not seen for five years from the Bangladeshi refugee camp. Just like that, even as we spoke of his family. The pride in his eyes accentuated by Noor’s beaming smile as he handed me the phone and explained to me through Stanley that his son wished to talk with me, to practice the English he was learning in the camp. I obliged and had a nice short conversation, my index finger jammed into my ear so I could hear across the ocean the young boy’s clear, enthusiastic voice shape crisp words of English. Hello. How Are You? How Old? What Is Your Name? And me? Well, what else to talk about but European football. Where I come from. Wish him well and compliment his fantastic English.
But don’t learn the language too well, dear child, the prayer I now pray, fervently, after learning the fate of one young boy in the same camp. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, wanting to have a sense from refugees within the camp about their conditions, had given a phone to a young boy with good English, and would receive reports from him in secret. And camp officials found out. Why the UN officials snuck a phone to the boy I cannot say. Who the men were who caught the boy and what authority they had and still have I do not know either, but what is clear is that they were men who held the power of life and death in their hands. And it was those hands that grabbed the young boy by the ankles when they found the phone, when they discovered what he was doing. Grabbed him by the ankles and swung him around and around in the air. Like a rag doll. Swung him fast and high, bashed his head into trees, against walls. A young boy! A life! A human being! Swung him about until he was dead.
So don’t learn your English too well, dear boy, refugee child of a refugee who, from the look of things, always will be.
Are any of these stories the truth? All I can say, with tears, is: I hope not. I want them to be lies. All of them. If only they were lies.