Life in the UK is not what we expected. We thought it would be easy to make money, but there are no jobs available.
Snow fell as the first Burmese Rohingya being resettled stepped onto British soil. The group of less than twenty families tried to take stock of their new home. An elderly woman began to cry and shout ‘I’m going to die’. I felt nervous as I waited to meet my new clients, wondering what support they would require. My job was to fulfil their language and cultural orientation needs.
The Rohingya come from much warmer Burma. They number over one million internationally. Oppression and decades of human rights violations have made many refugees. Seeking to escape persecution in Burma, many fled to Bangladesh, where over 228,000 remain. From 2006, the UNHCR ran a resettlement programme for the most vulnerable families from the refugee camps. They were taken from Bangladesh to live in third countries, including the UK. Those I worked with in the UK were eager to talk about their experiences and hopes for the future of the community. Meeting in the back room of a terraced house in Bradford, a group gathered to share their stories.
Nur Huda, 36, went with his family to Bangladesh when he was eight years old. “There were 22 camps in Bangladesh when we first arrived. They tried to forcibly repatriate us to Burma and when we refused the authorities moved us seventeen times to other camps as a kind of torture.” Hedayet Ali, 35, remembered the 14 months he spent in prison for refusing to return to Burma, “It was hell. There were 80 people in a room. It was smelly and hot and we had scabies.”
The refugees the UK chose for resettlement in 2008 spoke of the relief and sadness they felt when leaving the camps. Nur Huda’s feelings were very different to those of the elderly woman afraid of snow, “As we were landing in the UK I saw thousands of shining lights making the city look very exciting.” Abdul Haque, 40, added that “it was like being freed from prison.”
With the latest oppression starting in June 2012, being in the UK brings difficult feelings for the community. “There’s no word to describe how happy I was when I was chosen to come to the UK,” says Fatema Khatun. She seemed to be about to cry, but she set herself against her emotions. “Now I am doubly depressed because my relatives are suffering much more than when I left them. How can I be happy?’”
Speaking about recent news from her family in Burma, Samouda Khatun, 30, put on a forced smile; “Yesterday, 4th August, the military began arresting teenagers over 13 years old. They ask for 250,000 kyat (£1831.40) or they shoot them in front of the family or take them away. My brother is in jail now.” She is frustrated that they cannot help, “Once I sent money through a man in Burma to my family. The man stole my money and threatened my family. We had to pay lots of money to make sure they were safe.”
It was similar experiences that led to the first exodus to Bangladesh in 1972 and then again in 1992. Nur Huda said “My uncle was arrested by the military and had to do forced labour. My father decided to leave.”
“I don’t remember my father,” says 16 year old Salah Uddin. “He and his brother were rich. The military asked them to hand over their money and they refused. So the military killed my uncle and we left Burma. My dad died a day after arriving in Bangladesh.”
Fatema Khatun is 60 and was married to a doctor, “We left because my husband’s brother got shot in front of us. The military were inviting all people of status in the area to meetings and then arresting and shooting them. When my husband got called, we decided to leave.”
She went on to tell me that now no Rohingya could train as a doctor. The Arakan Project states ‘Rohingya are barred from studying medical sciences and engineering’ at Arakan state’s only university. Travel restrictions also prevent Rohingya from leaving their villages to attend university.
The prejudice against Muslim Rohingya is so widespread that some resort to hiding their religion and ethnic origin. “After finishing primary school you have to change your name to a non-Muslim name to pass exams and be successful,” stated Nijam Ullah, 26.
The Rohingya didn’t die in the UK as the old woman predicted when she saw the snow. As they had refused to die in the camps in Bangladesh, they faced the new challenges with strength of spirit.
Hedayet Ali admitted that the difficulties were unforeseen. “Life in the UK is not what we expected. We thought it would be easy to make money, but there are no jobs available.” Few in the community have found work. But in the training I ran I saw a determination to adjust and make the best of their new opportunities.
In the first days of classes, many stopped in front of a large mirror to admire themselves and straighten their hair. One caught my eye with a shy smile and explained, “We did not have mirrors in the camps. We are getting to know ourselves now.”
Having spent eighteen years in refugee camps, there were a few problems adjusting to their new life. Electric kettles were burnt on gas stoves, toilets were blocked, and mouthwash was drunk. City life brought difficulties. “In the first week after I arrived I got lost,” laughed Samouda. “All the houses look the same. I walked for hours looking for my house.”
Since coming to the UK five years ago, many babies have been born in the community. “Our children will not forget their home community,” Shahin Akhar, 15, affirmed. “I was born in Bangladesh, but I would like to go and live in Burma.” Her mother, Samouda, added proudly “I have told the history to my children.”
The biggest success of the resettlement programme is the children. When they arrived many were malnourished and timid. Quickly, their bodies filled out and they became bright and boisterous. Many choose to speak English at home with their families, rather than Rohingya. They will grow to become fully integrated in their host communities and able to speak up for the future of their community.
The priorities and dreams of the young adults are focussed on community. Shahin said,”If I don’t get a job, I will send my Jobseeker’s money to friends and family abroad.” Shahin is very aware of the opportunities she has that her friends do not have. “All the girls my age in Bangladesh can’t read. They have to do all the housework and can’t go out.”
Fatema was 35 when she left Burma, “We need peace in our country. We are grateful to the UK for the peace and shelter in this crisis, but still we feel our country is our country.”
Although many of the Rohingya who were resettled in third countries grew up in refugee camps in Bangladesh, they still identify themselves as Burmese. Nijam Uddin says “Our land is Burma. That is where we belong and have lived for centuries, even as rulers in the Arakan state. I am proud to be Burmese.”
Rachel Twort is a teacher and writer based in Bradford, UK.