KUALA LUMPUR - After spending 21 days in a lockup and being beaten twice while in custody of the Myanmar army, Mr Mohamad Rayas, a Rohingya Muslim, decided he had no choice but to flee from the indiscriminate arrests and beatings in Maungdaw, a township in western Myanmar.
He pleaded with a relative in Australia for US$200 (S$282) to pay for his sea journey from Maungdaw to Teknaf in southern Bangladesh. In the dead of the night in September 2012, Mr Rayas, then 24 years old, waded out to a small fishing boat which took him away from Maungdaw, leaving behind his parents, two sisters and two brothers.
Upon arriving in Bangladesh, he soon found it to be equally inhospitable to Rohingya Muslims as he was considered an illegal immigrant there and could not find a job. He resolved to head to Malaysia via Thailand, which cost RM5,000 (S$1,645), despite hearing about the treacherous sea journey.
Travelling on a fishing boat for 21 days from Teknaf to Ranong, Thailand, in squalid conditions with 178 others still brings tears to his eyes whenever he recalls the experience.
"The ocean not so good, rough seas. No sleeping on the boat, only 20 could sleep (at one time) and others pray for Allah to save our Rohingya,"
MR RAYAS, 27, speaking about his experience travelling from Myanmar to Thailand
He watched as 30 people died and even assisted in throwing some of the bodies overboard.
Having to endure extreme hunger and the constant cries of others, he could not help but worry that he himself might not survive the ordeal.
When Mr Rayas finally arrived on the shores of Thailand in December 2012 after 21 days at sea, he was relieved but very weak. He and others paid an agent fee of RM1,500 and walked for three days in the Thai jungles in a bid to enter the Malaysian border at Padang Besar, Perlis but they were stopped by Malaysian immigration officers.
Jailed, and sent to detention camp, for a total of 7 months
He was thrown into jail for two months before being sent to a detention camp in Johor for five months. The deplorable conditions there were reminiscent of his days on the fishing boat, with 155 people squeezed into the tiny space.
They could not move or walk around much as the space was very limited, he recalled.
"155 people shared three toilets, always a long queue," he said.
What kept him going was the hope of obtaining a United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) card that recognises his status as a refugee.
He obtained a UNHCR recommendation letter in July 2013 and received the official refugee card in January 2014, which was considered fast as local human rights organisations said applications could typically take up to a few years to process.
As of Dec 16 last year, a total of 6,104 immigrants from Myanmar were detained at some 14 immigration detention depots in Malaysia.
Approximately 4,000 of them were identified as Rohingyas and were waiting for refugee status verification process by UNHCR.
With the recommendation letter in hand, Mr Rayas was finally on his way to a semblance of normalcy in his life. He left the detention camp and stayed with an uncle for two months as he recovered from malaria, fever and malnutrition.
He managed to get a job selling baby items for a local supermarket when he regained his health.
Three and a half years after his ordeal, Mr Rayas has now immersed himself in the Rohingya community in the Klang Valley. He wakes up at 8am everyday, has his breakfast and goes to the Rohingya Society for Malaysia office in Ampang where he is a volunteer .
He assists other Rohingyas to obtain medical care or act as their interpreter when they get arrested. At night, he hangs out with his friends at mamak stalls (local eateries).
He thinks about his hometown and family often and hopes that the recent election win by the National League for Democracy led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi will signal a positive change for the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
"She is a democratic leader and democracy means every religion can study, can pray, can work, can move from place to place.
"If every religion is included, I will go back, inshallah (God willing)."