25 years a refugee - a Rohingya teacher's story

Sadek Ali Hassan is a 44-year-old teacher living in Malaysia. He is also a Rohingya. He has spent more than a quarter of a century living outside his homeland. When I meet him in the small madrasah he runs for children from his community in the Selangor suburb of Ampang, he's at first reluctant to talk about his past.

As we chat, however, memories of his village Taung Pyo Let Yar - near Myanmar's border with Bangladesh in the state of Rakhine - flood back.

"My family members were landlords. My father alone had over 6ha of land. We grew rice, chillies, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, brinjal - the most profitable crops were betel leaf and nut. There was so much fruit - bananas, coconuts, jackfruit. We even had fish ponds.

"My life was perfect. I went to school and, in the evening, I would play with the neighbourhood kids. I loved school. We were taught in Burmese but we'd also learn English. Every morning, we'd go to the mosque for religious classes, then we'd head to the government schools, after which we'd return to the mosque. English was my favourite subject," he says.

The idyllic existence was not to last. In 1988, as pro-democracy demonstrations swept Myanmar, his corner of Rakhine state joined in the protests. Within a year, new border security forces appeared in his village. Garrisoned nearby, they started picking up locals and forcing them into work-gangs.

"I was a student leader, an activist, so I was detained regularly. One of the favourite punishments was the 'motorbike' - you had to stand for two to three hours as if you were sitting on an imaginary bike with your legs bent and your arms outstretched, while making the noise of an engine. If I stood up, I was kicked. If I stopped humming, I was slapped. If I put down my arms, I was punched," says Mr Sadek.

As the situation deteriorated, he realised that he would have to leave Myanmar. "I stayed there for years, even after all the beatings, but one day, I snapped. I was at a Ramadan bazaar. A man next to me ordered a bagula (fried flour cake) for iftar (breaking fast during Ramadan). Immediately after, a Buddhist man came and just snatched the cake. They started fighting each other. It was a Muslim village and, of course, the people started helping the Muslim. Not long after, the Buddhist ran to a nearby security outpost. It wasn't long before other security guards came. They opened fire into the crowd. I saw a bullet that went through a man's waist and hit another man in the chest. Two people, one bullet. I ran away the next day. That day was Jan 9, 1992 - my birthday."

On that fateful day, after having carefully gathered together money from the sale of farm produce, he crossed the border to Bangladesh with seven of his friends.

"I was scared, but I felt I was going to a new life. Back then, we were among the first of the Rohingya to arrive in Bangladesh. There were no camps. After I left, the military authorities came for my father. They detained him for a week, after which he had to present himself every day with little bribes - a chicken, some alcohol. Within a month, he knew he would have to leave as well. There was no way he could sustain the stream of 'gifts'."

Mr Sadek is a practical man. Having spent countless years on the road - organising and writing about Rohingya activities, and shuttling between Bangladesh, India and Thailand - he finally arrived in Malaysia in 2006. His school with its 103 children is a bold assertion of hope and determination for a people who are fast becoming the Palestinians of South-east Asia.

He says: "There are now well over 5,000 Rohingya in Ampang. Many of the children have missed out on their education. At least here they can learn to read and write. In the mornings, they follow the Malaysian syllabus, then they have religious classes in the afternoon.

"I want them to have a future. I have a direct interest in all of this because I have four young children of my own. I mustn't give up, although there are times when it's all too much. We have children who could become engineers, doctors or judges, but they need a home.

"I am grateful to the Malaysian government for providing us with a place to live. But I feel like I am in an open prison. I can eat and sleep here. I can live, but I can't go anywhere. We are like prisoners with an endless sentence… We don't know how long we will have to live like this. Two years, 10 years, 20 years? We don't know.

"I still hope to return one day. When? I don't know. The violence is getting worse, and the number of refugees only increasing… This is out of my hands. This is in God's hands."

Rent, food and other costs for the school come to RM8,000 (S$2,600) a month, but Mr Sadek is scraping by with only RM4,000. The school's condition is a visible challenge - some classes are held in the kitchen for lack of space.

In the wake of the recent tahfiz school fire in Malaysia that claimed 23 lives, I can't help but be concerned about the risks present in this overcrowded environment. While this madrasah is not a residential school like the one in the incident, the danger still looms.

"Sometimes, individuals give donations. But we need something sustainable. I haven't paid my teachers in months, even him," says Mr Sadek, pointing to his nephew. "If not for them working without pay, the school would have closed years ago."

When I ask how he remains so hopeful, he replies: "If I don't give them education, they will have nothing. We must dream of going home. I just want to give them a ray of hope, so at least they can write their own story. Religiously, I want them to at least understand 'halal' and 'haram'. If I don't take this responsibility, the time will come when I will face the question: What did you do for humanity?"

Our conversation is interrupted as a crowd of children storm the room, tugging at Mr Sadek's shirt, vying for his attention. Some 2,000km away from Rakhine, this school might be one of the few places left in the world that allow Rohingya children to simply be children.

  • The writer is a South-east Asia commentator and founder and chief executive of the KRA Group, a public affairs consulting firm with an Asean-wide focus. This is the latest in his long-running Ceritalah Asean column.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2017, with the headline '25 years a refugee - a Rohingya teacher's story'. Print Edition | Subscribe