Rohingya refugee flees from violence in Myanmar
For the 2019 Holocaust Remembrance Service at 7 p.m., Sunday, April 28, at Temple Beth Shalom in Spokane, Noor Kamal, the survivor of a contemporary genocide, will light the seventh candle.
In April 2017, Noor, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, came to Spokane through the Lutheran Community Services' Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Foster Care Program. When it was learned he was 19, not 16, World Relief sought to place him with a family so he could continue in the English Language Learners program at Mt. Spokane High School, where he is now a junior.
Larry Andrews saw the email appeal. So did his wife, Bethanne. They felt moved and called by God to welcome him into their home in October 2017.
All but one of their four adult children are out of their home, plus they had lived six years in Singapore when Larry worked with Procter & Gamble, so they had some understanding of Southeast Asian culture. Larry is now CEO of Partners International, a global missions organization partnering with multi-cultural organizations around the world. They moved to Spokane in 2012.
Noor had only a year of education before he was nine, when his father left Myanmar for Bangladesh, fearing for his safety. Funds he left covered food for three months, not tuition. As the oldest child with two younger sisters and a younger brother, he became a farm worker, earning about $35 U.S. a year, caring for a company's cows and rice paddies. They had a home and just needed money for food and clothes.
At 12, he began doing day labor in road and house construction, earning about $1,000 a year.
Violence broke out in 2012. Boys and girls were killed. His family slept in the mountains, so soldiers wouldn't find them.
"People with money fled to Malaysia. I didn't have enough money to leave," Noor said.
One day in 2014, he came home from work after the 9 p.m. curfew. Soldiers stopped him, beat him, took his money and lunch box. One soldier said, "He's little. Let him go."
Noor ran home. Then he tried to find a way to escape. He heard fishing boats on the river at the border with Bangladesh were taking people from villages near the southwest coast of Myanmar and the river. Some friends from work went with him.
The boat captains from Thailand said they would take the people to different countries, but waited months to fill their boats, feeding the people a little rice and two cups of water daily.
When there were 500 on his boat, they left and went south along the Myanmar coast for 15 days.
Near Thailand, they were told they had to stay on the ocean. They continued south along Malaysia toward Singapore. After three months on the ocean, the "captains," who were human traffickers, said they were not allowed in any country. They loaded people from other boats on Noor's boat, which then had 960 people, and left them with no food, water, gas or compass.
"People died two to three hours after drinking ocean salt water," Noor said. "Every day, it rained hard. My clothes got wet, I drank water from them."
The boat drifted near Indonesia. A fishing boat found them, gave them some gas and a map. The Indonesian navy sent them to the Malaysian coast. The Malaysian navy sent them back.
"People were so hungry they began to eat the wood on the boat," Noor said. "More than 100 died. The boat began sinking one day about 4:30 p.m. People jumped in the ocean. Some had the energy to swim, but many did not."
More died in the ocean. Noor had something to hold onto and swam. At 10 p.m., they saw a fishing boat and began yelling. The captain called for other fishing boats. Fifty boats came and picked up 450 people.
"I had been in the boat three months and 16 days. Some had been in the boat nine months and were unable to move. I couldn't walk They took us to a hospital," he said.
Noor spent a month in the hospital, exercising every day until he could walk. Then he went to a refugee camp in Indonesia, where United Nations organizations helped feed, clothe and give medical treatment to the refugees.
People from U.S., Australian, Canadian and British embassies asked those under 18 what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go.
"I said I wanted to go to a country where I could be educated and have a good future," Noor said.
The camp provided a school with three teachers teaching different ages together from 10 a.m. to noon four days a week. Noor studied math and English for a year. He learned English quickly and began volunteering to translate for doctors and nurses.
When he helped them, agencies gave him school tablets, books and clothing. Then they gave him an iPad, so he could call a doctor or ambulance.
After a year and a half, Noor was chosen to go to the U.S.
"I was happy. They said I could go to high school," said Noor, who had learned to speak Indonesian, Hindi, Malaysian and Bangledesh.
He practiced English, but when he came to the U.S., people spoke fast. At first, he was quiet in school, but teachers and others helped him.
"Now I have friends," he said.
Noor learned about his family, using a security guard's phone to call his uncle's cell phone.
Then in August 2017, he learned his mother, sisters and brother were in danger. Soldiers were shooting in his village of 2,000 people. They killed people and burned houses. People ran. His sisters, grandmother and uncle fled and arrived seven days later in Bangladesh. His brother, grandfather and mother went to the mountains.
"I prayed they would be alive. Returning to the village, they found only 95 villagers. More than 900 were killed," he said.
Last year, Mark Finney, executive director of World Relief, went to the Bangladesh refugee camp with Rohingya and four other ethnic groups. He met Noor's sisters, grandmother and uncle, and his father who remarried and had other children.
"Bangladesh wants to send the Rohingya back. Myanmar does not want the Rohingya. We do not want to live in camps. We want justice, land, citizenship and freedom to work. Some have college degrees but can only work on farms.
Bethanne said Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist. There were also Christians, Muslims and Hindu groups living in small ethnic communities.
"By 2017, the government became intolerant and wanted the country to be one race and religion," she said.
Because of prejudice some people have toward different religions, Noor does not talk about his religion.
"I don't care if someone is Christian, Muslim or Buddhist. I don't want to argue about it. I want to be friendly with everyone. I'm just happy and thankful to be in the U.S. and focus on school," said Noor, who hopes to study to be a dental assistant.
Bethanne and Larry are grateful to have Noor in their home. When he moved in, he was "immediately part of our family," she said.
"We knew people of different cultures while living in Singapore. While it was easy for us to travel in Southeast Asia, poverty and child labor we saw tore at my heart," she said.
"My awareness of unaccompanied youth in the world—through Lutheran Community Services and World Relief—has increased my sensitivity to how vulnerable people are," she said.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April, 2019