For You, A Thousand Times Over

Asia, Burma, Family, refugees, Rohingya, Students, Uncategorized

“Do you want to see something amazing?” Eight-year-old Mohammed asks as we approach the school playground. “I’m going to try the big kid monkey bars!” Mohammed sprints towards the larger playground designated for the older students.

“Whoa, those are pretty tall monkey bars! Are you sure you can do them?” I ask Mohammed as he reaches to grab the first bar that was several feet taller than him. He stops, turns around, looks me in the eyes and says, “For you, Teacher Sophie, I will do anything.”

He smiled his toothless Mohammed smile, turned around and jumped up to grab the first monkey bar — and fell. Several tries later, he caught hold of the bar and made his way across the monkey bars.

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In that moment, I saw the image of young Hassan from The Kite Runner — the moment when Amir wins the kite-fighting tournament in Kabul. Kite-fighting is a game where boys cover their kite strings in glass and try to sever the strings of the opposing kites. When a kite is struck down, boys will chase and retrieve it, claiming it as a prize. When Amir wins the tournament, Hassan sets off to catch the losing kite for him. Just before Hassan disappears around the corner, Amir yells out, telling him to make sure he comes back with the kite.

Hassan turns around, smiles, and yells back, “For you, a thousand times over!”

If you’ve read The Kite Runner or seen the movie, you’ll understand the significance of this statement. It becomes a recurring theme throughout the story, illustrating Hassan’s resilience and unconditional love for his best friend.

When I first met Mohammed, I was fascinated by him. Perhaps it was his adorable toothless smile or the way he played with his younger siblings. Or perhaps it was the fact that he possessed something that I’ve never seen in a Rohingya kid before: the innocence of a child.

It was refreshing to see the normal life Mohammed lives. His family fled Myanmar shortly after he was born. As refugees, they were resettled to Clarkston, Georgia, where they are raising their four children. Mohammed sees life the way normal children should. Going to school is routine, playing with friends is a necessity, and conquering the “big kid” monkey bars is the highlight of the century.

I wish I could say I knew more Rohingya children like Mohammed, but he’s different from the rest of them. He hasn’t seen the things they’ve seen. He hasn’t known the meaning of hunger. He hasn’t come face-to-face with death. As a refugee growing up in America, he has been protected from all of this.

When I looked into the eyes of the first Rohingya children I met, I could tell that they’ve experienced something I can only imagine. They’re startled by the smallest sounds and I rarely see them smile. They’ve seen things children shouldn’t see. They’ve become all-too familiar with the meaning of hunger and most of them have come face-to-face with death.

Unable to communicate with them, I gave them paper and crayons to draw pictures to describe their background. Their stick figures told the story all-too well: crowded boats, bodies in the water, people carrying guns, people running away, villages burning. Those drawings I saw in early 2015 are what introduced me to the Rohingya situation. As cliche as it sounds, I guess you could say that those are the drawings that changed my life. Since then, I’ve found myself on a journey with my Rohingya friends, watching this situation unravel into chaos and transform into what we have come to know as a genocide.

Over 480,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar since late August of this year. They flee to Bangladesh, seeking refuge in crowded temporary settlements along the border. More than half of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are children; often unaccompanied by adults. As if I haven’t seen it enough on the news, I’ve heard firsthand accounts of children who have seen their parents shot in front of them, girls being raped, and young children going missing.

Some people recently have protested against these Rohingya stories, arguing that the media has blown up the situation and is over exaggerating everything. While I agree that the media is not always the most reliable source of information, it’s hard to argue against the children’s drawings. These children wouldn’t be able to draw those images without seeing them firsthand.

As I watch the number of refugees increase day by day, I think of all the children arriving in Bangladesh and what kinds of drawings they would create. They never had the privilege to live a naive life. All they’ve known is violence, suffering, and survival. And yet they still remain some of the most resilient people I will ever know.

It’s hard to sit here on the other side of the world, knowing that I can’t do much to help these Rohingya people. All I can do is write about their stories and hope that I can spread awareness on what is going on. These are people who have been part of my life and shown me what true resilience means.

“For you, a thousand times over.”

The significance of Hassan’s statement is that shortly after he says this, an unspeakable event occurs that changes his life forever, taking away his innocence. Betrayed by his best friend, damaged physically and scarred emotionally, Hassan remains resilient through it all. Through his suffering, Hassan’s statement to Amir remained true. He dedicated his life to remaining loyal to his friend, no matter the circumstances. Not only is Hassan’s suffering similar to those of the Rohingya children, but so is the strength and resilience he demonstrates.

As I watch Mohammed scale the monkey bars at his school playground, I think of the similar characteristics he and Hassan both possess, but with one major difference. Mohammed still lives with the precious gift of a child’s innocence. That is something that is so rarely found these days.

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I try not to think of what life would be for him had his family not come to America. Mohammed’s family is privileged to start over in a new country, free from persecution and suffering.

I don’t know what will happen in the next couple of weeks for the Rohingya people, nor do I know how much longer Bangladesh can handle the influx of refugees. All I can do is be grateful for the Rohingya families that are safe and hope that the remaining families can find refuge soon. I’m grateful for having Mohammed in my life. Had his family not left Myanmar when they did, he might not even be alive today.

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Face to Face with Genocide

Asia, Burma, Family, Genocide, refugees, Rohingya, Uncategorized

Not quite sure how it happened, but somehow I was able to integrate myself into a quirky Rohingya family and follow them around the world. Despite the strong language barrier and logistical difficulties, this family has welcomed “Teacher Sophie” into their lives. They’ve taught me what it means to be resilient in a world full of chaos; how to tackle the curveballs that life throws at us head on. I try not to imagine what life would be like without Roshida and her family, but these past two weeks have shown me just how fragile life can be — and just how close a genocide that is 8,000 miles away can be.

I met Roshida and part of her family at a temporary refugee shelter in Thailand, where they arrived after having fled Myanmar by boat. Intrigued by their situation and how they came to Thailand, I wanted to learn more. I spent my afternoons teaching English to the women and children at the shelter. The more I taught, the more they revealed their story — and I finally began to understand the Rohingya situation from multiple first hand accounts.

I started to become more involved with the Rohingya situation. I quickly dove into news articles, documentaries, and contacted numerous human rights activists to learn more. While I wanted to do more to help out in Thailand, it was time for me to head back to the States. I left the Rohingya family with the notion that I would never see them again. By an absolute miracle, they arrived in Wisconsin about a year later. After reuniting with them in the States, I continued my Tour de Rohingya and traveled to meet Roshida’s husband and 18-year-old daughter in Malaysia.

Roshida was able to bring five out of her six children to Wisconsin, who have been thriving in the American schools. But Roshida can’t seem to integrate into her new American community. She would rather stay inside and constantly seek Skype updates on her family members that are scattered across Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia. After all, they provide the insider information that she needs to learn more about the Rohingya genocide that is currently underway.

One of our main contacts in Myanmar was Roshida’s sister. I met her over Skype several months ago while I was visiting Roshida in Wisconsin. As I was on the phone with her, about a dozen other villagers shuffled into the tiny shack to see my face over the lagging Skype call. They all gathered around and ate dinner in front of the cracked phone screen that showed my face.

This became a regular routine whenever I visited my Rohingya friends.We would eat dinner over Skype together. Though we spent most of the time staring at a frozen screen and constantly trying to reconnect the calls, it was neat seeing the constant effort maintained to keep in contact. They refused to let such separation deprive them of being united as a family.

On August 28th, as I was out for my morning run, I couldn’t stop thinking about Roshida. I had a feeling that something was wrong. The more I thought about her, the more urgency I had to contact her. I stopped on the trail, turned around, and sprinted back home. When I checked my phone, I had 35 missed calls over the past hour; all from Roshida.

She answered on the first ring after I dialed. She mustered up enough broken English to tell me that her sister in Myanmar was killed this morning — along with her entire village.

Denied citizenship in Myanmar, the Rohingya have no place to call home — and have become known as the world’s most persecuted people. Deprived of basic necessities and opportunities, the Rohingya have been rounded into ghetto-like camps with no hope for a promising future. The ongoing violence and persecution has led hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighboring countries, which is how I came to meet Roshida and her family.

However, this simmering conflict between the Rohingya and Myanmar people has recently shifted gears. Two weeks ago, a group of Rohingya insurgents launched a coordinated attack on Myanmar officials, killing 12 officers. This catalyst prompted a massive response from the Burmese government, launching a major escalation of violence towards the Rohingya people. Officials have opened fire on civilians fleeing the attacks, including women and children. 

Many displaced Rohingya, including one of Roshida’s friends, provide first hand accounts of the Myanmar soldiers setting homes aflame and firing guns around the villages. Hearing the tragedy of Roshida’s sister and her entire village provides merely a snapshot on what is going on in Myanmar. Those lucky enough to escape the shootings in the villages have no choice but to flee for their lives.

The unprecedented surge of Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar has amounted to over 125,000 just in the past two weeks. Among these people is Roshida’s grandmother. She fled Myanmar on Sunday, September 3rd, in hopes to find safety in Bangladesh. We are still waiting for her phone call to tell us that she is alive. As the death toll rises and mass exodus continues, there’s nothing we can do anymore. We are face to face with a genocide that is more than 8,000 miles away. And all we can do is wait.

More updates to follow soon.

 

 

From Average White Girl to Rohingya Princess

Asia, Burma, English Teacher, Family, refugees, Rohingya, Students, Travel, Uncategorized

“Oh my, Teacher Sophie! We must make you look beautiful again! Come, come, I will help you!”

While this wasn’t the initial greeting I was expecting, I decided to go along with it.  One thing I’ve learned about my Rohingya friends is that they are brutally honest. It’s kind of refreshing, actually. Sometimes it’s less refreshing when you’re told that you need to become beautiful again…but I guess beauty is fleeting, right? So it’s only fitting that they help me find my beauty.

In doing so, I was put into the most glamorous, hot pink, bedazzled Burmese outfit she could find. She brought out all of her best makeup; lipstick, white powder (because my face clearly isn’t white enough), liquid eyeliner, all the essentials.

Hazara

After we got dolled up, Hazara and I embarked on a girls’ Tuesday night out. We went straight to the food court Wendy’s in the nearly-deserted mall. In my bedazzled pink Asian outfit. I received plenty of judgmental stares from people who must’ve been thinking, “Clearly this white girl needs to face reality and accept the fact that she is not Asian.” Then we walked around Macy’s and she bought me high heels that I didn’t even want, much less need. But she justifiably said it will make Teacher Sophie beautiful again, so it’s all good. Then she proceeded to jump on those coin operated kiddie rides and snap a bunch of selfies. Never a dull moment with my Rohingya friend, Hazara.

I went along with all of this because I was still in shock at the fact that I was suddenly reunited with one of the most significant people in my life. A girl who I thought I’d never see again. I finally got to see Hazara again, the 19-year-old refugee I befriended at a temporary shelter in Thailand.

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The last time I saw her, we made a promise that we would see each other again. The odds were definitely not in our favor. She was stateless in every country, confined to a temporary refugee shelter in southern Thailand. I was heading back to the other side of the world, ready to pursue my university degree. I shouldn’t have made that promise with her because I knew I would never see her again. But I had a nagging feeling that it might be true; we might just see each other again.

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I never thought I’d be wearing a hot pink bedazzled Asian outfit while walking through the streets of Clarkston with one of my students from Thailand. So yeah, that was pretty cool.

It’s always interesting to be part of the transition of refugees relocating to the States. Some view their resettlement to America as a second chance at life; an opportunity to start over. They make the most of every opportunity with a hunger for success, constantly pursuing their own version of the American Dream. In theory, this is how we believe every refugee responds when resettling to the United States. That’s not always the case.

I’ve talked to refugees in other countries who dream of coming to America. They believe that all of their problems will be erased once they set foot on US soil. In their eyes, America is the country where dreams come true and the impossible suddenly becomes possible.

The harsh reality hits them when they arrive here. New problems arise, expectations are not met, perspectives are changed. When this happens, their reaction goes one of two ways: they could either take what they have and run with it, making the most of every opportunity…or they could slip into a depression, longing to go back to a place that is familiar to them, despite the hardships they endured in that place.

Hazara fell victim to the depression that is so common with newly resettled refugees. I received a phone call from Hazara’s husband about 2 months ago. He told me of Hazara’s arrival and resettlement in America. He told me of her depression, anxiety, and refusal to go outside or eat anything. Hazara’s husband asked me to come out and visit. Maybe having someone familiar to her in this foreign country could help her. So I decided to come.

It broke my heart seeing Hazara, one of the liveliest, happiest girls I know, fall victim to depression. While I’ve dealt with my fair share of depression, it surprised me to realize that someone like Hazara would have the same thoughts that I once had for myself. It’s easy to let depression take over your own life. It’s difficult to watch it take over someone else’s life. It’s even more difficult when you’re viewed as the cure to their depression…or at least that’s how Hazara’s husband viewed my visit. He told me that I was the answer they’ve been waiting for…maybe the one who can end her depression.

Yeah, ok, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a person. Definitely not something I can accomplish either. But if Hazara needed a friend, I wanted to be the one to help. When I arrived in Clarkston, Hazara’s family welcomed me into their home. There were about a dozen people waiting in her apartment for me. They set up an extravagant straw mat with dozens of countless dishes filled with different curries, fruits, everything you can possibly imagine.

They fed me…constantly. To the point of death. Have you ever had someone shove a chicken leg in your mouth despite your desperate pleas of “NO” and “I’m not hungry” and “I can’t eat another bite”? Yeah, you think it’s funny…but when you’re literally at the point of tears because your stomach will explode with another bite, it’s really not that funny. But alas, my Rohingya friends never cease to amaze me with their obnoxiously extravagant hospitality.

Cooking is the main way Rohingya people show their appreciation. If you think of it in that way, every pound I gained was just a heart-filled pound of sheer appreciation and gratitude. Their gratitude stemmed from their belief that I was the solution to Hazara’s depression. They thanked me constantly for coming to visit her, for befriending her in Thailand, and for just being there for her. They Facetimed their friends in Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand and shoved my face in the camera to show that “Teacher Sophie finally arrived.”

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While I was honored to be appreciated and loved by so many strangers, I hated the fact that they viewed me as the one who can change Hazara’s state of mind. No matter how hard I try, I can’t be the one to change Hazara’s life. They viewed me as the one who will save Hazara. The one who will change everything. I have no idea why they would put so much faith in me. I’m just a random white girl who enjoys singing Burmese songs and wearing Asian princess dresses while eating chicken feet.

Sometimes we think that the solution to our problems is something we don’t have right now; something new and exciting that’s always out of our reach. We think that if we could just find that solution, all will be fine. I know I’ve fallen victim to the mentality that I need to travel to a certain place, work a certain job, or study a certain degree to find the solution to my problems. The grass is always greener on the other side. The solution is somewhere far away, something I can’t find right here. To these refugees, the arrival of Teacher Sophie was the solution to Hazara’s problem.

What I’ve failed to realize in so many instances is that the support I need has been there for me the whole time. The people around me, the relationships I’ve built, the family that’s stuck with me through it all. That’s what really matters. I can keep chasing solutions in seemingly greener pastures, but when it comes down to it, it’s really the people around me who will help. This week helped me realize that when I saw Hazara’s family. Teacher Sophie may be able to help Hazara for a time, but the true help is the constant support and love from her family and friends right in front of her.

I spent my visit trying to help Hazara’s family realize this. Harder said than done, especially with the language barrier. I tried communicating that they’ve been there for her when I wasn’t. She’s one of the few refugees who has relatives in the same country, so it really is a miracle she has them during this transition to the States.

I hope that in time, Hazara’s family realizes all that they’ve done for her. They may think that I have a huge impact in her life, but they’ve made an even bigger, more permanent impact; something I could never do. While I may have been a friend for Hazara during a time when she needed one, they’ve been there for the entire journey. That’s what Hazara and I have in common. From Myanmar to Thailand and from Thailand to Georgia, Hazara’s support has been right in front of her the whole time. I hope that one day she realizes this.

Found in the Middle of Nowhere

Asia, Burma, English Teacher, refugees, Rohingya, Students, Thailand, Uncategorized

“Ahhh! Teacher!! Helloooo!” Absolute chaos erupted the moment I swiped to the right of my incoming Viber call. I usually ignore anonymous Viber calls. Most of the time, it’s just another die-hard Burmese fan who’s trying to ask me if I have a “lover” (No really, I wish I was joking). I had no idea who was on the other end of the phone, but after seeing my phone ringing constantly for 5 minutes, I figured I should probably pick up. A slow, pixelated video showed up on my screen. My heart jumped when I saw their faces appear. It was one of the Rohingya families from the refugee shelter in Thailand.

How in the world did they find my number? They must be calling me from the shelter. They were excitedly trying to tell me something,  but I couldn’t understand amidst the simultaneous yelling of six people on the other end. When things finally settled down, I asked them what they were trying to tell me. “Teacher, America! America!”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s all the kids really talked about at the shelter, so this was nothing new. I figured they just wanted me to tell them about how America is, so I started speaking. Just then, I looked at the video and realized that one of the little boys was wearing a jacket. A snow jacket. That’s definitely not something you wear in Thailand.

“Yasin Zuhar, where are you right now?” I asked, hoping to hear the answer that I dreamed of, but knew I would never hear.

“Teacher! I’m in America!”

Suddenly everything stood still.

“What?”

Then the whole family chimed in and yelled, “Yes, Teacher! In America! Right now!”

So it’s true. The impossible finally became possible. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so I just started laughing uncontrollably. Then I started crying. I left this family in Thailand, thinking I would never see them again. The odds of them being relocated to the US out of the 65 million refugees in the world were incredibly slim. The UNHCR officers told me there was no chance I would see them again. It would take years for them to be resettled in the States. And here they are.

I asked them where they were in America.

“Sheboygan, Wisconsin!”

Never been there, but I immediately booked a flight to Milwaukee. I thought I left this family forever only to find that I’ve found them again…in the middle of nowhere…in Sheboygan.

When I knocked on their front door, Yasin Zuhar answered. He was one of the first Rohingya children I met in Thailand, so it was only fitting that he was the one to open the door. He was wearing giant snow pants with a beanie and long-sleeved adidas shirt. Already such an American. 

When he saw me, his eyes lit up and he jumped into my arms. His sisters, brothers, and mother joined and within minutes, we were all reunited.

There were two things I noticed about seeing them for the first time since Thailand. First, their English had improved tremendously. It was amazing to see the progress they’d made since I first met them as shy, fresh-off-the-boat refugees in Thailand.

They could barely speak two words of English and now they are telling me about their new school, their American friends, and how cold snow is on their feet when they try to run outside without their boots (no kidding).

The second thing was the sheer gratitude they showed me. They were so shocked that I would actually come visit them. They called every family member they could contact…this included the mother’s eleven siblings, first cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles, mother’s sister’s husband’s distant relatives, etc. Contacting all of the relatives took roughly the entire trip’s duration, which spanned over a couple of days. I was shocked at how they were able to stay in contact with so many friends and family, despite their transient lifestyle.

I guess the only thing that they noticed about me was the fact that I had lost some weight since I last saw them. “Oh no, Teacher! Very small! Not good!” So they decided to make it their mission to provide me with food at all hours of the day and night. When I say all hours, I mean all hours. They woke me up at 2:00am and prepared a fully cooked meal for me (after giving me 3 cups of instant coffee to stay awake for the meal). Any time I would finish something, they would prepare a new meal. Not just a snack. A homecooked meal. That was their way of showing their gratitude for me. Apparently they were trying to make up for the hours of English class I gave them in Thailand…in food.

It was a never-ending cycle of food on my plate; absolute heaven for a 15-year-old high school football player. Not so much for me. I reached a point where I wanted to cry because I was so full. So they saw my face and thought, “She must be hungry!” and whipped up some homemade green chicken curry.

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Breakfast at 6am.

They were so excited to show me to their favorite hangout spots, which included Walmart and McDonald’s. They were enamored by the fact that we could visit Walmart at 1:00am; so that’s exactly what we did. The children showed me how they can bike around town to get everywhere. They told me how they aren’t afraid of the police here. They took me door to door and introduced me to the other refugees in the area. They told their story to the neighbors and I instantly became the token English teacher. This also meant I was invited over to all of their homes for a home cooked meal. I felt as though I was in a foreign country…in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Towards the end, I sat the kids down and asked them a question I had been wondering for quite some time.

“Are you happy here?”

“Yes, Teacher! Very, very, very happy.”

After over a year of worrying and wondering how they are, it was such a relief to hear those words. Everything I dreamed for these kids is coming true. They are on a path to achieve their goals.

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Thailand, July 2016

The best part is that I can be part of their journey. I can see these kids grow up. I get to be here to watch it all happen…and gain 10 pounds in the process.

I’ve spent most of my life moving around, so I’ve become fairly accustomed to saying goodbye. People come and go in certain chapters of your life. You may not see them ever again, but they were there for you during a time when you needed them. That’s what I’ve always thought and that’s how I’ve always lived. Very rarely does someone from my past come back into my life. I’m still trying to process that these friends who I thought I’d never see again have unexpectedly come back into my life.

And they’re not the only ones. I’ve discovered that more families from that shelter in Thailand have been relocated to the States. It’s my goal in the next couple of months to visit all of them. Teacher Sophie’s “Tour de Rohingya” shall commence all across the United States! I’m so excited to finally have them back in my life again. They’re here to stay and so am I. It’s moments like these when you realize just how truly beautiful and surprising life is.

From Rwanda 1994 to Myanmar 2016

Asia, Burma, English, English Teacher, ESL, Family, Rohingya, Students, Thailand, Trafficking, Travel, Uncategorized, USA

“I had a good friend from Rwanda. We met in high school. She was an exchange student at our school. We became best friends. But she went back to Rwanda after studying abroad in the States.”

“Oh wow, that’s really cool! Do you still keep in contact? Have you visited her in Rwanda?”

“No. She died in the genocide.”

Those moments when you’re completely speechless. Those casual conversations that suddenly take a turn and you weren’t prepared for what you were about to hear. This was one of those conversations.

We don’t usually like to have these kinds of conversations. They’re unpleasant and quite frankly, seem to “dampen the mood” in the room. I get it, it’s not fun to talk about. After coming back to the States, I’ve realized that it’s a lot easier to avoid these rough conversations. In Thailand, it seemed so effortless to talk to my students about their deceased parents, to listen to them describe the day they fled for their lives, or hear about how they will never be able to contact their brother because he disappeared in the middle of the night. That’s because it’s a reality for the people there. Not as much in America.

The closest we get to a reality like this is by the news alerts on our phones, which we’ll check if we have a couple minutes to spare. Maybe we’ll scroll through the article for a minute or two to read about what’s going on in the world. Another children’s hospital is bombed in Syria, another train crash kills 100 people in India, another civil war rages in some distant country in Africa. It’s terrible to say, but the topic of mass death is becoming somewhat of a regular topic in the news. Every other news alert I read on my phone has something to do with a shooting, a bombing, or a natural disaster that has killed hundreds, if not thousands.

“Please, let’s talk about something else. This is so depressing.” I hear that a lot. It’s easy to take a quick 30-second glance at these news reports and then carry on with our regular lives. It’s easy to forget about these news reports…because there’s just going to be a new one tomorrow morning and we’re going to feel depressed once more. And yet again, we can’t do anything about these news alerts. All we can do is read them and carry on with our regular activities. We’re powerless.

I’ve finally reached a tipping point with this realization of feeling powerless. A couple days ago, I received an email from my good friend in Malaysia. He’s a Rohingya and I had the privilege of meeting him in Kuala Lumpur where he shared his incredible story with me. Rendered stateless in Myanmar due to his status as an ethnic minority, he grew up in a refugee camp, was trafficked several times, and has since dedicated his life to fight for the freedom of his people. I admire him so much and the passion he has for seeking justice for his people. He emailed me a report to proofread (my job as an English teacher never ends!), a report that made this whole Rohingya situation just a little more real for me. The report is dense and lists in explicit detail the injustices that the Rohingya have faced against the Myanmar government just from October of this year.

I think the reason why it hit me so hard was because each recorded date and event I read about in the report made me recall exactly what I was doing that very same day.

On October 10th, while seven Rohingya villagers were shot down in Rakhine State by the Burmese security forces, I was studying at a coffee shop.

On October 25th, while five girls aged 16 – 18 were raped by security forces in another village, I was planning my epic Halloween costume (which was pretty epic, by the way).

On November 12th, while the Burmese army opened fire with helicopters near villages in Maungdaw, I was teaching a piano lesson.

Talk about putting things into perspective. This reality hit me the night before Thanksgiving, when I was finally able to fully grasp what exactly is going on in Myanmar right now. These events are seeming all-too familiar…they make me think of the 1994 Rwanda genocide because that’s what these events are becoming. A genocide. And it’s going on right now.

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The very thought of losing one of the Rohingya kids I met was hard enough, let alone all of them. I thought of all the incredible Rohingya people I have met and of their family members they spoke of; the ones who were still in Myanmar. Are they alive? Or are they going to become another statistic in another genocide? Maybe they’re already a victim of genocide…I just don’t know.

I became overwhelmed with this feeling of powerlessness. Here I am proofreading an English report that is documenting the lives of these people who could very well be the friends and family of my Rohingya friends in Thailand. And all I can do is just change the grammatical errors in this report.

Suddenly, all of those news reports seemed to attack me personally. The more death reports I read, the more I felt as though I was mourning the loss of a close friend, over and over again. And it’s happening as I write this. There’s nothing I can do about it, and that’s what scares me. I can’t handle the feeling of not being in control and letting these things happen. Genocide is happening and I have never before felt more emotionally involved. This is happening to my friends and their family members.

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I don’t know why exactly I decided to write about this. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to sleep and it’s all I feel I can do right now. I wish I could do so much more. Right now, all I can do is spread awareness of this current genocide that is happening against the people I love and miss so much.

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If this blog makes you decide to take an extra minute to thoroughly read those news alerts about the Rohingya, then I’m happy to have helped with that. These aren’t just news alerts we should scroll through within 30 seconds of skimming the title. Save all the article skimming for the updates on the Kardashians. That’s when skimming is necessary. But crimes against humanity in Myanmar are real events that are happening right now. As unpleasant as it is, we need to address these issues and stay up-to-date with the events. Genocide is real. It’s happening today, on November 27th, 2016.

One Fish, Two Fish, Dried Fish, Fried Fish

Asia, Burma, Burmese, English Teacher, ESL, Rohingya, Thailand, Uncategorized

When you move into a Burmese community, probably the first thing you will learn is that they have a strange fascination with fish. The more I think about the variety of fish they have, the more I always revert to Dr. Seuss.

Dried fish, canned fish, fried fish….one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, green eggs and ham…wait…what?

When you think about it, every culture has a fascination with something. Americans and their peanut butter. South Africans and their biltong. Russians and their vodka. The British and their teatime. The Irish and their beer. The Spanish and their siestas. The list goes on…(sorry if my ignorant stereotypes offended anyone…)

In the Burmese and Rohingya community, their “thing” is fish. After living here for about 15 months, I’ve become pretty comfortable with this whole fishy thing. Everything smells like fish. Always. And now, thanks to the Rohingya women, my laptop, English flashcards, and basically all contents in my backpack smell like dried fish.

Not all English teachers’ backpacks smell like dried fish. I’m just a special one, for sure. Ever since the Rohingya children stopped coming to my Burmese school, I’ve started to visit their shelter every day for a couple hours. I teach the 44 refugees at the shelter, ages from 4 – 40. It’s quite overwhelming teaching all different types of levels.

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The women want conversational English, the younger boys want multiplication and division, the younger girls want to learn the alphabet…sometimes I have so many people grabbing me, yelling, “Teacher! Teacher” that I just want to scream!

But I take a deep breath, and…as Mika would say, “Relax, Take It Easy.”

I try what I can and hope that they’re getting something out of it.

One thing that I noticed over these past 8 months was their behavior towards me. When I initially arrived, I felt uncomfortable. I felt as though I could tell what these women were thinking. Who does this crazy blonde think she is? She thinks she can just come in, play with the kids and teach us some English words for a couple hours and then leave and get on with her happy life?

I immediately felt some tension when I started teaching and knew that I needed to prove to these women that I’m not just here to “save the people” by teaching them English. Sure, teaching them English will help them find employment and teaching them vocational skills will provide opportunity. But English teachers come and go. Volunteers come and go. I wanted to somehow prove to them that I want to know their stories and not try to be one of those “saviors” who teaches them the ways of the English-speaking world. So I asked them to start teaching me Rohingya. I asked them to show me photos of their husbands, siblings, children, and parents. They showed me on maps where their separated family is and where they desire to go.

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The more English I teach them, the more they are able to communicate.

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I even started to dress like them… “Oooh! Teacher very beautiful!”

As I teach them about emotions, they explain to me. “Teacher, my heart hurt. Very sad. Husband gone.” And I am slowly able to piece together these stories that they have been aching to tell me. The more they open up to me and share their stories, the more honored I feel to be with them. But there was one day in particular when I felt as though I finally have gained the trust of these women. That was the day they filled my entire backpack with dried fish and canned fish. One of the women comes to me and says, “Teacher, very very thank you for English teaching! Very very thank you!” Then as she speaks, two other women surround me. A third woman comes with something wrapped up in her skirt. She looks to her right and left, turns to me, smiles and says, “Shhhhh!” Then shoves whatever was in her skirt into my bag. Then she opens my front backpack pocket and shoves 4 cans of fish paste inside, turns to me, smiles, and embraces me.

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My Rohingya mother always looks out for me and provides me with my daily dose of dried fish.

Hugging is not something very common in their culture, so this really meant a lot to me. As she hugged me, she said, “Thank you, thank you Teacher Sophie. See you tomorrow.”

I dared not to open up my bag and see what they put inside. For all I know, they put some dead animal inside…which I later found out that they did.

When I opened my backpack later on, I realized that they shoved 12 whole pieces of dried fish into my backpack. If you’ve ever been to a fresh fish market, you’ll know the familiar smell of dead fish.

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My entire bag was filled with that fresh aroma. My computer, notebook, pens….everything was just a little fishy that day.

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Although it would’ve been nice for them to ask me if I liked fish before they shoved it in my bag, I consider it one of the biggest honors. The Rohingya have their thing. Their thing is fish. I’m honored that they wanted to share it with me. For me, it was a sign that I have finally gained their respect and trust. I’m not simply some foreigner who wants to come in and “change” their lives by teaching them English. I want to be their friend, to learn their story (because their stories are absolutely fascinating), and understand their culture.

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After months of working with them, I have finally gained their trust. And that means everything to me.

It’s taken me about 8 months to get that dried fish shoved into my bag, but it definitely was worth the wait.

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I don’t regret a single day, hour, or minute spent at that shelter. The craziness and chaos of it makes it easy for me to fit right in. I’m honored to continue to be their teacher for as long as I can.

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Something’s fishy!

Oh by the way, I now have 12 canned fish paste (started off as 4…keeps on adding up!) and even more dried fish. Winning!

 

The One Day Plan vs. The Five Year Plan

Asia, Burmese, English Teacher, ESL, Future, Rohingya, Thailand

What are your plans for next year? When are you going to college? What degree are you going to get? How will you find a job? What are you doing with your life? Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Ten years? Twenty years?!

AHHH STOP!

The “five year plan” questions. The “what is your future” questions. The “tell me how you will become an adult” questions.

This is a shout out to all students and recent graduates. We’re all familiar with the classic “five year plan” questions. It seems to be the only topic of conversation anywhere we go. When we make it to the job interview, when we attend family reunions, even when we sit next to that stranger on the bus.

My freshman year in high school was when all the questions started to flood in. From there, I knew it was a downward spiral into the land of perpetual “future” questions. That’s just the way it is in our society. We are constantly asking the same question:

What’s next?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking that question. It’s always good to plan for the next thing, to anticipate what is to come, to try and sort out your life. But what I’ve discovered in my experience is that no matter how much you plan or how much you talk about your plans, it’s never going to go the way you anticipate.

If my organized life had gone according to plan, I would be studying in my second year of university, attending my dream school on a generous scholarship with plans to study abroad next semester.

Instead, I’m sitting in a small apartment in Thailand, eating fish paste with my Burmese friends, teaching English over 10 hours a day, and trying to dodge the Burmese pythons that cross the road as I’m riding my motorbike.

I guess you could say nothing goes according to plan.

But that’s the beauty of it all, isn’t it? We can try as hard as we can to plan our futures, but in reality, life gets in the way. It’s good to have reality slap us in the face from time to time. If we lived our whole lives in a dream, always planning the next thing, we wouldn’t actually be living. We’d be dreaming. We can’t be dreaming forever. Eventually we will need to wake up.

My experiences in Thailand have taught me to spend less time dreaming and more time living. After living in a transient community where everyone migrates when they find a new job, I’ve learned to appreciate the people that surround me today. They might not be there tomorrow.

After living in a constant state of confusion, I’ve learned that life is unpredictable and I need to go with the flow.

After living in a country so vastly different from my own, I’ve learned that there are ways to easily adapt to new surroundings. You can’t do that through planning. You have to do that in the moment.

It’s taken me a while to learn that the One Day Plan can actually be better than the Five Year Plan. Even though I’ve lived here for a year, I still ask the same questions every day:

What am I doing here? What will happen when I go back to the States? Will I ever get a job? Will I ever finish my degree? Was it a good idea to come here? Or am I just a rebellious teen who is escaping the responsibilities of going to college?

I stopped following my traditional Thai One Day Plan and started to fall back to the American Five Year Plan. Coming back to Thailand after my visit in America confused me more than ever. I wasn’t sure if I made the right decision in coming back or in taking a gap year at all.

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But then one day, everything changed.

That single greatest day changed the way I saw everything in my life, putting it all back into perspective.

Of course, the greatest days always seem to begin as the worst days. It was a Monday morning, I was stressed out of my mind from my usual dysfunctional school that seemed to be in utter chaos yet again. Teachers were missing, students were running around screaming my name, news reporters and donors were visiting the school…just a typical day at my Burmese school.

Not to mention this was the day when I decided to run around and catch all of the stray dogs at the school. I sent them to the vet (during my 1 hour of free time) for vaccinations and the removal of certain body parts to stop them from reproducing…

Just as I finished wrapping up my lesson with grade 5 (after the whole dog-catching shindig), I walked out of class, completely disoriented from the heat. I was heading towards my next class when I saw a van pull up to the school. Three men and a woman stepped out of the van, carrying large video equipment. They walked from class to class, pulling out each Rohingya student and interviewing them. I didn’t think much of it, so I continued going about my daily teaching routine. When the interviewers finished, they came into my classroom and asked if they could speak with me privately.

They were from VOA (Voice of America) and were writing a story about the Rohingya refugees in Thailand. The man who translated my students’ interviews was Rohingya. He approached me and said, “I want to thank you, Miss Sophie, for everything.”

“Why? What did I do?”

“I interviewed several Rohingya boys today. They told me their stories. Some of these boys were trafficked and sold into slavery. They were lucky enough to escape onto another boat and come to Thailand. Most of them have lost their parents at a young age. They have never been to school before. When I asked them if they enjoyed living in Thailand, they said that they hated it until they met you, Sophie. All they could talk about was the special English class that you offer for them. They all kept saying, ‘Miss Sophie! The English teacher! She’s so much fun and so friendly.’”

I was shocked at this feedback I got from my students. So I just laughed.

“Really?”

He replied, “Yes. I don’t think you understand what kind of an impact you’ve made on these boys. You’ve shown them love; something they’ve never seen before. These kids have been outcasts their whole life because of their ethnicity and religion. You’re the first person who has accepted them. Thank you so much for what you have done for the Rohingya people. We respect you and admire all the work you have done for us.”

As soon as he finished, all twenty Rohingya boys came running up to me, giving me high fives and screaming, “Miss Sophie!”

In that moment, I realized that my One Day Plan was the cause of all of this. If I hadn’t spontaneously decided (in my one hour of free time) to teach the Rohingya boys some English, maybe none of this would have happened. If I had spent time planning on teaching these boys, I would’ve realized that my schedule is way too chaotic to start an additional English class. But I didn’t care. I was all in the One Day Plan as opposed to the Five Year Plan.

Although I do admit that my One Day Plan has made my teaching days a lot longer and more stressful, in the long run, it has paid off. All the stressful questions of my future have disappeared as I continue to stick with my One Day Plan philosophy. I realize now that there is nowhere else in the world where I am supposed to be. I am finally in the right place.

Today, I'm right where I'm meant to be.

Today, I am right where I’m meant to be.

What’s beautiful about a One Day Plan is that it is what molds one’s Five Year Plan. I know for a fact that my Five Year Plan has changed even from when I met these young Rohingya boys. I know that I want to continue helping these people and working to change their situation.

Sometimes a person's One Day Plan can change someone else's Five Year Plan.

Sometimes a person’s One Day Plan can change someone else’s Five Year Plan.

I only hope that my One Day Plan has influenced and changed the Rohingya boys’ Five Year Plan for the better. I hope they are able to look to their futures and see more glimpses of hope and opportunity. If their lives were touched by me even in the slightest, whether it is having a new friend or learning a new English word, that is proof that sometimes the One Day Plan can be better than the Five Year Plan.

The (supposedly) Greener Grass on the Other Side

Burma, Rohingya, Thailand, USA

“He was the single most hopeful person I have ever met…”

If I was Toby Maguire, those would’ve been the words I used to describe Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, the man who had “an extraordinary gift for hope” and possessed a “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…” (Fitzgerald).

But I’m not Toby Maguire. Not even close. Somehow, when I heard him speak those words in the film, they resonated with me. Every time I hear this quote, I can’t stop thinking about a boy who happens to be the single most hopeful person I have ever met: Siphul.

I mentioned Siphul in my previous post. He is the 12-year-old Rohingya boy who intrigues, inspires, and challenges me. His award-winning smile sparks joy. His laughter triggers excitement. But most of all, his enthusiasm ignites hope.

Hope for a better life. Hope for a better future. Hope for a sense of belonging.

If there’s a way to sum up Siphul in one sentence, Toby Maguire (or, I guess the screenwriter of the film) has already nailed it.

“He was the single most hopeful person I have ever met…”

It hit me one day when I was sitting next to him, watching him write his name in his new book I just gave him. He stopped, put down his pencil, and looked up at me with wide eyes filled with excitement.

“Teacher! When do you go to America?”
“I go back in 6 months.”

“Whoa!” He sat there and stared into the distance for a second, thinking of what he was going to say.

“Teacher! American men say I come to America in 6 months! 2 months finish, I get passport. I go to America. I see teacher! I study in American school. I speak English! Yes, yes, yes!”

I was really surprised when I heard this…I also had no idea what to believe. You never know what’s true when you’re speaking to a 12-year-old who’s escaped a horrific past and is barely holding on, trying to learn 3 languages at the same time.

“Whoa, really? Who spoke to you?” I answered.

“Teacher, in 3 months, my friend go to America. In 6 months, I go to America. American men say. They say I go to America. America is my new home.”

As he was saying this, several of his other friends came into the classroom. Hearing the word, “America,” they jumped up and down and shouted, “Yes, yes! We go to America, teacher! Same same! We go to America!”

Then they ran over, grabbed my hands, and started dancing with me, singing their favorite song I taught them, “Don’t worry! Be happy!”

I pretended to be excited with them, but deep down I had this nagging feeling that they’re having high hopes for something that will ever happen.

It’s difficult to be realistic with the most hopeful boys I’ve ever met. And why shouldn’t they be hopeful? They’ve had everything taken away from them. The only thing they can really hold onto is hope, so why should I take it away from them?

Instead, I did some research on my own. I tried to contact several embassies, asking them about the Rohingya refugee resettlement status. Luckily enough, we had two workers from UNICEF visit the school to meet with me talk about the Rohingya students. I asked them about the Rohingya being resettled in America. Their words were exactly as I feared. They said it is close to nearly impossible, knowing the American resettlement process (Dangit, ‘MURICA!). Even if it was possible, they will be stuck in Thailand for at least a couple more years. But they will never make it to America. If they will be resettled, it will most likely be somewhere closer, like Malaysia.

When I heard these words, I didn’t know what these boys would say if they found out; if their hopes and dreams were crushed. The next day, we spent time in class talking about different countries. I showed the students videos of America, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and Germany. All the students were excited to compare the different countries, but when I had Siphul speak up in class, all he said was, “Teacher, I want to see the Statue of Liberty. Freedom. I want.”

I looked over to see that he had drawn the Statue of Liberty all over his notebook and wrote “My New Home” next to his American flag. It broke my heart to see that. I know that we always think that the grass is always greener on the other side. For someone like Siphul, there is no grass on his side. He’s in a desert. There is only grass on the other side. He doesn’t care what kind of grass; he just knows that there is grass. There is hope somewhere. To him, that somewhere is America; only America.

It’s like stealing candy from a child; telling Siphul about the realistic aspects of refugee resettlement. I don’t want to take away the only happiness he thinks he has found. It wouldn’t be fair.

I only hope that I am wrong and Siphul’s words of hope will be proven true when he receives his passport and hops on that plane to America.

The Forgotten People

Burma, Facts, Genocide, Rohingya, Thailand, Trafficking

Genocide.

We’re all fairly familiar with the word. This is a term we’ve read about, seen movies about, and written countless essays about. We’ve seen it over and over again in history. From the Holocaust to the Rwanda Genocide, the list goes on and on.

Most of us will spend our whole lives only witnessing a genocide from our living room as we watch the nightly news. We might not ever meet a person who has been ostracized, persecuted, or even tortured for their faith. If we’re lucky, we will continue to live a safe life in a country where we can voice our own opinions and beliefs, something that others in this world will never do.

I wish we could say that after one genocide or two, the world would become peaceful. People would miraculously stop killing and start treating each other as equals.

If only it were that simple.

If only it were that simple for the Rohingya people.

I’ve decided that it’s time to shed some light on the Rohingya people. Finally, their suffering has been brought to surface by the media. I am fortunate enough to interact with these people on a daily basis, but I’m assuming you don’t. The best way to learn about this is to hear it from someone working in the field. I am working in the middle of the conflict right now. I am teaching English at a Buddhist Burmese school where we have recently welcomed over 20 Muslim Rohingya children. To say that there is ethnic and religious tension here would be an understatement. My next couple of blog posts will be concerning the Rohingya issue and I hope it helps you gain a better understanding of what’s going on.

So let’s start with this:

The Top 10 things you need to know about the Rohingya –

Taken from The Economist

Taken from The Economist

  1. There are approximately 1.1 million Rohingya in Burma. They are a Muslim ethnic minority living in northern Rakhine State (economist.com).
  2. The Rohingya originally migrated from Bangladesh thousands of years ago.
  3. In 1982, Burma released a Citizenship Law that denies the Rohingya citizenship despite the fact that these people have been living in Burma for generations. (uscampaignforburma.org).
  4. “Burmese President Thein Sein outright denies the existence of the Rohingya as an ethnic group of Burma, calling them ‘Bengali’ instead. Labeling the Rohingya ‘Bengali’ is a discriminatory, xenophobic way of erroneously implying that Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” (uscampaignforburma.org).
  5. Several outbreaks of violence have occurred towards the Rohingya, but one specific incident, the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, sparked off a deadly chain of events. One incident in June 2012 left over 200 dead and thousands displaced. The violent outbreaks have continued, ultimately leaving the Rohingya with no other choice but to flee.
  6. The Buddhists hate the Rohingya for their ethnicity and religion. According to some of my Buddhist friends, the Rohingya are known as “evil” people who should never exist. In October 2012, Rakhine Buddhist communities formed mobs to attack the Rohingya, setting their entire villages in flames. Rakhine State is a part of Burma where foreign journalists and NGO aid workers have limited access, making it difficult to track the details of the situation. However, “evidence of a massacre has been steadily mounting” (theguardian.com)
  7. According to the US Campaign for Burma, one of the biggest issues is that “government officials have enforced explicitly racist policies for decades” against the Rohingya and have “failed to intervene and even participated in violent attacks against Rohingya.” The corruption in the government has fed this genocide, encouraging violence against these people. The government has “subjected Rohingya and other Muslims to discriminatory restrictions and policies of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.” The UN officials have called the internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp in Rakhine State as the “most dismal and under-served IDP camps in the world” (uscampaignforburma.org).
  8. The Rohingya have been forced to flee Burma and seek refuge in neighboring countries, including Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia. Thousands of Rohingya have hopped onto crowded, leaky, tiny boats and have risked their lives to cross the Andaman Sea, hoping to find refuge elsewhere. Traffickers take advantage of their vulnerability, bringing them on the ships to take them to a new country where they will be sold. Many of the Rohingya are fully aware that they are selling themselves into slavery, but they would rather pay the trafficker to get on the boat than stay in Burma. Marmod Toyo, a Rohingya man who has a wife and four children said, “There’s not enough food back home and no work. The human trafficker came and gave me money. I knew he might sell me, but I needed it.” During the journey on sea, traffickers starve them, abuse them, and in many cases, kill them (theguardian.com).
  9. Recently, the neighboring countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia do not want to accept the Rohingya refugees. When the boat of refugees arrives at the pier, the countries refuse to take them in, leaving the traffickers to abandon the people on the boat and send them stranded at sea. No food, no water, no place to go, these people remain stranded at sea, hoping and praying to find a new home soon. In the past month, around 4,000 Rohingya have landed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Burma. The United Nations estimates around 2,000 migrants are still adrift somewhere in the Andaman Sea.
  10. Those who have been able to land in another country have fallen into the hands of traffickers. Recently, several camps filled with dozens of bodies in southern Thailand and Malaysia have been discovered. These have been the bodies of Rohingya people who have been taken to the trafficking camps and were tortured, starved, and killed. In Songkhla province, 26 corpses were discovered on May 1st followed by two skeletons in Phang Nga (that’s where I live). More corpses have continued to be discovered. After interviewing survivors, brokers, and police officials, NGO Fortify Rights says that these statements “suggest these grim finds may only scratch the surface of a much larger problem in which the Thai government is allegedly complicit….Survivors spoke of regular killings at camps, common graves, and torture at the hands of gang members trying to extort money from their families” (theguardian.com)

Taken from The Economist

Taken from The Economist

Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch says, “Each year, tens of thousands of Rohingya flee the dire human rights situation in Burma only to be further abused and exploited at the hands of traffickers in Thailand. The discovery of these mass graves should shock the Thai government into shutting down the trafficking networks that enrich officials but prey on extremely vulnerable people. Instead of sticking Rohingya in border camps or immigration lockups, the government should provide safety and protection” (theguardian.com)

For failure to combat trafficking, the US State Department recently downgraded Thailand to the worst possible rating on human trafficking: tier 3. This was displayed on the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report.

Thailand is one of the worst countries to combat human trafficking.

Some Rohingya people are lucky enough to escape Burma, the country filled with religious persecution, sectarian violence, racist laws, internment camps, and lack of freedom. Those who leave the country that brought them so much suffering will enter another country and find themselves sold into slavery at the hands of the brokers. These are the brokers who promised them a safe refuge from Burma.

This crisis with the Rohingya people has received inadequate international attention. For all we know, this has been going on far longer than we think. Although we may be unsure of when it started, we should be entirely and unmistakably sure that it will end. Soon. Very soon. With the media picking up on the situation and the awareness spreading, there is no excuse not to step in for the sake of the Rohingya. We cannot let it continue. We cannot turn our backs on it.

As an English teacher, I feel powerless in this situation. I feel as though I am idly standing by while an entire race of people are being slaughtered. Recently, an exciting chain of events has unraveled, making me realize that I can make a much bigger impact on these victims of genocide than I ever imagined.

More on that later. For now, please share this post. Spread the awareness to your friends. Make sure everyone knows what is going on with the Rohingya people. Please check the news daily and keep up to date with the situation.

We cannot let these forgotten people remain forgotten.