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 Sarah (real name will not be mentioned) 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 Sarah 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 Rohingya Reunions and traveled to meet Sarah’s husband and 18-year-old daughter in Malaysia.
Sarah was able to bring five out of her six children to Wisconsin, who have been thriving in the American schools. But Sarah is still torn between two worlds: a new world in America and her old world where her family still waits. She stays at home and seeks 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 Sarah’s sister. I met her over Skype several months ago while I was visiting Sarah. 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 in Colorado, I couldn’t stop thinking about Sarah. 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 13 missed calls over the past hour; all from Sarah.
She answered on the first ring after I dialed. She mustered up enough broken English to tell me that her brother-in-law in Myanmar was killed this morning — and the rest of the family had fled.
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 camps with little 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 Sarah and her family.
However, this simmering conflict between the Rohingya and Myanmar military has recently shifted gears. In August 2017, 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 Sarah’s friends, provide firsthand accounts of the Myanmar soldiers setting homes aflame and firing guns around the villages. Hearing the tragedy of Sarah’s brother-in-law 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 and pouring into Bangladesh amounted to over 600,000. Among these people included Roshida’s parents and siblings. They fled Myanmar and made it safely to the camps, where I was able to find them several months later. Face to face with genocide.