For You, A Thousand Times Over

Rohingya Reunions, USA Chapter

“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

Rohingya Reunions, USA Chapter

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

Rohingya Reunions, USA Chapter

“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

Rohingya Reunions, USA Chapter

“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.