“Hey, are you still alive?” said my lab partner cheerfully as we made our way to our microbiology class in Kerr Hall East. My heart skipped a beat, and then I realized she was referring to our midterms that week. I came to Ryerson University in the fall of 2016 and I’m now in my second-year. I thought about the lab reports that I needed to be working on and the rest of my upcoming responsibilities. As my professor waited to start class, my mind wandered back to the word “alive.”
For me, being alive has two meanings. The first is to be literally alive, to not be tortured and to not be killed. The second meaning embodies life beyond just surviving. It means being able to pursue a passion or goal and finding what makes you happy.
Five years ago, I experienced the weight of the first definition. The joyful days that my family strived to make for me in Myanmar were drastically changed forever. I never thought that I would have to be afraid of death or that I would know how it feels to be on the verge of being killed.
My family and I were trapped inside our house. We couldn’t go outside of our home to buy food. We spent our nights with little sleep consciously waiting for any sound of the killers. We stayed in the living room to have a quick escape together, with our pre-packed bags and pepper spray in an arm’s reach. Although we knew they would be of feeble defence to the killers who would target us because of our identity and religion, those little tools could buy us some time to escape. This became a recurring experience, night after night, causing us to frequently fear for our lives.
Why did we have to try so hard to stay alive? Why were these people coming after us? Our fault is none other than belonging to a group of ethnic minorities called Rohingya.
The majority of Rohingyas are followers of Islam and natives of the region of Rakhine State of Myanmar. Although the Rohingya refugee crisis has only recently made headlines, Rohingyas have been deprived of their human rights since the 1970s as part of the government’s plan to control the country. Government officials have scapegoated the Rohingya people because they look different and are of a different religion. The United Nations reported that since late August, almost 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have arrived in Bangladesh fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
Since 2012, the government has had mass murders of Rohingyas within spaced out time periods. This year, the burning of villages, burning of children, torture, gang rape and mass murders were at the most extreme level. In order to stay alive, Rohingyas have to somehow escape from Myanmar soldiers who are armed with machine guns and willing to kill and torture.
“I never thought that I would have to be afraid of death or that I would know how it feels to be on the verge of being killed”
Rohingyas are discriminated against in everyday life, withdrawn from the official list of native people in Myanmar and denied citizenship. We are restricted from getting post-secondary education, to do business, to marry, to have children and to even own livestock. We are completely prohibited from travelling to other parts of the country, and require a permit from authorities to travel to different villages within the Rakhine state.
After denying their inhumane acts and the killings of Rohingyas, the Myanmar government claimed they will receive Rohingya refugees back from Bangladesh if they can prove they are citizens of Myanmar. Their proof of citizenship is that Rohingyas must be able to speak Burmese fluently and be able to sing the national anthem.
We Rohingyas are a minority with our own language, who have been effectively restricted by the government itself from communication with anyone outside our community for over 40 years, which resulted in having no access to the Burmese language.
There are many other minorities in Myanmar who cannot speak Burmese, but are considered citizens due to having the same religion as the government. It is impossible to go back to Myanmar as there is little chance that they will accept the Rohingya people whom they have tried so hard to erase.
To escape from Myanmar and make it to a country where my family and I were safe and embraced, felt like it required something close to a miracle. Every fortunate event that could happen to a Rohingya girl seemingly happened to me. My parents lived in a different part of the country when the Rohingya killings began to worsen. My mother was a teacher and my father was a mayor.
He was dismissed from his job to avoid having Rohingyas in government positions and we continued to face severe discrimination.
In 2013, we had to flee to Malaysia in order to save our lives. This was our safest option because they shared our faith as a predominantly Muslim country. While we were in Malaysia, my brother, sister and I tried to go back to school. I applied and was accepted to two universities, but after explaining that I was a refugee, my acceptance was revoked. Fortunately, another silver lining appeared in my life.
“In 2013, we had to flee to Malaysia in order to save our lives”
In 2015, my family was sponsored by a group of Canadians giving us the opportunity to call Canada our new home. I was accepted- ed as a scholar by World University Service of Canada (WUSC), an organization that sponsors students with refugee backgrounds to study in Canadian universities. This opportunity was available to Rohingya refugees with a post-secondary education, a privilege many people did not have because they were still not recognized as citizens.
I attended university in Myanmar for two years, although I would never get a degree because of my identity. Last year, I was chosen by Ryerson through the WUSC to continue my education in Canada. I have been beyond lucky all my life, but I know this is not the common outcome for most Rohingyas.
For Rohingyas, their biggest trial in life is to fulfill the first definition of being alive by simply trying to survive. The majority of Rohingyas will never have a chance to experience the second meaning. Will they ever get to study in a university and find their passion? Will they ever know how it feels to go about freely without fear of being killed? The right question now is: will they be alive tomorrow? I hope that they will, but they need help because they don’t have a voice.
World leaders like China and India are reluctant to take solid actions. The Myanmar government will continue to carry out their plan, which many are calling a 21st century genocide. But we are alive and we have a voice. We can be the voice that the Rohingyas need. We can speak out on their behalf to keep them alive for the sake of humanity.