myanmar


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The journey from Myanmar to Malaysia took 5 days.  Lia Neino (not her real name) undertook this journey with her mother and bigger sister. As I was getting the story of the crossing from the mother, i turned to her and asked if she remembers it.  Lia nods, and says “I was afraid and I was very hungry. We eat only once a day”.

Lia comes across as a shy little girl. She spoke little, and when she did, more often than not she would be looking down and drawing imaginary circles on the table with her right index finger at the same time. I get glimpses of what she does and likes. She prefers the food here, and likes fish and vegetables.  Lia says she prefers it here because she can stay with her dad and the whole family. She has a few friends here – children that she meets every Sunday at church. She says her best friends are Bethany, and Siah Siah, and Jen Jen.

Do you have any friends at home? I enquired.  Lia shakes her head. No. Even though they share an apartment with 16 other Myanmarese refugees, none of them are in her age group. She has 1 doll that she plays with, and she watches TV. Her favourite program is “Mr Bean”.

Her mother adds “Sometimes I cut out puzzles, and I teach her how to read and write the Zo language. Sometimes we play snakes and ladders, and sometimes I tell her stories.”

“But I’m bored staying at home. I want to go to Jusco and ride a car,” referring to a shopping complex which has small coin operated cars for children.

She doesn’t get to go out often, because her mother is afraid that they will be arrested. The family went out to the KLCC shopping centre 4 months ago but “police in yellow hats were asking people about their ID and passport. I was so afraid. I heard that RELA will still arrest you even if you have a UNHCR card.” They have not been to a shopping centre since.

When she grows up, Lia wants to be a doctor. “I pity sick people. That’s why I want to give treatment to them”. According to her mother, Lia is not the quiet, shy person in front of me now. “She is very talkative. She is open and frank. The elder sister does what I tell her to, but she is always saying “why are you asking me to do this? She is like me,” the mother says, smiling.

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Taang Thangho and Taang Liando (not their real names) are brothers. Thangbo is 7, whilst his elder brother is 9. There are the lucky ones. With about 15 others, Thangbo and Liando goes to school run by an NGO in Malaysia. They get picked up everyday and driven back. It soon becomes quite apparent that Thangbo is the spokesman of the two. More outgoing and friendly, unlike his more reserved brother, he answered most of the questions, talking freely and confidently.

When asked about what he likes at school, Thangbo says “I only like playing. We play with toy guns, and then we play baking cakes.” Liando agrees. They learn English and Maths too, but Liando says that “I only like English. I don’t like Maths“.

School ends at 1.30 pm, and I ask them what they do after school. I study“, Liando says, and out of the corner of my eye I see his mom smile. Thangbo, on the other hand, was more frank. I watch TV. If mom asks, then I study.”

What else do you do? We fight. But we don’t really fight, we just act. Whenever we wrestle I win. When my brother tries to pin me down, I use my legs to struggle and win. When my brother grabs me, I use my nails.” It really reminded me of the time I supposedly bit my brother on the back when I was small. I don’t remember it at all, but my brother has the scar to prove it.

After school, they play all the time,” their mother adds. I have to ask them to study. They are similar but they are different as well. Liando is quiet, calm, and right handed. Thangbo is very friendly, very energetic and left handed.”

Since they wrestle all the time, I teased them by asking who cries more. We don’t cry. Only mom does“, Thangbo said.

I looked at the mother. “Is that true?” She nods.

They both look like their father. Whenever I see my boys, they remind me so much of their father. I feel so lonely. I miss him very much. When I see the boys talk to older people, they act so much like their father. I miss him in every way.” Their father was forced to become a porter for the army. That was seven years ago. He never came back“, said their mother.

This family just recently came to Malaysia. Prosecuted because of their Christian belief, the mother’s book shop was shut down, the kids were denied entry to school, neighbours ostracised them, and their house was pelted with stones.

But at least for Thangbo, who loves ice cream (any kind) and want to be a soldier and a missionary because a soldier fights bad guys, and Liando who loves fried fish and wants to become an engineer and a missionary because he loves to build, life in Malaysia has some semblance of normality.

 

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And what is your favourite food, I turn to Lia Mauzuang (not her real name) after asking her 7 year old sister the same question. Smiling, she says “KFC!” (Kentucky Fried Chicken). Hot and Spicy or Original? “Spicy”. Mauzuang, a 15 year old girl, seems like your typical teenager. Everyday, she reads, cooks, watches TV and plays music. “Sometimes I dance”, she says, smiling. Mauzuang likes Britney Spears – “all of the songs” – and Jennifer Lopez. She loves playing the piano too, something that she picked up in Malaysia. Every Sunday they go to church and if she goes there early, she gets to practice and play on the piano. She’s made two friends at Church – an 18 year old girl and a 17 year old boy – the one who teaches her the piano.

She loves the shopping malls and she loves Malaysian food, especially Chinese food. Her favorites are noodles with gravy and Hokkien mee. Together with her family, she gets to eat out once every 2 months. Because she cannot go to school in Malaysia, she spends her time studying the bible, reading newspapers, and learning English and Malay from books.

Later, when I was asking her mother about the differences between RA and her smaller sister, I got to know that unlike her sister, she is not so open, preferring to keep things to herself. “She bears her burden alone. Sometimes I see her cry and when I ask, she says that “at this time my friends are studying in Myanmar. I am here alone. I miss my country and my friends and my cousins and my grandmother””

But Mauzuang says that she prefers to stay in Malaysia because “I can stay together with daddy. Life here is easier and food here is nicer.” Together with her mom and sister, Mauzuang was finally reunited with her father when they all made the dangerous crossing from Myanmar into Malaysia two years ago. They were separated in 2000 when her father, a Christian minister, fled to Malaysia to escape religious prosecution.

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OA says she is 45 years old, but looks easily 10 years older. Double checking, I ask what year she was born towards the end of the interview. “1965”, she says. So she really is 45. But sitting next to LA who is only 3 years her junior, she looks old enough to be the mother.

Her family and relatives were involved in student’s movement in the late 1980s. As a result, her relatives were arrested and her elder brother died during interrogation. Although she was not involved, the government suspected her of being a sympathiser and the military used to call on her often, day or night.

Leaving behind her husband and four children, she fled to Pattani in Thailand, where for 9 years she worked in a fishing village, cleaning and preparing dried fish. She had lots of skin problems as a result of her job. Hearing from others that there is a UNHCR office in Malaysia, and looking for a better life, she saved money to pay an agent to bring her to Malaysia. The agent sent her to a rubber plantation. She stayed there for six months, earning RM10 a day to collect and process the rubber sap from the trees, working from 8 am to 6 pm. She only worked on the days the rubber needed collecting, which wasn’t every day. There, OA together with 4 other Myanmarese slept on the ground under a plastic sheet. She moved a month ago when she heard about another place from visitors, and is now living with LA. She has been trying to find a job this past month, so now she spends her days helping with the cooking and cleaning.

“Things are better here. I have not had enough sleep for the past 6 months. We were always scared of arrest or robbers. Now I have enough sleep”.

“The most important thing, is security”.

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Wah Wah has never been out, apart from the one time she went with her late father to watch a movie in one of the shopping centres. That was 4 years ago.

Naw Wah Wah (not her real name) is 6 going on 7 this year. According to her mother, Wah Wah is “exactly like her late father“. “She likes to sing and dance, just like my husband. And when she asks me to cook, she will ask for things that my husband used to cook. My husband likes spicy food, and she likes spicy food as well.”

Wah Wah wants to be a nurse when she grows up, because, she says that “I pity sick people“. I am quite sure that watching her father slowly degenerate and die of TB over a period of 5 years must have left an impression on her.

I want to go to school to learn English. And after that, I want to complete my degree in nursing. I want to learn English because it is spoken worldwide.”

“And after that, what else do you want to do?”, I asked. I don’t want to do anything else. Nursing is enough for me“, she replied.

“And what do you like to do?”

“I like singing and dancing. Every Saturday and Sunday I will go find a television and watch Indian movies. I used to do this with my father“. And like any child her age, she “likes to play video games and games on the handphone“.

Do you have friends? “I have one Chinese friend“, she replies.  And she proudly holds her pet kitten Monkito up to her face so that I could take pictures of both of them.

Her mother explains that one of the women there knew about her daughter and introduced her to a Chinese family with a daughter her age. “They are very nice, they give her gifts, and their daughter likes ballet dancing just like my daughter. But their home is too far away and we are too afraid to go there often. She has no other friends her age because it is mostly men in this area. That is why she plays with dogs and cats“.

Wah Wah has never been out, apart from the one time she went with her late father to watch a movie in one of the shopping centres. That was 4 years ago, for her 2nd birthday.

 

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Saw Lay Doh Wah (not his real name) died last year in Malaysia from TB. He was 55. He died in a small wooden hut that he lived with together with his wife and baby daughter. Here is Saw Lay, in his wife’s words.

I met Saw Lay at the water festival. I was singing there and he wrote some songs. I knew the moment I saw him. He wasn’t as handsome as the other guys but I saw his heart. But he was too shy to say that he loved me. So I asked him straight, “Do you love me? If you do then you’d better tell my parents before it’s too late!” So he did!”

He likes spicy food. And he loved to go see the movies. Back in Myanmar, we would go to the theater to see movies every weekend. It didn’t matter if the movies were Chinese or Indian. He loved them all. My husband is a very artistic man. He used to write songs back in Myanmar.”

I never had any quarrels with my husband in my life. He would never complain, no matter if he had no penny. He always tried to make life happy. He wanted to live life with his family no matter where. When I worry about our future, my husband would calm me down. He would tell me to survive, whether rich or poor.”

Even when he was sick, he would always try to help. He would go into the jungle to pick vegetables and cook for the family. He would wash clothes. He would take care of our baby daughter. Once I had a job carrying water and I accidently hit him in the head with the yoke one day. I really didn’t mean to hit him, but he just said ouch and didn’t complain!

Later, when he got sicker, he couldn’t go out. But still he would sing and make jokes and tell stories to my baby daughter. I would come back from work and I would hear singing and talking from the house.”

Even though we had no job and no money, we cooked together, and we enjoyed being together as a family. That was the happiest time of my life in Malaysia.”

Saw Lay, you are sorely missed by your family.

 

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Naw Lwe Wah (not her real name), a 42 year old Karen mother, has been living in Malaysia for 10 years. Her husband, a government official back in their village, fled Myanmar 5 years earlier to Malaysia because he was involved in the pro-democracy movement and was in danger of being prosecuted. What is special is that Lwe Wah is unlike many other refugees who go from place to place in search of employment or safety. With her family, she has been staying in one single place all these years – a small wooden hut constructed out of pieces of discarded plywood and planks and roofed with zinc. A house that had no running water or electricity. They moved houses once, from a nearby area that was “always damp and full of snakes” to this one behind a factory in the outskirts of the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

Lwe Wah can count on one hand the number of times she has been out of this area. We went out to watch movies once when my youngest daughter (now 7) was about 2 years old because she was complaining and wanted to go out“. And she went to a hospital to deliver this very daughter. But apart from that, Lwe Wah who is registered with the UNCHR as a refugee and has to a card to prove it, is too afraid to go out. They are many policemen and they stop us and ask for money“, Lwe Wah says. I hear RELA does not care if you have a UNHCR card or not – they will arrest you anyways.”

Her fears are not unfounded. Her husband fell ill with TB. He fought his illness for 5 long years before he finally succumbed to it last year. At first, we thought it was nothing, just normal sickness. But he got worse. We wanted to go to a clinic to get medicine, but on the way the police stopped us and took all our money – the money we had for the clinic.” At this point Lwe Wah started to weep, thinking about how her husband might have been saved, might still be alive today, had they reached medical help.

She still remembers that day clearly. (more…)

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