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.



UNHCR staff celebrate release of babies from detention in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, March 23 (UNHCR) – The office of the UN refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur was abuzz with excitement as staff awaited the arrival of their guests of honour. Soon they arrived – six babies aged between 30 and 40 days – after being released on Thursday from an immigration detention facility.

The tiny tots slept in their mothers’ arms, oblivious to the excitement around them as families reunited and UNHCR staff hurried to process paperwork. The group looked tired, but their elation and relief was apparent.

The babies were among a group of 25 persons of concern, who were released into UNHCR custody by Malaysian authorities. They and their relatives – all from Myanmar – had been arrested and held for up to four weeks for not having valid immigration documents.

The Malaysian Immigration Act does not distinguish between a refugee and an immigrant, thus refugees and asylum seekers are sometimes arrested and detained in the immigration holding facility. (more…)


I met Hussein (not his real name) at one of the handful of mobile clinics serving refugees. He came to get treatment for his leg, which was swollen. He was walking with a limp, and had his ankle bandaged. He passed me a piece of paper that the doctor had written on – it said, simply, “Rest”.

He needs to rest his leg for it to heal, but he cannot afford to. “I have no money. No rest – if I rest, I die, baby die.” Hussein, now 50, goes on to describe what he does as a living. “Tonight, people sleep, I go jalan-jalan (the Malay word that means to travel for recreational purposes). I go pick bottle, carton, plastic. I buy bicycle hand second for 80 ringgit. I go around for 5 hours. I go to restaurants, garbage bins, to place where people throw bottles. 1 day I get 20 ringgit, 15 ringgit, 10 ringgit.”

“My baby want milk. 1 can is 20 ringgit. Pampers. 1 box is 30 ringgit. My baby, she doesn’t know about money.”

A refugee himself, Hussein adopted a baby girl soon after he arrived in Malaysia. An Indonesian woman he knew got herself pregnant (not with him) and wanted to abort, so he told her to give him the baby instead – that he will take care of the baby. “Her name is Fatimah, my mother name. I love my baby. I take care of her, she 1 kilo. Now she 12 kilo,” Hussein beamed proudly, gesturing with his hands to indicate how big she has grown.

Hussein left behind a wife and 3 children in Iran. “My children same you age,” he says. “In Iran, I have wife, I have house, I have garden, I have shop, I have car. Very normal life. One day, I go to mountain, take honey, 18 km from house. 2 person have gun speak with me – “please help me, I want to go there”. It 4 pm. After 5km, police roadblock. There was shooting. I go down from car and run away. After that, police come and see my car. They know it Hussein car. I forget about home, about children, about honey, about car, I run to Iraq. Otherwise, I will be same like Saddam Hussein – die.” With that Hussein draws an imaginary noose around his neck and pulls it.”

From there he went to Turkey and then to Greece, trying to find a way to go to Australia where his brother lives. The agents there gave him a passport and told him that with this passport, he can go to New Zealand. After two weeks, they said, he can take a flight to Australia. He paid USD10,000 for his passage. The agents dumped him in Malaysia. In Malaysia, two people, pretending to help him, robbed him of everything he had. “Take bag, passport, money, ring, all.” For 4 days he slept outside the UNHCR office before some Iranian people took pity on him and brought him back to their house. Two weeks later, he received a bank card from his brother in Australia. Slowly, things improved.

But his brother stopped supporting him a few months ago, accusing Hussein of forgetting about UNHCR and just spending money. That he has his own family to take care of. Hussein went to the UNHCR for assistance, and is clearly frustrated that he isn’t getting the help that he thinks he deserves.

“Every day I go. 1 month I go 30 days. Every time I go, they don’t say hello. They say why you here? They want to give me 200 ringgit. But my house rent already 250 ringgit. I not asking for money. Just give me house and food. Yesterday they gave me letter, go to hospital. But hospital ask for me thirty ringgit. I no have money!”

His frustration boils over. He looks down for a moment. Then he lifts his head and looks me squarely in the eyes “I like ice”, he says. “I slowly slowy melt. Why wait? One day I take petrol and “chick”.” He makes the sound of the imaginary lighter he holds in his hands.

But after a while, Hussein’s mood improved, and he puts his life in perspective. Taking a small piece of paper on the table, he drew a big inverted “U” with his pen. “Life is like this. A mountain. I am here now”, he says, drawing a circle halfway up the mountain. The then continues to trace his path up and mountain, and then down again. “On way down, life will be easy. I am afraid I die before get to top.” But his last sentence was no longer laced with fear or despair. He said it half jokingly. Buried all this while by his frustration and anger, the real Hussein was starting to emerge.

“Slowly-slowy come out sun”, he says, drawing the sun on the downhill side of the mountain. He looks at me and smiles broadly.


Mohan (not his real name) is a small, soft spoken man with a kind face and kind eyes. He is 30, and his wife 28. Mohan used to work as a petrol station attendant in one of the small towns outside Jaffna in Sri Lanka. His younger brother joined the LTAT when he was still at school.

“I think he followed his friends”, Mohan said. Together with his parents, he went to the LTAT office to try and get his brother back, but they couldn’t. His brother died in fighting. “They were fighting, and there was a bomb. His whole body burst. They only gave us a photo. No body left”. After that, his elder brother joined. Again they went to the LTAT office to plead. His mother said “Our younger son is dead. Why are you taking another one of my sons?”

One day, an informer told the government that his brothers had joined the LTAT. Soldiers came to his house when he was not around and questioned his mother. They asked if her sons joined the LTAT. She said yes. They asked if she was helping them. She said no. They warned her to “be careful, don’t help them. If you help them, you will die.” After that, they started questioning her about Mohan, asking whereabouts and what he is doing. They suspected that Mohan was involved as well in the LTAT, just like his brothers. (more…)



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.



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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