It was such an idyllic childhood for Mohammed Husson Ali.
Nearly all the 300 families in the Burmese village of Myo Thu Gyi were farmers. There in the northeast state of Rakhine, they owned their land and cultivated rice and other crops. Goats, cows, lambs and water buffaloes roamed freely. Palm trees provided shade, and sometimes, a soft breeze. Mangoes and coconuts hung heavily from their trees. Jackfruit and guava abounded. Bananas were everywhere.
At harvest time, neighbors pitched in to gather the rice in one another’s fields. Little boys worked alongside their fathers and uncles. Women delivered big baskets of vegetables for the hungry harvesters. Bowls of curry–goat and chicken were the favorites–were served to anyone who happened to come by. Sticky rice was all but inhaled, a delicious specialty that no one could resist.
Farmers saw no need to compete over crops. No one went hungry, and so no one had reason to steal. At the end of each day, after the harvesters had moved from field to field, they broke into song, “Alleyee,” or “Farmer’s Song.” The tune’s jaunty chorus echoed across the fields.
“In my childhood, it was a very easy life,” Ali said. “A very happy time.”
But the idyll ended with the political transformation of the country now known as Myanmar. The people of Rakhine were an ethnic minority, Muslims known as the Rohingya who had settled in the province formerly known as Arakan centuries ago. Theirs was a variation of the Sunni Muslim faith, with a distinct language and culture. Legend holds that they descend from Arab traders. In the state of Rakhine, said Ali — known as Mohammed — Buddhists and Muslims had lived together in harmony. Each group had full citizenship and full voting rights.
“My father sold jute to the Buddhists,” Ali remembered, referring to a common vegetable fiber used to make thread. “At my wedding, a lot of my Buddhist friends came to the celebration. There was no judgment, just living together. We coexisted.”
He tells his story quietly, his soft voice betraying no trace of anger or bitterness. His wife, children and grandchildren — those who have survived — reside in Leda, the most recent Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. Oddly, the camp is just across the river that separates the two countries, not far from the family’s home for generations. The township of Maungdaw, where Myo Thu Gyi was among the villages, no longer exists. As part of its “clearance operation” to eliminate the Rohingya, the Myanmar army burned all the houses, mosques and other structures in the township and its villages to the ground. The army then bulldozed the entire region to make sure nothing — and no one — remained.
A New Life
Mohammed Husson Ali is a small man with a wispy white beard. Hardship has aged him beyond his 68 years. He wears a knitted skull cap and many layers of warm clothing over his traditional sarong. Coming from a tropical country, he has struggled in his seven years in the United States to adapt to the chilly winters of the Pacific Northwest. He keeps a sense of perspective, though, perhaps because bureaucratic error sent him initially not to Portland, Oregon, but to Portland, Maine. It was Feb. 28, 2011, when he arrived. In the 18 days before he was redirected to the other Portland — the one in Oregon — he said he could not imagine how any place could be so cold.
Only when he speaks of the conditions his family and other Rohingya refugees must endure in a camp bulging with nearly 1 million people does his voice turn hard.
“This place should be called a 21st century concentration camp,” he said. “People cannot go outside. There is arrest. There is killing. It is no way to live.”
Young men are especially vulnerable.
“All the young men, under 50, they need to hide,” Ali says. “In 2013, one of my sons was targeted.”
Like his own father, Mohammed Arfat Ali, now 25, managed to escape with the help of a broker. The younger Ali remains in Malaysia.
Decades of Repression
The trouble dates to 1962, when Gen. Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party seized power in Rangoon through a military coup. Rohingya were deemed “foreign invaders.” The new government required all citizens to carry national identity cards. The Rohingya, however, were issued foreign identity cards. The discrimination persisted, preventing Rohingya — who had once held seats in the Burmese Parliament — from voting. For those Rohingya who could work their way through a rigorous citizenship test, limits were placed on how many Rohingya could enter certain professions, such as law or medicine.
In the more than four decades since crackdowns on the Rohingya in the Rakhine state forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, Malaysia or elsewhere, many Rohingya say they or their family members have been the victims of rape, torture, arson or murder at the hands of Myanmar security forces. The government in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) has steadily denied these charges, including in 2013, when Human Rights Watch said the government was conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, or in 2016, when a United Nations official made a similar accusation.
Indeed, Human Rights Watch contends that the Myanmar government has partially or completely destroyed more than 350 Rohingya villages. In turn, the government in Yangon claims that Rohingya rebels killed nine members of the Myanmar border police in 2016, and that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya insurgent group, launched a raid on police outposts in Rakhine in the same year.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, largely refuses to discuss the plight of the Rohingya. When Pope Francis visited Myanmar in 2017, the leader of the country’s army told the pontiff there was no discrimination in the country and praised the army for maintaining peace and stability.
None of which sits well with Mohammed, who taught high school physics, chemistry and math in the Rakhine state and worked as a senior food monitor for the U.N. World Food Programme in his native country.
No More Peace for the Rohingya
After a peaceful childhood that saw him huddle under palm trees when heavy rains struck during the two-mile walk to and from high school, Mohammed has lived through stiff restrictions in his township: no access to hospitals, for instance; and no facilities for Rohingya students to pursue higher education. Rohingya could not marry without government permission, a process that could take as long as a year. Rohingya couples were not allowed to have more than two children. They saw their land confiscated. They needed permits to travel from place to place. Even members of the United Nations staff, like Mohammed himself, could not move about without an authorization letter.
“Our lives were restricted entirely,” he said. “If one became separated from one’s family, one could not build a new house.”
After Aung San Suu Kyi’s election in 2015, Mohammed said, even the temporary government registration cards that had been issued to Rohingya were canceled. Rohingya, he said, became known as “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.”
“No voting rights, no ownership rights, no cars, nothing,” he said. “Every right, canceled.”
Born in 1951, Mohammed had avoided certain curtailments by dint of hard work and some measure of good luck. As a youth he attended the local madrassa, or Muslim education center, for three hours each morning before heading to the township school. In high school he excelled at chemistry and math, but his family lacked the funds to send him to college. Instead he began working as an administrator in the education department. He also taught high school and made it a point to study for the country’s rigorous university exam while riding city buses. In 1978, he traveled to Rangoon and handily passed the exam, giving him the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in physics.
That same year, Mohammed decided for the first time that he and his family would have to leave their country.
“The situation was growing worse and worse,” he said.
Operation Dragon King
The government’s new constitution excluded Muslims from any form of citizenship, and the socialist government, rife with graft and corruption, continued to clamp down on the Rohingya through a military effort known as Operation Dragon King.
Officially, the purpose of Operation Dragon King was to register citizens in the northern part of the Arakan state, and oust “foreigners” — i.e., Rohingya — from the region. Rohingya refugees charged that immigration officials and military personnel used intimidation, rape and murder to expel residents from their communities. When between 200,000 and 250,000 Rohingya fled the region, government officials declared that the mass exodus had proved that the refugees were in fact illegal immigrants.
Mohammed and his family were among those who fled to Bangladesh. For six months, they lived in a refugee camp before the Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments reached a repatriation agreement that made it possible for them to return to their village.
Their goal was to start again, rebuilding the life they had left behind.
Mohammed found work first with the World Food Organization, then the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency that works with refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people. Later he returned to teaching.
“We thought everything was settled,” Mohammed said. “But slowly the problems came back.”
By 1992, the Rohingya population once again found itself with all rights gone.
“We were told to go,” Mohammed said. “But where?”
Again, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh. Again, the two governments formed an agreement, and in 1994, the repatriation process began. Again, Mohammed found work with the World Food Programme and the UNHCR.
But tensions arose between Mohammed and some of his Buddhist colleagues. Mohammed suspected them of taking information from him and using it against him. His fears were confirmed when he left to attend an external workshop on school food programs. Arriving at the airport in Nairobi, Kenya, he learned that his passport had been confiscated in Yangon. A month later, U.N. officials told him it was too dangerous for him to continue working there.
“I had no passport, no job and, at the time, no money,” Mohammed said.
By 2008, it became clear that he could not remain in Myanmar. He told his family he would try to find a safe place and then send for them. He had little choice but to trust the brokers who made a lucrative business of helping Rohingya and others escape from their country.
Mohammed began an arduous journey by rowboat, bus, foot and whatever means of transport he could summon. In his hand luggage, he carried two shirts, some documents and recommendation letters from assorted officials.
He landed in Bangladesh, aided by his ability to speak some of that country’s language. His familiarity with Bangladeshi customs also helped him to blend in. Soon enough, his broker delivered, and Mohammed had a Bangladeshi passport. He waited for nearly three months before the broker told him his Thai visa had been approved. At the Bangkok airport, a contact arranged by the broker took him by train to a town on the Malaysian border.
“Then the Thai person gave me some food and took me by motorbike to a small river crossing,” Mohammed said.
Next he boarded a tiny boat, just the rower and Mohammed, and entered Malaysia under cover of darkness. The stress of the journey was taking its toll. Mohammed felt weak and feared that the pains in his chest signaled something serious. He was right.
From the border, a family took him to a bus station and bought him a ticket to Malaysia. At two in the morning, he arrived in that country’s second largest city, Penang, which hugs Malaysia’s northwest coast. A local madrassa sheltered Mohammed until he could make contact with someone from UNHCR in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city.
“Fifteen days later, alone, I went to Kuala Lumpur,” Mohammed said.
His youngest son was living there, too, and Mohammed found his way to his home. He also made contact with some of his former students, also Rohingya refugees, who were living there as well, as was one of Mohammed’s brothers.
Mohammed told his son he was seriously ill. After nearly a year-long odyssey, fraught with danger and uncertainty, he was weak and suffering from high fevers. Several months later, he realized he was having a full-scale heart attack. The only means of transport to a hospital, two hours away, was by motorbike. Mohammed clung to the driver while his heart was wracked with pain.
His convalescence, “back and forth to the hospital,” took two years. During that time he received notice that the UNHCR had arranged for him to go to Australia. It was a safe enough destination, but Mohammed didn’t know anyone there.
When the UNHCR came back with an offer to send him to America, “My brother told me, ‘Go,’” Mohammed says.
Life in Oregon, Family in Bangladesh
In Portland — the one in Oregon, not Maine — Mohammed shares a house owned by a fellow Rohingya with other refugees. He worships at a nearby mosque. He misses his family terribly and prays that they will join him in America one day. He mourns the devastation of his home community and the ongoing violence that continues to claim lives there. His own nephew, for example, was gunned down and killed on his way to the rice paddies in 2016 when Myanmar authorities retaliated against an insurgent attack on a military encampment at the border.
“He was shot down in front of my house,” Mohammed said — a house that no longer stands now that the government has erased the existence of the village. “They killed 38 people in my village that evening.”
Minutes later, he said, the army struck another nearby village, killing seven young children on their way to sell produce in the village market.
“No one could escape,” Mohammed said
Just to make sure the remaining Rohingya were kept in line, “the government removed all fences, even the walls around toilets,” Mohammed says “There was no privacy, none at all. House by house, village by village, they cut down all the trees so no one could hide.” The following year, “the military entered my village and burned all the houses, one by one. The whole village — nothing was left.”
Even the cemetery was later bulldozed, along with 14 mosques. Flattened.
In the aftermath, his wife, two sons and three daughters managed to cross to Bangladesh, where they remain in the vast Rohingya refugee camp. Mohammed speaks to his family twice a day. All are healthy, he reports, despite the difficult conditions. But they are trapped in their refugee status, with no passports, no national identity and no funds for travel.
“Immediate intervention” is needed to solve this conundrum, Mohammed maintains. He sets his hopes on action by the U.S. government, but concedes that the predicament of the Rohingya is not a high priority.
“Nobody even knows who the Rohingya are or where the Rohingya are from,” he laments. “The Rohingya genocide movement needs to be organized.”
For his part, Mohammed appreciates the good fortune that allowed him to escape the 21st century genocide that has claimed the lives of so many of his people.
“I found this to be a nice place, America,” he said. “Since I am aged, old, I get all sorts of facilities — medical care, food, everything.”
In the United States, he said, he has found “no discrimination against religion, skin color, race. Here, the rule of law means everything. There is free education here!”
He paused, then added: “I want my family and my community to have this kind of society.”