Sayad & Rob: For the Sake of Life
interview by nick terry
"The waves hit the boat, the water came in. We were all crying and cold. Everyone thought, “we are gone. We won't survive”."
In Lakemba, Western Sydney, I’m sitting on a couch with Rob and Sayad. Rob (not his real name) is young, cleanly shaven and speaks gently. He hasn’t been in Australia long, and is not certain he’ll be allowed to stay. Sayad (who is translating) is the opposite. He laughs a lot and waves around his arms as he diverts my serious questions into history lessons and dad jokes.
Rob’s housemates introduce themselves and hand everyone steaming mugs of coffee with biscuits. It’s not till later I realise everyone in the apartment arrived in Australia by boat. Sayad laughs at my surprise, “If you didn’t come by boat, you’re not Rohingya!”
Rob and Sayad are Rohingyan, a Muslim ethnic minority that live in the majority Buddhist nation of Myanmar (AKA: Burma). About 1.1 million Rohingya people live in Myanmar’s state of Rakhine, but none are recognised by the government as citizens. That means they can’t get passports and they are refused the right to education and marriage.
Where in Myanmar are you from?
Rob: I’m from Maungdaw in the state of Rakhine. All my family is from there.
And what is life like for them?
R: They live in a slum and they are suffering. They are healthy at the moment but they are also very depressed. Rohingya people have nothing in Burma, because the Burmese government says the Rohingya have nothing there.
Most Australians don’t know much about Rohinyga people, what is the community like?
Sayad: Rohingya men and women wear the sarong. We always eat rice and curry, we live together and we are very peaceful. We never fight with any other religions. We like to live peacefully with everyone.
So why do they want to escape Myanmar?
S: Although we are the indigenous people of Rakhine, we are told to leave the country by the government.
Muhammed (Rob’s housemate): In Burma, the Rohingya don’t have good doctors, we don’t have doctors at all. We don’t have a medical centre or anything like that. Those are only for the Buddhist people, not us. If something goes wrong or someone is in an accident, they die. That’s why people are coming here (Australia).
S: Nobody can go to the local hospital, and even if they are allowed inside, they don’t ever come back alive. Their family will receive a dead body. For more than two years my mother hasn’t been able to get medical treatment. That’s the problem. They can’t go anywhere because they are not allowed. (Later Sayad tells me even women giving birth don’t dare go to hospital. They’re too scared that their newborn children won’t make it out alive.)
Doesn’t everyone want to escape?
S: People don’t want to leave the country because that’s where their families live and some have property.
When I escaped to Malaysia I told my mother, “Sell everything and come to Malaysia to live with me.” She said, “no, I can’t sell our land because I want to hand it down to you when you return.”
When she lost everything, when the property was burnt and looted, our family members killed… Then she said “I don’t need any property anymore, please take me with you.”
Authorities are known to encourage violence against the Rohingya community. In 2012, over 200 Rohingya were killed and 140,000 were left homeless after religious unrest and riots. The Human Rights Watch says the systematic discrimination is “bordering on ethnic cleansing”.
How did you escape from Myanmar?
R: It’s very hard to find a safe way to get out. I went to Bangladesh then walked for seven days with a group of others and people smugglers.
How did the people smugglers treat you?
R: Very badly. The people smugglers said, “If you do not pay the money, they we will kill you”. The smugglers killed a lot of people that couldn’t pay the money.
Was it the same for you Sayad?
S: I fled to Thailand. I was living in the jungle in Thailand for 18 days straight. I was forced to pay bribes (via people smugglers) to the Thai Police.
The people smugglers told us, “If you have no money. You have to work for us. You must work in the rubber farm for a year, or on the fishing boat for 6 months.”
You mean working for nothing? Like a slave?
I’ve heard that people smugglers in Thailand keep refugees in cages in the jungle and extort money from relatives. Is that true?
S: Yes, they kill people as well. They ask you for money, for food and for rent. But if you cannot pay, they will kill you. They have a gun. They use the gun.
How did you get out of the jungle?
S: I had money. I paid him (people smuggler) money for bribes to the police. I said I don’t want to work on the boat, I want to go to Malaysia.
I spent a long time in Malaysia (Sayad spent 17 years living illegally with his family in Malaysia).
Some Australians might ask you, why come to Australia? Why not go to Bangladesh or Malaysia?
S: Malaysia doesn’t have any rights for Rohingya because they do not recognize refugees there. We are refugees, but the UN (refugee) card isn’t recognised by the Malaysian government.
So our children aren’t allowed to go to school. We have no work rights. We can’t go outside our homes. If we go outside, we have to put money inside the pocket of every policeman we meet. Whenever a policeman asks you for money, you must pay him.
(If they refuse to pay these bribes, Sayad tells me the Malaysian police arrest them and sell them back to the people smugglers in Thailand).
What about Bangladesh?
R: Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia… they have no rights for foreigners. Here (Australia) they have rights. When I escaped to Bangladesh, the government knew I was from Burma. And in Bangladesh, they catch Rohingya people and put them into the jail. It’s the same fear of police that you have in Malaysia.
So to get to Australia from Malaysia, you came by boat. Did you know that was dangerous? Was it a difficult decision to get on a boat?
S: I told my wife, “I choose to go Australia for my children. Not for you, not for me. We have no time left to enjoy our lives. We only have time left to make a better life for our children.”
My wife was very upset about it, she was crying. She said, “We will die together”.
I told her no. I said, “If I die that will be very terrible. I’ll feed my body to the fish, but at least I tried to make a better life. If I live, if I make it to Australia, I’ll make a better life for my children.”
I tried and I succeeded. My children are here. They live freely every day. They go to school and study. We have no fear from the police.
My wife and I spent our life struggling. I don’t want my children to live like that. I choose a country that has rights, and freedoms, and justice. Everything is here. That’s why I left Malaysia, to look after my children’s lives, to make a beautiful life for them.
What was the boat trip from Indonesia like?
S: It was very difficult. I’ve never had an experience like that. I came by boat from Burma to Thailand, Thailand to Malaysia, and Malaysia to Indonesia. But this trip from Indonesia to Australia, that ocean is very terrible.
The people smuggler took us to Bima, where we got into the boats. We got into the boats after sunset.
The smuggler that took us on the boat said he had done it before. He spotted this bird when we were in the middle of the ocean and said, “now we are in Australian waters”. None of us knew where we were except him.
Then at about 3AM in the morning our boat’s engine broke down. We couldn’t see any boats, any ships or any planes. We lost hope.
What was everyone on the boat doing?
S: We were praying, everyone was crying. There were very big waves. I’ve never had an experience like that before. And the boat was so small. The waves hit us, the water came in. Everyone was saying, “we’re gone, we’re not going to survive”.
What were you thinking at that moment?
S: I thought I had lost my family, my children back in Malaysia. I was thinking that I’ve paid $9000 ringgits (AUD $3000) to feed the fish with my body. I completely lost all hope. I said to the others we should pray together. I brought the Koran, and I read from it.
Then at 11AM, the plane flew over us... straight away one man on our boat began waving his shirt and everyone stood up. And it was like life came back to us. When I saw the plane it was like I’d been given a second life. The plane flew very close to us and took pictures. It was a military plane.
We were very, very happy! We were saying to each other, “We will be Australians now because we’ve got the Australian navy saving us. Our good luck has returned.”
So then after the plane left, within one hour the navy came. When they came, they took us to Ashmore Island.
What was your trip like Rob?
R: I was scared. Very scared. There were seven families on my boat. The navy intercepted the boat and the navy dragged the boat for 24 hours.
Now that you’ve been on that boat trip, would you tell your family to come to Australia?
R: My brothers and sisters would like to come to Australia, but they cannot. If I could, I would bring them here, but I would not bring them by boat. I’d never bring anyone by boat. It’s very dangerous. I never want to get in a boat to go anywhere ever again.
What about the boat trip from Malaysia made you feel like that?
R: The fear of death.
But you’re living in Sydney now, what’s life like for you now?
R: Life is beautiful here in Australia.
S: I’ve very happy! I’m working for my community. I can stand up for the Rohingya now. In Malaysia I was working for a long time for the Rohingya refugee community.
(In Malaysia, Sayad was so determined to educate his kids, he established a school for refugee children. Unfortunately the government refused to register the school because as refugees they had no documentation).
Now you’re in Australia, what are you planning for the next 5 – 10 years?
S: My dream is to educate my children, to give them a good education. That’s my dream. I came here to improve their life. My dream is to give them a real education, nothing else.
What about you Rob?
R: I hope only to stay in a peaceful country.
Sayad laughs: Everyone has a goal, or maybe a dream of a beautiful wife? Do you want to master a trade? Become a lawyer?
Muhammed chimes in: Maybe an engineer?
Rob laughs and shakes his head: I only want an Australian visa. I just want a peaceful life.
Is there anything else important that you’d like to say?
S: Rohingya people are getting boats to Australia because they’re spending a long, long time in Malaysia. There is no third country for us to go to. That’s why we jump on a boat.
Even though it is very risky. We have no other option, because the United Nations doesn’t process our claims. The government in Burma doesn’t give us any opportunity to leave legally. So we have no opportunity to leave legally.
The Australian government says, “Don’t come through the back door. Come through the front door.”But what if they don’t open the door? What if the door is closed for the Rohingya? That’s why people are getting on boats. If they improved the humanitarian program, no one would come by boat.