By Mohammed Rafique in Carlow, Ireland, UNHCR
Having fled Myanmar as a young boy, Mohammed Rafique reflects on his current home of Carlow, Ireland and shares his hopes for fellow Rohingya refugees.
Since the late 1970s, in successive waves of displacement, over a million Rohingya have fled violence and discrimination in Rakhine State, western Myanmar. The latest outbreak of violence in August 2017 drove thousands to cross over each day to seek safety in neighbouring Bangladesh. Today, there are over 860,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in addition to those living in the wider region and further afield. As part of a continuing series, UNHCR is asking Rohingya refugees around the world to share their experiences and hopes for the future.
Carlow, in Ireland, is a small town. We all know one another by name here. There aren’t that many Rohingya in Carlow, but we feel that all the neighbours are our friends. Even though this is not where I was born, it is my home.
My name is Mohammed Rafique. I was born in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in Myanmar. In 1992, when I was 10 years old, I fled Myanmar with my parents. We were part of the 250,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh in 1991-1992. I’m now 38 and married with three children, two girls and a boy.
I have vivid memories of when we left Myanmar. It’s easier to travel to Bangladesh from Maungdaw, which is the township right across the border. But because we were from Sittwe, we had to travel by boat for two to three days. It was June and raining heavily. We had a tiny boat and I didn’t know how to swim; once we crossed the Naf River, which divides Bangladesh and Myanmar, I fell into a fishing pond a few times. After we arrived in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, we stayed in a temporary site before moving to Ukhiya refugee camp. I lived there for the next 17 years.
In 2009, I was resettled here in Ireland with my wife and our eight-month-old daughter. We were part of a group of 78 Rohingya who were resettled here. Many civil society groups supported us when we arrived, and people volunteered their time. Our big challenge was the language; we didn’t speak English, and so it was hard to communicate with other people in the community. But soon, we started learning English, going to school, and settling in.
After a few years of living here and having been supported by other people to settle in, I thought that it was time that we helped ourselves as well as the wider community. There was an old, historic cricket club in Carlow, but it had closed almost 40 years before, in 1982. Together with some other Rohingya, I re-established the Carlow Cricket Club in 2011 with the support of the local community and county council. The idea for re-building the club came about as the boys in our small Rohingya community were interested in playing cricket, but soon other young people from the wider community joined in, too. We quickly became a strong club and in 2015, we brought back two championship trophies. I’m currently the chairperson of the Carlow Cricket Club and I also coach the youth teams. I’m not that good a player myself, but I fill in for the second team from time to time as a batsman.
My mother and siblings still live in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Our lives here in Ireland are luxurious when compared to the situation there. My first child was born in a small shelter in a refugee camp, while my second child was born at a hospital in Kilkenny town. It really brought home to me how different our lives are now. Every parent wants their child to be safe, and to be born in an environment where they have proper health care, security and the basic things.
“Every parent wants their child to be safe, and to be born in an environment where they have proper health care, security and the basic things.”
It pains me that the situation in Myanmar has not improved for the Rohingya people since my family fled almost 30 years ago. As Rohingya, we are still denied full rights in our birthplace, from education to the right to self-identify as Rohingya. I appreciate the Bangladeshi Government for hosting Rohingya refugees; the camps in Cox’s Bazar, where almost 900,000 refugees now live, have become the world’s largest refugee settlement. The Government and people of Bangladesh opened their borders and saved our people. But protecting the Rohingya people is not just the responsibility of Bangladesh; it is an international issue. Our people are not just hungry for food and other basic things, we hunger for our rights.
It’s an honour to be here in Ireland. I love having the opportunity to contribute to the lives of people in Carlow, including fellow Rohingya. In 2017, I received the Volunteer Ireland Award, which recognized my work in the community. As Rohingya, our identity is not recognized, so to have people recognize me and my work was a wonderful feeling. It was one of the most important days of my life.
It reminded me of the emotions I felt in 2013, when the Irish Government gave us citizenship. I was so emotional that I was crying. I thought to myself: “I was stateless and did not belong to any place, but now I do.”
This article was originally rewritten by Mohammed Rafique on UNHCR’s News & Stories session.
Photograph: Mohammed Rafique with his daughter in Ireland. © TheRohingyaPost/Haikalmansor