'With education, I have learned to speak up for myself'
Eight years after fleeing Myanmar alone as a 12-year-old Rohingya boy, Mohammed Anwar recounts his long journey to Texas, United States, and describes his hopes for the future.
Mohammed Anwar in Fort Worth, Texas, United States.
© Mohammed Anwar
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.
When I first arrived here in Fort Worth, Texas, as a 14-year-old Rohingya boy, I had almost zero English language skills. I couldn’t speak for myself, I couldn’t communicate with people around me, and everything was unfamiliar. When I was hungry, I didn’t know where to get food; when I came across food, I didn’t know what the different foods were.
I feel that this is the situation of the Rohingya people, both the 900,000 refugees living in Bangladesh and the ones still in Rakhine State, Myanmar. In Myanmar, there were restrictions on our education, making it a struggle for us to seek help and achieve our goals. In Bangladesh, Rohingya children also struggle to pursue their education; they have lost their lands, their homes, and are living in camps. My hope is that Rohingya children can go to school and become educated. Education is the most important thing. With education, I have learned to talk about myself, and to speak up for myself. That is what I want for my Rohingya brothers and sisters.
I was 12 years old when I left my home in Rakhine State, Myanmar. It was 2012, and there had been a lot of violence that year. My parents had already passed away, and I didn’t tell my brothers or my relatives that I was planning to leave. One evening, when it was dark, I just left.
Together, a friend and I crossed over to Bangladesh, like so many other Rohingya refugees before us. We had only been in Bangladesh for a few days when we overheard a group of Rohingya talk about finding a better place for our future, where we could live in peace and freedom. My friend and I decided to join them, boarding a small fishing boat and heading out into the ocean.
We were at sea for weeks without food and water. We ran out of oil for our boat, and had to put up a sail so that we could continue moving. Whichever direction the wind blew, whenever it blew, we followed.
After 25 days, we drifted close to what we eventually found out was the Sri Lankan coast. It was early in the morning, as the sun was just rising, when we spotted a fishing boat nearby. The fishermen came over and gave us some food and water. They told us that the navy would come to rescue us, and then they left. The wait for help was painfully slow. By the middle of the afternoon, we were sure that no one would be coming to rescue us after all. We cried at the thought that even when we finally found some people who could help us, they left us out there anyway.
But then around five o’clock a Sri Lankan navy ship arrived. We raised our hands to the sky so that they would know that we didn’t have weapons, that we were safe. At first we didn’t understand what they were saying, but then one of the navy crewmen asked if anyone in our group spoke Hindi. One guy did, and he explained that we were from Rakhine State in Myanmar, and that we were trying to find a place where we could live peacefully. One by one, they took us onto their ship and we set sail for Sri Lanka.
After two years in Sri Lanka, I was told that I would be resettled to the United States. I was so happy and didn’t believe it at first. I practically floated from Sri Lanka to here in Texas. The temperature was cool when I arrived and I didn’t have a jacket, but I was so happy that I didn’t even feel the cold air.
As I was young, I was placed with a foster family. It was difficult for me to adjust at first. The only English phrases I knew were “Hi” and “How are you?”, which made it hard to talk to them. My first foster dad was also a big man, which scared me. Before coming to America, I had never seen such big people. I couldn’t understand my foster dad and thought that because he was so big, he might try to beat me. But a fellow Rohingya came to help interpret for me, and he explained everything. He told me that they were my “first family”. He said: “Whatever you need just ask them, and they will help you, they love you.” It was a challenging and lonely time for me, but with the help of my foster family, teachers and new friends, I learned English. It felt great to be able to introduce myself in English and to take part in the community.
I recently graduated from high school and have just started at the local community college. I know that I am very lucky compared with other Rohingya people, who don’t have that opportunity to pursue their education. My goal now is to become a nurse. My parents passed away when they were young; I didn’t have the chance to love and be loved by them. By becoming a nurse, I would be able to help elderly people, as well as their family members, through difficult times. That is what I want: to be able to take care of other people as if they were my parents or my brothers and sisters. That’s my dream. I hope that all other Rohingya children will be able to follow theirs, too.