Ayub, 42, never experienced a fear bigger than that of losing his loved ones. He had sacrificed everything for his family.
As a Rohingya, a stateless minority in Myanmar, he and his family had long faced discrimination, including restrictions on their freedom of movement, education and religion. Ayub felt that he needed to leave his home in Rakhine State to make a living and provide for a wife and seven children.
In 2013, he bravely took a long journey by land, including stretches on foot, from Myanmar to Malaysia. He worked hard in Malaysia in his job as a construction worker, believing that better days would come for him and his family.
But the outbreak of violence in 2017 forced more than 742,000 Rohingya refugees to flee Myanmar for Bangladesh, among them Ayub’s wife, parents and children. After two years in the sprawling, crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the family decided to send the first three daughters to Malaysia to join Ayub.
Their eldest daughter took a boat journey and arrived safely in Malaysia in 2019. Two of her younger sisters, Sahira, 17, and Hafeza, 16, wanted to follow their sister in the hopes of being reunited with their father and accessing education and work opportunities. They embarked on a boat journey and into the hands of smugglers who told them, along with about 100 other passengers, that it would be a seven-day journey to Malaysia.
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, but the smugglers refused to land the boat unless the passengers paid higher fees. Sahira and Hafeza witnessed horrific treatment by the smugglers, and there were days without food and clean water. Many people died and were thrown to the sea due to illness or beatings by the smugglers.
Ayub had not heard news of his two daughters since they left Bangladesh. The passengers on the boat were not allowed to keep their belongings, including the cellphones that would allow them to communicate with family members. Neither he nor his wife had heard any news of the boat’s whereabouts. They prepared for the worst.
It was four months later, in late June 2020, that the media reported that a boat from Bangladesh had been sighted off the coast of Aceh. Ayub was once again hopeful, though he did not manage to find the faces of Sahira and Hafeza in the many photos published in the news articles. He sought out acquaintances with connections in Indonesia to see if he could find information on his daughters, but found nothing. Once again, he felt desperate, and he feared that his daughters were among the passengers who didn’t survive the journey.
After 10 days, he received a phone call from an unknown number, and he couldn’t believe what he heard. It was Sahira and Hafeza calling with the help of UNHCR staff in Aceh. “I felt really happy when they called and told me that they survived. All of us cried during the call.”
After hearing the daughters’ full story, Ayub knew right then that he wouldn’t want them to continue their journey to Malaysia to meet him. He would not risk Sahira and Hafeza going through the same pain again and decided that he would go to Indonesia himself to meet them.
With the help of fellow refugees in Malaysia, Ayub found a way to reach Aceh by boat. The boat journey was safe, but upon his arrival Ayub was put in detention for irregular entry. UNHCR advocated for his release with the authorities and after 22 days, he was finally set free.
25 November was the day Ayub thought would never come. He was allowed to leave the detention centre and was taken to the Balai Latihan Kerja in Kandang, where his daughters were staying. As he approached the gate, he saw Sahira and Hafeza waiting to greet him. The three embraced each other in happy tears. “Words can’t describe how I felt, I just remember the three of us were very emotional. We cried while having each other in our arms,” Ayub recalled.
Hafeza said after the reunion, the three of them prayed to give thanks to Allah. She also relayed how grateful she was to all the people who helped her and her sister reunite with their father, from the Indonesia authorities to humanitarian workers and UNHCR staff.
Reflecting on the hardships that his family had experienced, including back home in Rakhine State, Myanmar, Ayub said that he and his daughters have no concrete plans for their future. Their only hope is to one day be together with the rest of their remaining family in Bangladesh, and to have a happy life in whichever country will accept them as citizens.
*All names changed for protection reasons