Seeking freedom

Showrife is a 25-year old young man born in northern Rakhine State during a time of political tensions in the early 1990s. His father was killed by Myanmar security forces when Showrife was two years old after being detained along with four relatives. Showrife’s mother was left to raise three boys on her own, and tried hard to educate them despite not having much access to income. She supported them by renting out the family’s lands to others, which enabled her to earn some money. She had studied up to the 8th grade, unusual for a Rohingya woman of her generation. Showrife and his two brothers managed to obtain primary and secondary education in Myanmar, and were raised in part by their mother’s father, whom everyone calls Nana, an affectionate term for grandfather in the Rohingya language. 

Nana, now 72 and a fluent English speaker, says he is the only Rohingya medical doctor living in the camps, and is also a scholar and a speaker of Pali, the ancient language of Buddhist scripture. He was a government servant, a Myanmar citizen whose own father was the headmaster of a government school in the town of Shabbe Bazar in northern Maungdaw Township during the colonial era. Nana worked for many years in hospitals across Rakhine State after completing his medical studies at Mandalay University in the early 1970s. One of his longest placements was in Mrauk U in central Rakhine state, where he lived and worked for 15 years, treating nearly all Rakhine patients who he says never hesitated to accept him as their doctor. Nana insists that there was no discrimination in his day. Because Nana raised his children in Mrauk U, Showrife’s mother and her siblings didn’t speak the Rohingya language until the family returned later to Shabbe Bazar, which has a predominantly Rohingya population.

Showrife’s eldest brother migrated to India in 2008, and was followed by Showrife’s other brother in 2010. Showrife joined them in 2012, when he was 17 years old. The boys’ mother remained with Nana in Shabbe Bazar. By then, Nana was retired, and received a pension of 100,000 Myanmar kyat per month (now 74 USD). After 22 months of displacement, Nana says he is now owed 2,200,000 kyats and expects to be reimbursed upon his eventual repatriation to Myanmar. 

Today, some of Nana’s grandchildren are abroad, but seven of his eight children, including Showrife’s mother, live nearby his shelter in the camps. Though he is pleased to have them close by for day to day support in his old age, Nana says he also regrets that most children remained in Myanmar until being forced to flee to Bangladesh. He wishes he would have sent them away to find a better life abroad. Nana speculates that, even if they had become permanently separated, the family’s overall fate would have been better than it is today if more of them had left Myanmar when it was feasible to do so via irregular migration channels. Nana enthusiastically supported his grandchildren’s decisions to leave Myanmar, observing that there was no longer any opportunity for them to develop themselves professionally or personally in Myanmar. Nana feels that people who become well-educated  naturally wish to “see the world.”

Showrife recounts the events that led him to journey to India. In early 2012, Showrife was a young high school graduate who traveled to a different part of Maungdaw to take a teaching job. But when intercommunal conflict erupted that year between Buddhists and Muslims, he realized he should get back home to Shabbe Bazar. 

Like other educated young men from well-off families who moved away from their home villages, Showrife knew that he would be suspected of joining an insurgent group and that his family could be at risk of harassment and arrest by authorities if he stayed away from home. Things became tense in the village where he was teaching, and he went into partial hiding for a while. He remembers the “Rakhine gangsters waiting along the road” to ambush any fleeing Rohingya. He couldn’t always get enough food to eat, as he couldn’t move openly to shop at the market. 

After four months of living like this, Showrife was able to contact a former teacher, a Rakhine man, who drove him back to Shabbe Bazar and helped him cross the checkpoints along the way. 

But, as Showrife says he predicted, things were not safe once he returned to Shabbe Bazar. A Rakhine neighbor invited him over for a chat, but it turned out to be disingenuous. Showrife found out that the neighbor was planning to turn him over to authorities, so within a week of arriving to Shabbe Bazar, he departed for India.

Showrife traveled by crossing the border into Bangladesh by land. Showrife was afraid of crossing the border; his language skills had served him well on previous risky journeys, but he did not speak Bangla and was afraid of being caught by Bangladesh border guards. 

He slept on the floor of a mosque in the Nayapara refugee camp during his first few nights in Bangladesh, and was helped by a Rohingya imam there. He then paid a Bangladeshi “broker” to help him reach the India border by bus, a trip that took four days in total. 

Nana says that Showrife is a “tactful, clever boy” and believes his intelligence helped him cross Bangladesh safely. Both Nana and Showrife stress that the broker was “a good person, not a trafficker”  – a person dedicated to helping people in desperate need of reaching a safe place. Immediately after crossing the India border, Showrife met another broker, who handed him a train ticket to Kolkata. Showrife paid 2,000 taka (24 USD) to the Bangladeshi broker and 6,000 rupees (108 USD) to the Indian broker for their help.

Showrife missed Nana and his other family members terribly when he first went to India. He says he cried a lot during those days. Fortunately, he reached Jammu Kashmir, where he reunited with his brother, who taught him how to live in India. Showrife says that having a close relative was essential: “If someone goes without relatives, they’ll have no help and be alone forever.” Showrife remembers how his mind raced for the first three or four weeks as he reflected on the long months in hiding and the journey to safety. He couldn’t sleep, and still remembers feeling heart palpitations in his chest every time he saw a police officer. His brother gently teased him for being so fearful, urging him to see that they were free to move about in India as they wished. Eventually, Showrife started to feel good in India, and safer than he’d felt in Myanmar. After two months he enrolled in a school where both Rohingya and local students studied together.

After four months in India, Showrife found a job and was able to start sending a bit of money (between 2,000 to 10,000 rupees) to his mother and Nana through a hundi. Because there was no mobile phone service yet in Shabbe Bazar, he did not speak with Nana for more than three years. Using a mobile phone required climbing a hill to pick up a weak signal, and people risked having their phones confiscated by the authorities. 

Showrife recalls Eid as one of the hardest times to be separated from family. Rohingya youth customarily show praise toward their elders during the holiday, and Showrife lamented that he couldn’t do this for Nana. Showrife’s brother was a more matter-of-fact person, and told him to just accept that “this is our life now.” 

Nana recounts how much he missed Showrife as well. “I always give advice to my children and grandchildren. I suggest how they should live in the world.” Showrife says Nana “taught us discipline. I missed that when I was in India. In life, you only have a few people who really show you how to live, who really guide you. Nana was that for me.”

Showrife continued to grow professionally while in India, and because of English language skills was hired by UNHCR to work as an interpreter. He also worked for several years with a local refugee rights organization. He attended trainings on human rights and research skills, and eventually became the vice-chairman of the organization. He was officially registered as a refugee with UNHCR, and helped others do the same. Their UNHCR ID card gave them permission to live and move freely in India, so life was ok. But Showrife still missed his family all the time. 

By 2017, Hindu nationalism was resurgent under the Modi administration, and India began cracking down on its Rohingya population. There were rumors that Rohingya would be deported to Myanmar, and in October 2018,  seven UNHCR card-holding refugees were deported despite their official refugee status. Around the same time, India’s Foreign Minister gave a vehemently hateful anti-Rohingya speech. Showrife saw that the potential for public violence against the Rohingya was rising. He and other Rohingya refugees lobbied UNHCR to provide better protection.

While there was no acute threat to the Rohingya refugee population in India, Showrife decided it was not good to stay in India in the long run. By then, Nana and the rest of the family had become refugees themselves, having fled Myanmar for Cox’s Bazar during the 2017 exodus. So, in November 2018, Showrife traveled to Bangladesh and reunited with Nana and his mother in the camp. 

At first, he says, it felt good to be back together. But he soon missed the freedom of movement in India, where refugees could take domestic flights, buy train tickets and move about without anyone inquiring about their citizenship. But Showrife doesn’t consider returning to India. Instead, he still dreams of going home to Myanmar. “My motherland is my motherland,” he says. But, as their displacement becomes protracted, the family is now seeing that there is “no hope” for repatriation. So they have a new, vague goal: to “try hard” to get citizenship somewhere, anywhere, in order to build a more stable life and future. 

Showrife is having a difficult time contending with the uncertainty of the future, and his mental health suffers. “Sometimes I try to focus and think about what to do, but my mind gets too overwhelmed. I’m a human like everyone. My grandpa had so much land. Now he is spending the end of his life in this tarpaulin shelter.”

Politically, Showrife says his views fall somewhat at odds with the demands of citizenship, justice, and equal rights voiced by most Rohingya. He says Rohingya “need to compromise with Myanmar,” particularly on the central issue of having the Rohingya ethnic name mentioned on identity cards.