A girl travels from Myanmar to India for marriage

“In 2010, I went from Myanmar to India,” Fathema says. “I got married in India, because my mom died when I was young and my father couldn’t afford to provide a dowry to anyone in Myanmar. So he sent me to India together with a group of people from our village in order to get married.”

Fathema’s marriage was to a young Rohingya man who had arrived in India in 2008. Fathema says that some of her family’s fellow villagers had charitably taken it upon themselves to help her father find a groom for her. The man paid 10,000 rupees to cover the transportation costs for Fathema’s journey from Myanmar to Jammu Kashmir. 

The group traveled directly, making as few stops as possible along the way, a trip that took seven days. This entailed traveling from Maungdaw to Teknaf by boat across the Naf River, and paying 10,000 Myanmar kyats to the border guards they encountered near the riverbank. The group then traveled across Bangladesh by land via minibus, then crossed the southwestern Bangladesh-India land border with the help of a broker, and finally traveled the rest of the way to Jammu Kashmir by train. 

Fathema was underage at the time of her journey and pending marriage, about 15 years old. “I felt scared and upset to leave home. But I had to go because my parents were poor. I felt more relaxed once I met my husband and realized he was a good man, by the grace of Allah.” Her husband had a secure job washing trains and was paid 15,000 rupees per month, enough for a decent life, Fathema says. “It was going well. We met other Rohingya and we all stayed together in a sort of encampment, in an urban area,” she says. “The cost of living was manageable. We paid 1,300 rupees a month total for rent and utilities, so we could save some money. We sent some to my in-laws in Myanmar and some to my father.” A year or two later, Fathema’s brother traveled to Malaysia by boat through a trafficking network, and she and her husband contributed 30,000 rupees to finance his journey.

Fleeing India

Fathema, her husband, and other members of their encampment began to fear for their safety in India after catching wind of a rumor that spread via social media. “There was a video that went viral amongst the Rohingya community in India,” she explains. “It said that some Rohingya had ‘disappeared’ after returning to Myanmar from India. Our friends knew those people and confirmed that it was true.” This came at a time of increasing tensions, when, according to Fathema, “Some Hindus started saying that Rohingya should leave India. We felt this pressure. The government threatened to deport us to Myanmar. But we faced genocide there, so how could we possibly go back?”

Many families decided to take action and made plans to travel to Bangladesh, where most of them now had family members displaced from Myanmar in the 2017 exodus.

“We were really scared and decided to leave India for Bangladesh quickly. We paid 30,000 rupees and traveled for seven days to reach the camps here in Bangladesh. We came carrying our clothes and belongings, but they all were snatched by thieves around the Bangladesh-India border area. These thieves tricked us by telling us we wouldn’t be allowed to carry our things across the border, or our money, and demanded that we leave it all behind with them.”

According to Fathema, she and her husband were also deceived by the broker they had engaged to help them cross the border into Bangladesh. “The broker was supposed to bring us all the way to Cox’s Bazar, but he bailed on us at the border. We had to get my mother-in-law to send us 2,000 taka from the camp in order to complete the rest of the journey.”

Weighing options for the future

Fathema regrets having to leave India, but recognizes some silver linings of life in the camps. “In Jammu Kashmir, we couldn’t see our families. We came here happy to see them and reunite. And we also came to await repatriation to our own country. Now we feel it is better to wait to go back to Myanmar with citizenship.”

Fathema’s desire for her children to become educated shapes her wishes for the future. “I feel that my children need to be in school in Myanmar. So we will wait in the camp for now,” she says. Although Fathema never went to school, she says, “I really want my children to get an education. I realized that I don’t know anything. I want them to be able to read so they can work for our community.” She also says that “it would be better to go back to India for our children’s education than to stay here in the camps, but how can we go? We have no money now. If we ever had the chance again, we would want to go. But, then again, we are now also taking care of my mother-in-law and father-in-law, who live in Kutupalong. They have become like my parents.”

Restricted mobility in the camps

Unfortunately, Fathema’s father passed away in 2017 from hypertension after arriving in Bangladesh as a refugee. He had gone to the town of Cox’s Bazar for treatment, and was buried in a grave in town, about a 1.5 hours’ drive from the camp. Fathema was saddened that she wasn’t able to come to Bangladesh to see him before he passed. 

Although she now lives in the camp, she has still not been able to visit his grave because she has no way to travel to town. Fathema’s sister is in Modusara camp, about an hours’ drive away from Fathema’s shelter, so she has only been able to visit her every few weeks. Fathema complains about the lack of freedom of movement in the camps, which prevents her from seeing her sister more often, a far cry from the flexibility she enjoyed while living in the urban encampment in India. “This camp is very strict,” she says.