The Rohingya, mostly a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, have been dubbed the ‘world’s most persecuted minority’, and recent violent events have added dramatically to their misery. Having to flee sectarian violence, most are languishing in refugee camps in Bangladesh while some have been resettled in other countries.
Eileen McCormick met with one of these refugees, transferred to Cambodia, who spent two years trying to get into Australia but was not granted asylum. Twenty-eight-year-old Mohammed Rashid shared his story over arguably the most delicious roti in Phnom Penh.
Good Times2: Are you here alone or with your family?
Mohammed Rashid: I am here by myself. All my other family members live in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. My family has nothing but pain and suffering. We lost everything in the fighting [between Rohingyas and Rakhine’s Buddhist natives]. At the age of 18, in 2008, I was separated from them when I managed to go to Malaysia.
In Malaysia, I managed to find work in a small restaurant and also in a construction site. It was hard work but I managed to send home money to my family.
Good Times2: What educational background do you have?
Mohammed Rashid: I have worked in food stalls in villages, when I was in Rakhine state. For a very long time, I knew how to make one of the best rotis – which is very popular in my country. One of the few times I am carefree and not thinking about how my life turned out is when I am making this bread.
Good Times2: Can you tell me about your childhood growing up in Myanmar?
Mohammed Rashid: I can only recall death and loss. I was very young at the time but we lost everything. My siblings were always getting sick. People were shot at and whole families were being wiped out. For one month we lived by a river, at the border with Bangladesh, with no shelter. We used to hear gunfire when we were sleeping and often there was shooting everywhere. We were constantly moving from one place to another to escape the fighting.
Good Times2: How did you escape?
Mohammed Rashid: As I told you earlier in 2008, I managed to get to Malaysia. There was no way I was going to go back to Myanmar. In 2013, with whatever money I had, I paid a broker to take me by boat to Australia from Indonesia where I wanted to claim asylum. I was with other people in the boat and got to Christmas Island. Then I was taken by Australian immigration to Nauru island detention centre.
Good Times2: What was life like in Nauru?
Mohammed Rashid: I stayed in this place for two years thinking that I would get freedom and have a happy life [in Australia]. But freedom was not there for me. I was stressed and extremely unhappy. I had no choice to choose which country I could go to. The only thing that was certain was that I could not return home to my country.
Good Times2: When your asylum claim was rejected by Australia, why did you choose to come to Cambodia?
Mohammed Rashid: The immigration detention centre people asked me twice whether I wanted to go to Cambodia and told me that my asylum claim had no hope. It was in 2015 and I had been in detention for about two years. I was given no choice. So when they asked me the third time, I said yes, not even knowing where Cambodia was. I finally felt my chances would be better in Cambodia than Australia. When I agreed, the Australian government said they would help me with money to resettle in Cambodia.
Good Times2: Do you like living in Cambodia now?
Mohammed Rashid: There’s freedom here, but I feel lonely. I miss having friends. There are only two other refugees from my country in Cambodia. I like it when we can meet up because we understand what things are like and can share our feelings.
Good Times2: If things get better in Myanmar would you want to go back?
Mohammed Rashid: If there is no problem and everything went back to as it was before and if we have freedom, then yes I would go back. If my family was there and we had our land, I would not live anywhere else.
Good Times2: Can you tell me about your roti business opposite Meta House on Sothearos Boulevard in Phnom Penh?
Mohammed Rashid: I only just started to sell roti for the past 10 days. I work most days from 7:00 to 10:00 at night. So far, I have only a few customers but as people get to know of the quality of roti I make, I expect to have many more.
My roti is different from other sellers because it takes a much longer time to make. In order to get the right consistency I must stir the batter for a long time and let it sit for two hours. I also offer different fillings such as chocolate, chicken, cheese etc.
I like Cambodian customers. If they like what they eat, they will bring their friends and that’s what I hope for. Right now I don’t know if it can be a successful businesses but it makes me happy to be my own boss and also I can share the taste of my culture.
Good Times2: Do you have anyone helping or advocating for you?
Mohammed Rashid: My life in Cambodia is supported by the Australian government and they are helping me to pay my house rent and other living expenses. They also gave me money to set up my business and helped me buy my food cart. I’m happy because now I can make a living by doing something I love. But I am also worried that one day help from the Australian government will stop and I could be left stranded in Cambodia.
Good Times2: Thinking back to the persecution your people faced, what surprised you most?
Mohammed Rashid: This one I don’t know because it was a long time ago for me. Nothing surprises me now because my feelings have been numbed by the way the Myanmar government has treated my people. I always wonder why they can’t find a place for the Rohingya people. The leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has faced adversity and has also been subjected to inhumane treatment. But even so, her life was spared. I would hope she could at least help spare the lives of my people.
Good Times2: Do you wish more people would understand what you and your people are going through and help stop the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state?
Mohammed Rashid: Most people in western countries don’t understand that my people are already refugees even in Myanmar. No one ever wanted to recognize my people as legitimate citizens of Myanmar. They claim we are actually from Bangladesh and it was only British colonization that “brought us to their country”.
We had only a small area to live in and on that land we had a vibrant and lively community. We did not hurt or interfere with anyone. In reality, we had not been placed in this land by colonization and have lived and thrived on it for many centuries. Our only crime is our religious affiliation.
Editor’s note: Mohammed Rashid was one of the refugees who agreed to be resettled in Cambodia from Nauru under a $55 million deal signed by both the Australian and Cambodian governments. In March 2016, Mr. Rashid told The Sydney Morning Herald that promises made by Australian officials to convince him to give up his asylum claim remained unfulfilled, “including offers of help setting up a restaurant, housing accommodation and an $8,000 cash payment”