Running out of places to go
“I don’t have a country. Burma don’t take me as their people. Bangladesh is not taking me as their people. I don’t have anywhere I can say, ‘I’m from this country.’”
This interview took place on
A pair of young men enter the Asylum Seeker Welcome Lounge at the Intercultural Centre in Preston. The shorter man, Salim, wears a blue t-shirt and jeans. He has clean-cut features. There’s a slogan on the t-shirt of Abdus, the taller, slightly scruffier man. It reads, ‘The word ‘lie’ sits in the middle of the word ‘believe.’
These boys speak excellent English. They don’t need help filling out the forms. They read the disclaimer guaranteeing anonymity and sign the consent forms and agree to talk. Salim explains that they’re brothers and that he, despite being smaller and looking younger, is the older of the two. He takes charge of telling the story while Abdus plays with his phone.
Don’t get confused with the surname [he points to the forms]. There’s an E in his [Abdus’s] last name, but no E in mine. When they took us to the school we don’t know anything and my parents also are not literate – they put us in two different classes because I’m older than him. So the teacher asked our names and she wrote it down. His teacher wrote it with an E and mine didn’t. Now there’s a difference in the Immi [immigration] card as well.
Where did you go to school?
We used to live in Dhaka [Bangladesh]. Actually, we’re from Burma. From there we went to Dhaka.
How old were you when you left Burma?
I was fifteen. And he was eleven.
Why did you leave?
In Burma it’s like, Muslims don’t get anything. The Rohingyans, what we are – they don’t treat us as Burmese people.
We’re on the side closer to Bangladesh. The original Burmese look like Chinese. We look like Indians or Bangladeshis. We’re called Rohingyans. We’re Muslim. We’re not allowed to go to school. They close our mosques. We’re not allowed to take Arabic lessons. Sometimes you’ll find lot of mosques, they’re closed down. We’re not allowed to go there and even offer our prayers. Those are the problems going on there right now.
So you weren’t allowed to go to school in Burma?
Some of our uncles, way back before, they had to change their names. They can’t keep the Muslim name. One of my cousins had to change his name. They went there [to school] and did that until they were seven, eight or ninth grade. You’re not allowed to go to colleges after that. [When] you’re Muslim you can’t do that.
This still happens. They won’t teach you any English. They’ll just teach you some Burmese. This is not the same with the other people.
Other Burmese people?
What are the proportions like? What’s the percentage of Burmese to Rohingyan?
About ten percent Rohigyan. That’s what it used to be. But people used to leave that country. When we talk about my father’s [generation], they used to leave for the Middle East. They used to think that as Muslim countries, they’re going to help us so much, and they used to live in that place. So you’ll find a lot of Burmese in Middle East.
And when they moved, it was like how we moved, not with papers and things like that. Like in Burma we don’t have anything. We don’t have a document where we can say that we’re Burmese.
Really? So you don’t have a birth certificate?
No. Not my father also. No one.
Any other documents?
Nothing. They just have a list. Just a paper where all the names are written, and every one-month they will come to headcount. If they don’t find anyone they’ll just cut the name. And later on you can’t get in there.
So if they strike you off you can’t get back on the list?
Yes. Like, once we went out of there, we’re not allowed to get in. If they find us, they’ll take us and just put in the jail. They’ll do whatever they like to do. That’s what happens. So that’s why, if anyone gets out of there, they never get [back] in.
After we left there, in twelve years we went three times, it’s like sneaking in there.
THE BORDERS BETWEEN US
“At night, we have to cross. Daytime we have to stay inside the house so that no one sees us. We go there only for like, two nights. Not more than that. ”
How did you go back and forth?
At night. I have a cousin who had a fishing boat. It came to Bangladesh to supply fish. When we see that everything is okay out there, everything’s cooled down, at night we crossed Naf River – that’s the river between Burma and Bangladesh.
Is it wide?
Rowing boat, it takes one hour. It’s quite rough. You’ll find tide every time. Without the tide it’s not possible to find it, because it is the edge of the ocean. That’s the end where it finishes. It’s always flowing fast.
So we sneak in there. At night, we have to cross. Daytime we have to stay inside the house so that no one sees us. We go there only for like, two nights. Not more than that.
How often do those people come to check if you’re there? And who are they? Are they Police?
They’re called Nasaka, the border guards. If they hear that someone’s here, they’ll just suddenly come.
When we’re there for two nights, you will always find a person sitting on the balcony, it’s a wooden house, two-storey, to see whether Nasaka’s coming or not. We will always be scared about that. We will find two places to hide if anyone comes.
The scary part is that it takes only fifteen minutes of walking distance from my place to where the Nasaka camp is. That’s the biggest camp.
Are the border guards from your village or other places?
They’re all Burmese. All Buddhist. There’s no Muslims. They’re just guarding this place. That’s why we don’t go there very often.
So we went there three times, just sneak in wait two days and just sneak out. When we go there everyone is scared. Anyone can just inform them [the Nasaka]. There are people who do that.
Why? Do they get anything in return from the Nasaka?
Doesn’t matter. They just say, ‘We’re going to give it to you.’ It’s not that they’re going to get anything. Their intention is to harm. Nothing more than that. Thing is, the Burmese currency is too low. People can earn a lot but the money is not going to help you that much. Because expenses are more than that.
What’s the main trade?
In our part it’s agriculture and fishing. Before we left, my grandfather used to have a lot of farms. Rice and vegetables. Most of the thing they do is about themselves [self sufficient]. If they get extra, they will sell. Still, there is something like, you give me butter, I’ll give you this. What’s it called?
Yes. You take some of this; you give me some of that. In bazaar, where the market is, they sell something and with the money they buy a lot of things and take home. They don’t take home the money. Because they have everything around them.
Some of the people get rich, when someone escapes to the Middle East and they find a route to send money back. Even a dollar means a lot to them. If we send a dollar from here, it will be around seventy Taka in Bangladesh, which will be around five thousand in Burma. So it makes a lot difference up there. That time some people can buy land, and other stuff they didn’t have.
And in Burma, each family, they have a lot of members. They think, ‘If I have four or five sons they’re going to help me with the property.’ That’s why in each house you’ll find around nine or ten brothers and sisters.
How many siblings do you have?
Somehow, we are only four. Two of us and our sisters.
Is that better?
It’s always good. Whatever you do, you can help them.
My cousins don’t always help my uncle. He has nine children – three daughters and six sons. Only two sons work. The others, they spend. Lie around doing nothing. They’re still at home, causing problems and my uncle has to bear everything.
“And after that our father can’t afford anymore. Not possible because in these six years the lands, the farms, have been taken by the government.”
Everyone used to have a lot of property. But everyone has a lot of children – they think they’re going to divide it among us, what are we going to get? Very little. My father used to have a lot of property, a lot of farming land and five fishing farms. But they were confiscated by the government. Now my parents have only one farm.
When did that happen?
It happens gradually. We left Burma almost twelve years ago, and we came to Bangladesh. That time he [father] could afford to have us study. He put us in a school, with a hostel, because we are young and we don’t have any place to live. We don’t have any relatives up there.
He came and put us in a hostel. I studied till grade nine. He [Abdus] studied till grade six. And after that our father can’t afford anymore. Not possible because in these six years the lands, the farms, have been taken by the government.
Did something change in the government? Did they pass a law saying they can take your land?
It’s just on their will and wish. Like, you sold a lot of fish. You have a lot of money today, and if they see, they will come to you and you have to pay. You can say nothing. The common dialogue they uses is: ‘Are you the people of this government?’
You will say, ‘Yes.’ You can’t say no.
Then, ‘Is this country belong to this government?’
‘Is this land belong to this government?’
‘If the government wants to take this…’
You can’t say no to any of the questions.
You understand? It belongs to government, you belong to government, everything belongs to government. You are taking things from government [when farming etc.]. So you have to pay.
Is it like a tax?
Nothing. There’s no paper or anything. Whatever they ask, you just have to pay. That’s it. You can’t say nothing.
The part we are, there used to be no Buddhist. The whole thing is belongs to Muslim. But like, there are several lands like Wabeth, Roingadong, everything, this all areas belong to Muslim. There was a whole area that belongs to my grandfather. It was divided between my uncles, and then divided between my cousins. But now some of the land is not theirs. They [government] just confiscate and now on those lands Buddhists are living. They’re giving to them, [saying], ‘Stay here. live here. This is the land for you.’
So where do the Rohingyas go?
They’re like, forcing everyone, you know? They just tell that, ‘You don’t belong to this country. You’re from Bangladesh. You’re Bangladeshi.’
So then, we lived in Bangladesh, studied. But now the land [in Burma] is gone and no income is coming. We can’t go back to Burma. We can’t stay in the hostel. We went rent a house and stay there. We start working.
A TIME FOR REPAIR
“Whenever he finds an electric thing he wants to see what’s inside, what it’s doing. He started showing interest in that. He learnt by himself. That’s how he started doing it.”
What did you do?
So you learnt about computers in school?
Not in school. We got a reference from my friend who has a brother who owns a shop, computer shop, and he said that, ‘Okay, I will teach you how to fix this. You can do work with me.’ So I started doing that. Something is better than nothing.
Did you like it?
Yeah. It interested me. That time, Bangladesh getting bigger. They’re getting computers. Now, it’s the mid 2000s, everyone’s getting computers. It’s a good job, technician job. So I started doing that. And I used to do some private also – used to bring PC at home. I started doing that and he [Abdus] still young, but is also interested. He used to say, ‘Okay brother, what is that? What is that?’ and started pushing to learn. He was always interested. It’s much more than me. Whenever he finds an electric thing he wants to see what’s inside, what it’s doing. He started showing interest in that. He learnt by himself. That’s how he started doing it.
After he knows stuff enough, I say, ‘Okay, I bring work home, whenever I have the chance. I leave it to him.’ He did it by himself.
Did you make enough money doing that?
It was enough at that time. Living costs in Bangladesh was not that high. And, just we’re living in a simple way so we don’t have to do anything. Just a small flat with two rooms, kitchen and bathroom.
Later on, Abdus started showing more interest in mobile phone. He started doing that. Studying mobile by himself. He downloaded so many stuff from the Internet and he started repairing mobile. His friend had a shop. His friend gave him support, ‘You can work in my shop, see whether you can earn or not. I’m just going to provide you a table, nothing more than that. Whatever you earn, give me a percentage.’ That’s how he started fixing mobile also.
Was that good? Did things go well?
It was new in Bangladesh, getting mobiles. Everyone came to him – no-one knows better than him. That was the peak hour and at that time he had a place where he can sit and people can come.
With computer, I bring home. He goes to place where people know him. He did better, he earned a lot in mobile. That was how he got up higher and he started to support me. Then I gave up fixing computer.
Why did you do that?
It’s like, want to do something better. I didn’t do more than grade nine so I studied at home. Because my parents worked hard about it, they wanted me to finish it. They wanted to see their child to be a person who can put a title in front of them – like engineer or…anything, they wanted to see that.
Yeah. Because my father used to say that, ‘If you finish it, you’ll be the only guy in the whole village who have that. I don’t want any money. I don’t want any property. Just do that. That will be my property.’ He had a huge plan about us.
I did myself. I finished grade twelve on my own. Didn’t sit for any exam or something like that, but I read all the books. I studied them.
Then I started teaching. There was an institute; my friends opened it. They gave me the scope that, ‘Okay, you can start here, teach people.’ Firstly, I started with grade three or four. Later on I even taught maths, physics and geometry till year twelve. These are the three subjects I like, what I was interested in. Except the statistics part. I didn’t like statistics. Seriously, give me mechanics, any maths, except the statistics. I can say that, how it works, but I can’t tell other people.
What made you leave Bangladesh?
In these twelve years we have to stay there with a low profile so that no one knows we are from where. If they knows that we’re from Burma, they’re going to [say], ‘Why are you here? There is a refugee camp you should stay there.’
And if we see the police standing there, we take the other road. It’s a stress. If we find that there’s no other way around we’ll sit somewhere until he’s gone. Might take two hour, three hour, four hour, doesn’t matter.
The people who are in the refugee camp, they’re not allowed to get out of it. They’re not allowed to work. They will work only when Bangladesh government will ask them, ‘You have to cut this tree. You have to work in this, building roads.’ But you can’t work yourself. You can’t earn money. You can’t sell anything. You have to stay in the camp. You can’t go to school, only when some teacher will come to the camp and they will teach you something.
Did you even have a bank account?
No. Nothing. Here, if you want to open bank account you need to show Immi card number. There, there’s something called a National ID card. You must have that. It’s given by the government and there will be background check, everything. Where is your forefather used to live, where’s your village. There will be inquiry if you’re there or not – so that the refugees don’t get that.
Like, if we start a business you must have everything [documents]. That’s why he [Abdus] worked in other person’s place. He can’t start a business. We saved money. But in the end, in Bangladesh it was like, we didn’t get anywhere.
Did you think about getting a citizenship there?
I thought that it’s possible if we can give extra money or something like that, but the money they’re looking for is not possible for us. Massive amount. It’s like each person will be more than fifty thousand. They will try – that’s the thing they say, ‘I will try, but it’s not a guarantee that you’ll get it.’ Losing fifty thousand for each is a lot. I don’t have that much money to do anything.
THE FINAL TRIP
“I said, ‘You should stay here.’ Because it’s a risky way to go, on the boat all the way. But he said, ‘If you’re going, I’m going.’”
How did you decide to come to Australia?
We heard about this country, people are helpful to us. They’re giving us the opportunity to live the peaceful life here, so that we can do something. Suddenly I heard there are ways to go to Australia without passport and visa or something like that.
How did you hear that?
It was one of my brother’s friend. He just said he heard something like that.
And I said that, ‘doesn’t matter, I’m going to leave.’ Because here I can’t prove that I’m Bangladeshi. I don’t have a country. Burma don’t take me as their people. Bangladesh is not taking me as their people. I don’t have anywhere I can say, ‘I’m from this country.’
I just told him [Abdus] that I’m going to do this. I said, ‘You should stay here.’ Because it’s a risky way to go, on the boat all the way. But he said, ‘If you’re going, I’m going.’
Did you tell your parents?
Before coming here we met them.
So you went back to Burma?
Not back, they came to Bangladesh. Don’t know when I’m going to meet them again.
What did they say when they met you?
My father said, ‘Don’t worry about us. Do whatever you like. It’s your life. You’re big enough now. You know what you’re doing. You know better than me. It was way back when you were a kid you looked for advice. But now, you know more than me. So there’s no way I can advise you. Do whatever you like but don’t do anything you regret later on. And don’t worry about us.’
Then we left that place and now we’re here. It was risky. They say if there’s no risk there’s no gain. Hope there’s a better thing we can do.
How long did the journey take?
Two months [in total]. Twelve days from Bangladesh to Malaysia. I was in Malaysia for fifteen days. From there to Indonesia. Then from Indonesia, around twenty-five days. The rest was coming here.
Did you plan for if it goes wrong? Do you have a plan?
No plans. That’s the thing – we can’t go back. If we were in Indonesia and there was no way to come here, we have to stay in Indonesia. We don’t have anything to go back [to]. We lose everything. No money, nothing. So it’s like, you’re on the way, if you drown, if you’re not lucky enough and something goes bad, like lost your life, you don’t need the money. If we reach here, we start from nothing. That’s the main concept of it.
Then you were in a camp?
The detention centre in Darwin. We were moved into three detention centres. Overall, maybe three months.
Fortunately, we are lucky enough to get out. We went to Brisbane. The Red Cross was helping us. They keep us there for six weeks. Then you have to find your own house. You can move anywhere.
Where are you now?
We’re looking for a house nearby. More than fifty houses we looking. Our case worker gave us a letter. I think it’s working. We saw a small townhouse and gave the letter to a real estate agent and got a response. That’s the first time we heard something from them. So hopefully we’ll get something.
What do you want to do when you settle?
We want to live freely so we can help our parents and our families so that someday we can give them a peaceful future. I want to say, ‘Okay you are old enough. You did a lot. Now at this age you need to take rest. I’m sending you some money. Please move to this part, don’t stay there…’
I want them to leave that place. [Even] if you have a lot of money, if you have a lot of land it’s not going to work. There’s no safety. I have heard so many things in these twelve years – like suddenly they burned the whole village. Suddenly they burned the whole mosque. Suddenly they killed everyone. It’s like, today you’re going to live but tomorrow, will I talk to you? There’s no guarantee about that. Not even my family. Anything can happen anytime.
[I’ll say], ‘I’ll buy a house for you. I’ll buy land for you, stay there. Just don’t work. Whatever you need I’ll give it to you. You did a lot in your life.’
That’s the main thing, you can say is our target. Nothing other than that.’
It’s not that much. If you send hundred dollars from here in a month, it will be going to be like, in Burma it is two-hundred thousand.
What can you buy with that?
They can live for one month.
Cover all expenses?
Everything. They can eat; do everything with a hundred dollars a month.
It’s not that much. If you think around here, it’s not that much.
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