A lifetime in 24 years: Salimah binti Nor Islam leaves Burma behind

Salimah constrains her struggling husband in an assertive embrace as he thrashes about the sofa, shuddering with terror at an unknown monster only he can see.

“Who are you? Where have you taken me?” he laments. “Please, set me free!”

As she continues to mechanically whisper a steady stream of facts into his ear, Kasim’s flailing subsides to an occasional twitch, and he takes to muttering random anecdotes from his childhood in ­­­Burma.

Salimah sighs with defeat. Her hypnosis is not working.

As if he were bored of his current character, Kasim transitions into the role of his former 20-year-old self. He now wistfully rambles on about his schooling, dreams of leaving Burma and raising a family.

“How can his brain allow him to believe we are still in Burma?” Salimah wonders softly. “We left Burma for a reason. I do not wish to remember Burma. Why should his mind take him back to that place?”

Salimah binti Nor Islam, 24, is a Burmese refugee currently living in Chicago, with her husband, Robiza Ahmad bin Abul Kasim, 41, and two children, Aziz, 5, and Sidi, 2.

She escaped the oppression of the corrupt administration in Burma when she was 17 years old. The government required free labor from its citizens without providing basic resources in return.

The root of Burma’s oppressive political and economic culture can be traced back to its colonial rule by Britain. Prime Minister U Nu permitted the country’s military to restore order to the country in 1958, ten years after the country gained independence from the British. In 1962, General Ne Win led a military coup that destroyed the new constitution and established a military government with a socialist economic agenda.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/1.SOUNDCLIP1.mp3] Listen to Salimah recall what it was like for her family in the 1980s, pushed out of farming, and barely able to subsist on rice.

Her family, unable to support itself, travelled to Malaysia, the region where her uncle had migrated years earlier. It was here that she, her mother, father, two sisters and brother, attempted to start fresh.

Her family began looking for a husband for Salimah to protect her from the corruption in the Malaysian police force. Policemen would confiscate a refugees’ UNHCR identification cards, claiming they weren’t valid forms of identification, and either rape or kidnap the women, taking them to storage facilities where they would be sold for sex. Robiza Ahmad bin Abul Kasim, a family friend, agreed to the arranged marriage.

At first unwilling to marry at such the young age of 18, Salimah explains that she did not realize the dynamics of the institution of marriage.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/2.SOUNDCLIP2.mp3] Listen to Salimah recount that she thought marriage would mean cooking, cleaning and no chance for an education.

The following year, Salimah gave birth to Aziz. A child forced her to handle responsibilities and learn basic housekeeping skills such as cooking and cleaning. Three years later, Sidi was born. To her, the two children were a handful. She became fatigued. without her mother’s assistance, she says, the household chores would never have gotten done.

Over time, Salimah’s exhaustion seemed to migrate to her husband.

“He would sleep all day, and I would shake him to wake him up but he would not move,” she relates. “He needed to go to work. Then he started getting headaches and vomiting like a pregnant woman.”

At the advice of a friend, Salimah brought her husband to a clinic, hoping to discover the source of the symptoms that prevented him from working. Refugee One employee Yvette Kyaw translates Salimah’s experience with the cost of medical care in Malaysia, and what came of it:

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/3.SOUNDCLIP3.mp3]

The results of the CT scan revealed several tumors on Kasim’s brain. Salimah’s family couldn’t afford the operation to remove the cancer. After consulting with a representative from UNHCR, she made the move to the United States with her husband and children. Salimah did not want to leave her family, but understood the fate of her husband rested in the medical and financial opportunities offered in America. Her father needed more convincing to understand that.

“When I told my father we were leaving, he was very upset,” she remembers. “My husband and I supported our whole family. Without us, they would have no money. He thought we were abandoning him.”

As she recounts the departure, Salimah struggles to keep her composure, tears budding in the corners of her eyes, her face scrunching up in order to prevent them from winding down her cheeks.

“A few weeks after we left, he had an asthma attack due to stress,” Salimah says. “He died because we left him alone. It’s my fault.”

[audiohttp://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/4.SOUNDCLIP4.mp3] Kyaw describes how Salimah coped with the death of her father and the resettlement in Chicago.

In the United States, Kasim was able to afford surgery because of Medicare, and is now eating rice and usually remembers who Salimah is.

However distressing life in America is without her family, Salimah explains that the persecution her Burmese family faced in Malaysia was much worse. Employers denied them the opportunity to work because they were from Burma.

Salimah absentmindedly traces the curve of the cocoa belly that protrudes from underneath her striped button-up. She is currently four months pregnant.

“By the time I found out I was pregnant, I was three months along, so there was nothing I could do,” she explains. “It is hard already with two kids, so I don’t know what will happen.”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/5.SOUNDCLIP5.mp3] Listen to Salimah describes how she’s dealing with the migration from Burma to Malaysia to Chicago.

Two months ago, she began working as a housekeeper at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel. She thinks of the day when she discovered she would be able to provide for her family, both in Chicago and in Malaysia, as one of the happiest of her life. However, being a new employee, Salimah’s schedule is sporadic as her superiors provide the experienced workers with predictable hours.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/6.SOUNDCLIP6.mp3] Listen to how Salimah is making it work.

In addition to her job, Salimah attends ESL classes at Morton College twice a week. Her son, Aziz, is in kindergarten, and takes advantage of the Refugee One after-school program offered twice a week, aimed at assisting children of refugees with their homework, because, as Salimah explains, “I don’t know how to help him because I don’t know the answers!”

Salimah rocks back and forth on the futon, considering the life she has made for herself.

“I’m only 24,” she realizes, “but I feel as if I am ancient! The things in my life that should have taken place over a lifetime happened in just 24 years!”

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