Jason Harward, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Mamudul Hasson thinks of himself as a survivor. A Rohingya born in the western region of Myanmar (Burma), he fled his home country at 16 and lived as an international refugee for six years before coming to the United States in 2018.
The Islamaphobic persecution of the Rohingya minority is largely hidden from the world. Official government policy recognizes the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even after generations in the region. Hundreds of thousands live without basic human rights in their home country and still more live as international refugees who often face gruesome conditions.
Hasson’s earliest memories of the separation that defines Myanmar’s social order came at school, a rarity for Rohingya children for which his family had to pay a monthly ransom. During his ten years of schooling, he had Buddhist teachers, as Rohingya were barred from the teaching. Buddhist students referred to him as a kalar, an epithet that translates to “colored” or “illegal foreigner.”
In 2010, Myanmar’s first open elections in decades brought an increase in violence, with a quickly ascending Rakhine Nationalities Development Party pushing for genocide to re-assert Buddhist dominance over the Rohingya. The rape and murder of a Buddhist woman on May 28, 2012 stoked the divisions as allegations of a larger plot by the Rohingya emerged, heightening the already-strained religious tensions.
In response, a Buddhist mob murdered a group of Rohingya pilgrims traveling from town to town to spread religious teachings. During the following Friday Prayer, on June 8, 2012, Hasson and thousands of others gathered in the town of Maungdaw to pray and protest the government’s inaction to hold the killers accountable. Military forces responded violently, firing on the protesters after their worship and sending the large crowd into a frenzy. Soon after, the military’s orders toward the Rohingya were kill on sight.
“We were running around, the Burmese military was killing people in front of me,” Hasson said. “I lost one of my cousins at the time.”
After barely escaping Maungdaw with his life, he traveled eight days on foot to get back to his family. Along the way, he saw villages ablaze and civilians fleeing for their lives. Back home, things were no better, with four months of targeted military kidnappings and imprisonment of young Rohingya men.
“I had to stay out all day and all night, hiding in the jungle or the mountains,” Hasson recalled. “I couldn’t go home. If I went home I would get shot and killed.”
He met a group of people fleeing Myanmar and offering travel to Malaysia. He made the decision to flee without telling his family.
“I didn’t know if my mother was alive, I didn’t know if my sisters were alive, I was just thinking about myself at that moment,” Hasson said. “I wanted to save myself, maybe I’m selfish but the army was chasing us, once we get caught we would be killed,”
The small boat ride to Malaysia lacked enough food for what ended up being a month-long journey. Their plans changed on the way when the Thailand Navy intercepted the boat and pushed it back out to sea, where they continued to Indonesia and were welcomed by fishermen. About 250 people set out from Myanmar. Only 100 arrived in Indonesia.
“There were children younger than me, families, women, girls, they couldn’t survive that journey,” Hasson said. “They died on the boat and we had to throw them in the ocean.”
The fishermen took the starving group to their village and gave them food and shelter. Hasson stayed there for nine months, a peaceful respite from his past trauma.
“I was just happy to be alive after all of these horrible events in my life. I was convincing myself that I will stay here forever,” Hasson said. “The villagers were very kind, very good people, they really loved us.”
Suddenly, Indonesian authorities descended on the village and took the 100 Rohingya refugees to a detention center in Jakarta. After six months in Jakarta, Hasson was free to work, but he was not allowed to leave Indonesia. He befriended Iranian and Iraqi refugees who had been trapped in Indonesia for years and decided to pay smugglers for boat passage to Australia.
Hasson’s boat was met by the Australian Navy in international waters and taken to Christmas Island, an Australian external territory. Official refugee policy from Australia mandated all arrivals by boat be sent to a refugee camp on Manus or Nauru Island. In October 2013, Hasson arrived at Manus Island, where he would stay for almost five years to have his refugee case processed.
Manus Island is a barbed-wire prison on a small island holding refugees indefinitely. Shortages of simple necessities such as blankets, pillows and food were common. Imran Mohammad, who became friends with Hasson through their positions as Rohingya community leaders in the camp and who has written of the experiences, says people would often sleep during the day and stay up through the night to avoid the horrors that came with daytime.
“You know, there are hundreds of refugees. In general, they were so depressed and they didn’t know how to survive,” Mohammad said. “Most of them were just sleeping during the day because they didn’t want to see anybody. They didn’t want to do anything.”
The extent of brutality on Manus Island is unthinkable to outsiders. Guards tortured the refugees every day, questioning them about plans to return home and threatening the lives of those who had no answer. The compound where Hasson lived housed about 400 refugees. They shared four bathrooms. Attempted suicides were a daily occurrence, and still others died at the hands of angry locals and Australian security guards.
“They put us in there like a cage. Many people feel that dying was the best option left for them. One of my roommates, he sewed himself on the lips so that he didn’t have to eat anything, so that he could die easily,” Hasson said. “Every single day, when I wake up, I see something. Even if you try to commit suicide, they’re not going to treat you. They’re just going to let you die, they say you are on your own.”
On Jan. 25, 2018, Hasson arrived in America, a place he calls “heaven” compared to what he had survived. His freedom can’t erase memories of the gruesome journey he experienced. Years of physical and mental abuse continue to haunt him from across the world.
“You see all these happy things, you’re in awe,” Hasson said. “But those memories back in detention were still following me. I can’t sleep right now because I see those things.”
Even in his new home, he still thinks of those he left behind; friends of his who remain detained indefinitely on Manus Island, as well as his mother and sisters in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.
“Yes, I got my freedom,” Hasson said. “But if I get my freedom then those people who are still there, they deserve to be free, too.”