‘I saw people die from starvation on the boat around me. We had to throw them overboard’

Rohingya refugee Imran Mohammed fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar only to find himself in grave danger at sea. He tells Salma Ouaguira Abir about his perilous journey from persecution to safety

Drifting on a small fishing boat crammed with desperate refugees, Imran Mohammed has been at sea for 15 days. The smugglers abandoned him and hundreds of people with the false promise of a safer life.

The waves unceasingly whip the sides of the boat like tentacles. They are barely afloat. With no food or water, they hope to reach the Malaysian coast. In the middle of the desolate night, Imran feels closer to death than to any land. “I saw people dead out of starvation around me. We just threw them overboard,” he says. 

The people on this boat, and the ones tossed into the sea, are Rohingya refugees, one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities in the world. They are floating in a limbo of uncertainty. Rejected by the nation they call home and unwanted in neighbouring countries they embark on deadly routes to find a country that welcomes them. “We escape a terrible life in Myanmar and we arrive at no-man’s land. We make these journeys to find a permanent solution to our lives,” says Imran Mohammed, 24.

Imran was only 16 when he left his home in Myanmar – formerly known as Burma. He has witnessed years of systematic ethnic cleansing at the hands of military forces that prompted thousands of Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh. The government refuses to offer the Muslim Rohingyas citizenship, turning them stateless people.

Condemned to live in the shadows of society, their lack of nationality makes them illegal in their own country. “Back home, if we can’t go to school, we don’t have healthcare and we can’t leave our village what else can we do?” he says. “We want to live, we want to be human,” and that comes at a high cost for the Rohingya people, the cost of their own lives.

Their constant fear pushes them to pay high prices to smugglers to escape the violence. “I saw people being killed. I saw with open eyes how the military raped Rohingya women. Their parents couldn’t do anything. If they said something, they would be taken away not knowing whether they would come back,” Imran says.

More than nine years have passed since Imran last saw his family. Now settled in Chicago, he remembers with sadness the last fleeting moments with them. In a small village in the Rakhine state, the Myanmar authorities came unexpectedly and threatened Imran’s family. His father used to pay the military to ensure their safety. “One day the authorities came to our home and we had no money. My father feared for our lives and asked us to leave,” he says.

Imran, the second child of four, was the first to escape to Bangladesh. Not knowing what the uncertain future held, he hoped to join his family. “We went into different directions. We had nothing but a piece of cloth on us. I have nothing from my homeland except my memories and many of them are failing,” he says. “I didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye and it still breaks my heart.”

He clings tight to the treasured moments of happiness with his mother. He tenderly remembers the mornings in which he could still tuck himself in her comfort. Imran read the Quran and his mother sat next to him. They watched the sunrise and prayed together. They prayed for a safer life. For a future that could lighten their lives.

That ray of hope kept him faithful during his whole journey. After being rescued in Malaysia, Imran spent five months wandering the streets. His illegal status only opened him the doors to precarious hard labour and the constant fear of being arrested. The desperation forced him to venture into the perilous sea once again to reach Indonesia.

When Imran and other refugees stepped into the mainland, they were detained by the Indonesian authorities. Only a cold cement bed was reserved for them at the detention centre for illegal immigrants in Manado. “We were treated like animals. The first day in the camp, they confiscated everything we had and searched us. We didn’t have contact with the rest of the world. They locked us up for two years,” he says.

“It was very depressing because we didn’t commit any crime. We didn’t have a date of release. We had no idea about our future,” he says. “We were only allowed to go to the garden. It was a beautiful garden outside the camp. But it was surrounded by a fence.”

After receiving his refugee status, Imran could stay in Indonesia but would never become a citizen. “I wasn’t allowed to leave the city. If I went to another city, I would lose my status and go to prison again,” he says.

The danger of being abandoned in the margins of society due to his statelessness forced him to flee further away. Imran decided to go to Australia. But he ended up in the hands of the inhumanity of the smugglers when he desperately wanted to find a boat. “They promised to give us food, water and safety equipment. Nothing was there except people,” he says. “Luckily, just before our boat sank, the Australian navy saved our lives.”

But the same country that healed their wounds was troubling their journey. The same people that saved them from the sea didn’t want them in their land. The Australian navy took Imran Mohammad and other refugees to the offshore detention centre in Papua New Guinea. “They took me to Manus Island and imprisoned me for five years. I lost my childhood. I left my homeland hoping to have the chance to live decently but that wasn’t the case,” Imran says.

Waiting for someone in the world to give him human rights, he found salvation in writing. “When I started writing my world changed. I had a purpose every morning to wake up. It was writing that saved me every day.”  he says. “I used to write 14 hours a day and sometimes I forgot to eat. I left the detention centre with 15 kilos of paper.”

When Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled the detention centre in Manus Island as unconstitutional, the Australian authorities sent Imran Mohammad and hundreds of other refugees to the US. A document confirming his refugee status and a flight ticket became the first glimpse of possible freedom.

“Before arriving in the US, I didn’t even know it existed. I didn’t know where it was on the map. I didn’t even have a map during my whole life.” he says. Imran arrived in Chicago in 2018. Since his sombre days in Manus Island, he hasn’t stopped writing. The new country has given him for the first time an opportunity to study. “I completed my high school diploma in nine months. I want to become a human rights lawyer. I want to be a voice for other people,” he says.

Imran radiates hope and ambition when he talks about his future. His eyes light up as he remembers the happiest day since the beginning of his journey to safe land. “When I arrived at the airport, a customs officer said to me: ‘Welcome to America’. I was pleased to hear those words. That’s all I wanted to hear from this world,” Imran says.

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