It’s that time of the year when social media timelines are flooded with pictures and posts of friends sharing important milestones and life-achievements — from graduations to weddings to births. As I click the “like” button or double-tap these special moments, my attention is diverted by flashes of distraught and famished faces of the Rohingya refugees hopelessly stranded at sea. My momentary joy for friends is rightfully interrupted by the helpless and distressed pictures shared by human rights organizations and independent media sources, not just from the current humanitarian crisis but from previous crises as well — because no country will allow the Rohingya to call it their home.
Living in the West, we are fortunate not only because we are distanced from this tragedy in physical miles, but also because we have the luxury to distance ourselves mentally and emotionally with the swipe of a finger. You may ask, “Why should I be inconvenienced with feelings of fleeting discomfort for people I cannot relate to nor have anything in common with?”
To answer that question, I ask you: “Is not being human common enough for you to care about the Rohingya people?”
My heart is sincerely at a loss with my lack of ability to put into words how deeply it saddens me to see men, women, and children being cast out and rejected from one place to another into the vast, unpredictable sea. Like thousands of human ping-pong balls, the Rohingya are bouncing around neighboring Southeast countries that refuse to let them in, let alone stay. Their only crime is that they identify as Muslims and choose to call God with the name of Allah. It is difficult for me to come to terms with their plight as a modern day reality. To think that there are more than 6,000 people trapped out at sea without any country willing to offer aid and many people equally willing to turn a blind eye, is horrific.
A historically persecuted minority, the Rohingya people are natives of Mynamar, where Buddhism is the religion practiced by the majority of Burmese citizens. As an ethnically Muslim minority, the Rohingya faced (and continue to face) severe exploitation and persecution for centuries – instances which are well-documented by human rights organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and even recognized by the Holocaust Museum back in 2013. Currently, the UNHCR estimates that “violence in the Rakhine state forced around 140,000 [Rohingya] people to flee their homes.” The UNHCR has published global reports on the conditions of the Rohingya people for the years 2012 and 2013, and additionally a global appeal for the years 2014-2015. The plight of these unwelcome refugees is best described in this article which appeared on amnesty.org:
Imagine you had no identity or a place to call home. Your rights to study, work, travel, marry and practice your religion didn’t exist – because you belong nowhere.
You have no way to prove who you are or where you’re from, which restricts the ability to gain full citizenship status. Wherever you try to find refuge and you’re locked up in detention because of who you are.
In addition to the ethnic cleansing the Rohingya are subject to in Mynamar, my frustration as a Muslim also rests with Muslim-majority Southeast countries that are refusing to accept these migrants. Not only are they rejecting them from safe shores and refusing to provide asylum, but countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are unwilling to render humanitarian aid to the displaced refugees. Let’s be clear: While I teeter between grappling with the anger and resentment towards the countries that are rejecting the displaced refugees, the Rohingya people are teetering between life and death as I write.
Stranded at sea in boats that are unfit to provide adequate shelter from the harsh elements, the refugees are trapped at sea without anywhere to turn. They are subject to an increased risk of disease due to the overcrowding on the ships, and it is well known that many Rohingyas are the target of the brutal human trafficking trade. Those who do survive and make it to shore temporarily are contained in congested detention centers, often separated from family members and subject to physical violence and severe malnutrition. Trapped in despair, some commit suicide because conditions in detention camps is deplorable, as documented in these pictures.
It is shameful that countries with a Muslim majority are refusing to help our brothers and sisters in dire need. Indonesia has consistently been home to the largest Muslim population according to the Pew Research Center, yet the Indonesian government continues to deny asylum for these Muslims. Additionally, Malaysia is well-known for hosting several religious gatherings and large events hosting many Islamic scholars, including those from the U.S. In fact, this past week, Kuala Lampur hosted a popular conference known as Ilmfest which is a gathering where scholars, teachers, and leaders discuss various topics regarding Islam and impart knowledge to inspire attendees. While that’s a noble effort, it behooves us as a global community to weigh the importance of calling for justice on behalf of our suffering brothers and sisters and prioritizing the need to help them by using such a conference to raise awareness and inspire change – to call on Muslim citizens to pressure their governments to embrace the fundamental Islamic principle of brotherhood and sisterhood.
Are we really gaining any knowledge by attending lectures, conferences, seminars when we aren’t wise enough to call for justice on behalf of such severely suffering and persecuted people?
In the words of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him):
The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion, and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
More than the brain, the heart is mentioned throughout the Quran and countless hadith because it’s with our hearts that we feel raw emotion and the inclination to strive for what is right. It deeply saddens me as both a Muslim and a human being to know that the Rohingya are suffering, and that they continued to be rejected and persecuted for their faith. They may not have a place to call home in this world, but I know God has reserved for them the best of homes in the next.