Nov. 14 to 18 was International Education Week at Bellevue College. The week was meant to be “a celebration of international and intercultural partnerships and communities,” where students could come together and learn from each other. Each event throughout the week was meant to highlight a different region through various activities.
Two events on Nov. 16 focused on Burmese culture and the experiences of one student, Mohamed Zohar. Zohar, a refugee from the Rakhine State in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), shared his story of escaping genocide and eventually coming to the United States.
Myanmar, known as Burma until its name changed in 1989, is located in Southeast Asia, bordering India, Bangladesh, Laos, Thailand and China. The country has many different ethnic groups, including the Burman, who make up 55.9 percent of the population, the Karen, who make up 9.5 percent, and the Shan, who make up 6.5 percent. Most of the people practice Theravada Buddhism, as its followers make up 87.9 percent of the population compared to Christianity at 6.2 percent and Islam at 4.3 percent.
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority who follow “a Sufi-inflected variation of Sunni Islam.” Before August in 2017, an estimated one million Rohingya lived in Rakhine State in Northern Myanmar, where they made up nearly one-third of the population. Burma was colonized as a part of British India and when the country gained its independence in 1948, it denied the Rohingya recognition as one of the official 135 ethnic groups. Most of the Rohingya don’t have any legal documentation, leaving them stateless, because the government refuses to grant them citizenship. The Rohingya were able to register as temporary citizens with identification cards that offered them limited rights but no proof of citizenship. When a UN-backed national census was held in 2014, Buddhist nationalists threatened to boycott unless the Rohingya were not allowed to identify as Rohingya. They were permitted to register if they identified as Bengali instead.
This group of Buddhist nationalists also protested Rohingya’s right to vote until their temporary identity cards were revoked in 2015 before the country’s elections. The Myanmar government then required Rohingya to carry national verification cards that identified them as foreigners, not as citizens. They argued it was a step towards citizenship while others claimed it made it easier for the government to repress the people’s rights. The government has placed restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice and freedom of movement. This means couples can only have two children in certain towns and must get government permission to travel, move or get married.
Tensions between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya have erupted into conflict due to religious differences. In August of 2017, a militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army took responsibility for attacks on police and army posts. The Myanmar government declared them a terrorist organization and sent their military to destroy hundreds of Rohingya villages, forcing almost 700,000 Rohingya to flee. According to Doctors Without Borders, at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed between Aug. 25, 2017, and Sept. 24, 2017. As of July, there are 980,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in countries neighboring Myanmar, like Bangladesh and Malaysia.
Zohar was a Rohingya refugee who escaped to Malaysia in 2014 at 13 years old. He was separated from his family and was told he would make it to Malaysia in seven days with a human trafficker. Instead, this journey took five months. When he arrived in Malaysia, he was detained for almost a year because he had no documents or citizenship anywhere. Since Malaysia did not partake in the 1951 Refugee Convention, they do not regulate or protect the rights of refugees. This led Zohar to decide to apply as a refugee in the United States. This process required him to have multiple interviews, background checks and medical exams until he was sent to the United States as a refugee on Nov. 1, 2016. He lived with a foster family and didn’t know English or how to read or write when he arrived. He was then able to graduate from Mercer Island High School with a 4.0 GPA and a full scholarship. Now, he is a student at Bellevue College.
The rest of his family lived in Myanmar until they were able to flee to Bangladesh and Malaysia. Zohar’s younger brother was detained in Malaysia in 2019, so he worked to get him released. Through a letter-writing campaign starting with contacting the president of Bellevue College, he was able to get his letters to Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the United States House of Representatives. His work to help his brother was successful and on Nov. 11, the Malaysian government released him.
Zohar is now focusing on trying to get his brother to the United States and sharing his story. In 2019, he was interviewed by KING-TV, a local news station, and KUOW, a local radio station. Additionally, in 2020, author Dawn Schiller wrote a book called “The Rohingya Struggle” with him about his life. He hopes to inspire young people to use their position and privilege to help create change for those in need.