My new Rohingya friend, Mary (not her real name) walked with me through a camp full of destitute people. “Children don’t just suddenly know how to hate,” she said as she maneuvered between the mass of children and others who were following us, eager to know what we were up to.
“Children have to learn how to hate from others,” she said with a conviction that was strong enough to stop anybody who dared disagree. “There were children in my neighborhood who were our friends, who treated us with respect and spoke to the elders politely.” Suddenly they noticed a change. The children would speak in a derogatory way to the Rohingya elders. They would act as if they did not know them, or, at least like they despised them. “These children did not just one day decide to hate us,” said Mary. “The adults around them trained them to hate.”
I have thought of this a lot since I came back from my time with the Rohingya. They are despised and unloved. Why? Who has given a whole nation the right to hate one small people group because they look different and follow a different religion?
Mary became my hero those days I spent with her. She patiently translated the stories that so many broken people told me. Many times she had to stop, turn away to compose herself, and when she turned back to me, she had tears in her eyes. “These people are my people.”
She is one of the smartest people I have met. She graduated high-school with honors. She could have done anything, or gone anywhere had she just been born in a different country, had she had a different skin color, had she followed a different religion. But because she is despised and unwanted like the other 800,000 of her people, she was not allowed to study what she wanted to. She wanted to become an engineer. But, she was told, Rohingya are not allowed to study engineering, nor geology. Because they are Rohingya. So she studied law for four years. The day before her graduation she was told by the university: “Sorry, you will not get your graduation papers. Turns out, Rohingya are not allowed to study law either.”
So she has a law degree with no papers to prove it. She has worked for different NGOs, but ended up resigning because the racism she felt from her colleagues were too much for her. She could never travel freely, even in her own state. “You know, it is humiliating to always have to go to a government office, wait in line for hours, pay a fee we cannot afford, just to go to the neighboring city.”
She has many sisters and brothers. Her father is a successful businessman and hobby photographer. Last year her family built what she calls their dream home in their village in town. “We even made the roof so that my dad could have a garden on the roof. We still dream of his fruits and vegetables that he grew there,” she recalls, wiping tears from her eyes. “We had so many books. We all love to read. But it is all gone now. Our home, our books, our family photos.” Because, just like so many Rohingya villages, Mary’s village was also attacked last year. The rebels came and destroyed everything in their village. They burned, plundered and attacked. What did not burn to the ground was later bulldozed down by the government.
Like criminals and prisoners they had to walk from their village bringing only what they could carry. Recalling the walk that day is the hardest thing for Mary to talk about. And I can understand. What would it feel like to parade through the streets, defeated and despised, in front of neighbors, former friends, colleagues, teachers and others? What would it be like to walk for hours in the burning sun, with no food, no water, with only the guards and their guns following you, with people you thought you trusted trying to steal whatever belongings you were able to carry with you when you fled? Humiliating is not even a strong enough word.
“I am very careful about where I can go now,” she says. “I know the government wants to kill me and my family.” Her family is outspoken, gifted and resourceful. No wonder the government wants them out of the way. She knows this for a fact since one of the store owners in her former village, who is not a Rohingya, told her that he had heard that they were after her family. So now she is living, as a refugee, as a fugitive, as an unwanted presence in a land that needs her so. They are just not willing to admit that something good could come from her race. I wish they would.
I just received a note from Mary. It said: Thank you very much for all your efforts to help Rohingyas. I can’t even find words to mention how much I am glad to know that you are trying hard to help us. You have given us a hope in this dark, hopeless situation.
I am thinking: How could I not help? What we are doing cannot even be called a sacrifice. Like the former prime minister of Norway, Kjell Magne Bondevik, told me last week: We have a moral obligation to do something about this.
I agree. Don’t you?
Keep giving, keep praying, keep sharing this story. Let’s not let evil win! “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,”says Edmund Burke. We will not settle for doing nothing.