Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Tales of Refugees

In January 2004, when I informed my senior officer at UNHCR that I would be quitting my job to take up a teaching position at IIUM, I was 'demoted' to a position called Temporary Protection (TP) Screener. I was only expected to start at the university in April, so I was still able to work if the office allowed me to. However, my original position as 'Programme Assistant' was a new position that required much training and exposure. Since I had already decided to quit within the next two months, the senior programme officer and I agreed it would be better for the office to find a long term replacement and train her for the position. But because I could still be around for the next two months I was asked to fill-in as a TP Screener. I agreed and I'm glad I did.

Previously, as Programme Assistant, I was always inside the office going through files and papers working mostly on the computer. As a TP Screener, I was in the frontline dealing directly with asylum seekers. At that time, the office was receiving a huge number of people from Aceh, Indonesia. My main task was to process the Acehnese who came to the office, interview them individually and later make recommendations to the Protection and Eligibility Officers whether each case should be processed further. To obtain an official refugee status, being screened by a TP Screener is the first stage of a very long process. There are at least two other stages of evaluation that an asylum seeker has to go through. The whole process therefore may drag on for years depending on the severity and imminent nature of each case.

Just two days into this new position, I encountered one of the most shocking experiences in my life. An Iranian asylum seeker, whose refugee application had received multiple rejections, set himself ablaze just outside the UNHCR compound. I went to the scene together with other colleagues when we heard noises of commotion outside and was stunned to find a man engulfed in flames. To this day, the things I remember most about the incident are the smell of human flesh burning in front of my eyes and the unbelievable composure of the man (he moved very casually the entire time when he was in flames and after it was put off). He died at the hospital nine hours later.

Dealing with Acehnese refugees felt quite awkward to me. Mostly because, to a certain extent I am one of them. My maternal great-great grandfather was supposedly from Aceh who came to the peninsular sometime in the mid-19th century. According to the 'legend', he was hunted by the Dutch for rebelling against them. He came to the peninsular therefore as a refugee, to seek asylum and to start a new life. And there I was, a century-and-a-half later, interviewing people who arrived to these shores in similar predicaments.

I met some interesting characters in my two months as TP Screener. Most who came were nice and friendly, some looked terrified, while a few were quite aggressive. Most of the time though I was able to engage into extended conversations with them about the situation in Aceh and about their personal ordeals (which I have to say, was something I wasn't supposed to do). Almost all the men had physical scars to show to proof that they were victims of the Indonesian army's brutality while some of the women talked about personal encounters of sexual abuse. I kept an open mind all along assuming that these accounts were true. Some of my colleagues though cautioned me that many of them might be lying just to get my sympathy. Perhaps. Possibly some of these people were wonderful actors but when I saw tears and distinct signs of fear in their eyes and movements, I certainly did not think they were.

I was blessed though to have encountered one of the most heart-warming stories in life one can ever imagine, the story of a young Acehnese mother and her children. She arrived in Malaysia together with her husband and two small children two years earlier. After going through the whole process with UNHCR, the whole family was put on the priority list for resettlement in a third country. The Canadian government had evaluated their case and agreed to allow them to resettle in Canada. While waiting for the papers to go through, the husband received news from home that his father was very ill and had expressed his wish to see his son before he dies. The husband was a wanted man in Indonesia, so to go back would be incredibly risky. But he went back nonetheless promising his wife and informing UNHCR that it will be a very quick visit.

After more than six months, the husband still had not returned. Eventually some news came from Indonesia that he was in fact detained upon arrival in Sumatra and was sent to jail. Nobody had heard anything about him since then which indicated quite strongly that he could already be dead. Meanwhile, in Kuala Lumpur, his wife and two children were about to finally receive the green light to go to Canada. The wife however was faced with the difficult situation of moving to a strange foreign country as a single-mother with two young children.

A friend of her husband then offered to marry her to help her resettle in Canada. Although he was also an Acehnese, being an unmarried young man, he was not high in the priority list and honestly did not have any prospect to be offered resettlement to a third country. Some people therefore would think that this man was merely taking advantage of this young mother's unfortunate situation. She did not doubt his sincerity though for the man had been helping her to look after her children for the past few months. She agreed to marry him. UNHCR and the Canadian authorities had no objections and allowed him to replace her 'late' husband's place to move to Canada.

Two weeks before their departure date, a man walked into the UNHCR office and claimed he was the 'presumed dead' husband. His family members and UNHCR officers were both convinced that he was indeed the man he claimed to be. Apparently, he managed to break out from prison a few months back and was finally able to sneak back to Malaysia. His wife (or his ex-wife to be exact), although was happy to see her long lost husband (now ex-husband), was now no longer married to him. She had already taken a new husband about a month earlier. What made things more complicated was this. The Canadian government was willing to accept only a fix number of refugees. So, since the wife was now married to another man, her 'ex-husband' who had suddenly reappeared would not be allowed to follow her and their two children to Canada. What she had to do then was to choose, which husband to take? Her new husband whom she had recently married, or her ex-husband who had been wrongly presumed to be dead?

Imagine the dilemma this young Acehnese mother was facing. On one hand, she wanted to be grateful to her new husband who had cared for her and her children in the last few months, while on the other hand she felt the need to be loyal to her ex-husband who is also the father of her two children. The children ultimately were the deciding factor. The wife strongly believed they needed their father more than anything. But being now legally married to another man, she could not just dump her new husband and take back her previous one. Specific procedures in the shar'iah (Islamic law) must be followed. She had to, first-of-all ask for divorce from her husband, and then remarry her ex-husband. What happened at this point was most touching and memorable.

UNHCR arranged for a special meeting with all persons involved which included a representative from the Canadian embassy. In that unforgettable meeting, the wife made the official request to her husband, an emotional plea to him to let her go to allow her and her children to be reunited with her ex-husband. She chose her words very carefully and spoke in a very gentle voice. She repeatedly thanked her husband for what he had done for her and her children, and apologise profusely and desperately to him while tears were flowing freely from her eyes.

Theoretically, it would have been perfectly legal if the husband refused to divorce his wife. No one would be able to say anything against it as he was legally the husband who held the rights to either divorce or not to divorce. After a brief silent yet very anxious moment, he spoke softly and agreed. By that time, tears were flowing on everyone's cheek. Even the Canadian man was moved to tears even though he did not quite understand what was actually spoken. He was to play an important role in the conclusion of this emotional tale when he went back to lobby the authorities in Canada to allow this unfortunate soon-to-be-divorced-husband to resettle in the country. Somehow, he succeeded! Thus, in the end 'both husbands' went to Canada together with the young mother and her two children.

As the world 'celebrate' (not sure whether this is an appropriate word to be used here) World Refugees Day four days ago (20th June), the stories of refugees I met during my time as a TP Screener reminded me of the scale of suffering others have to endure and how fortunate indeed I am to be exempted from such experiences. Refugee crises worldwide have gotten much worse since my time at UNHCR. In Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the number of refugees are mounting. Events that precipitate the escalation of the crisis do not involve these refugees. They are caused by those in the echelons of power whose lives are seldom directly affected by the tragedies they help create; which might just push one to question, is there justice in this world?

I believe in the end justice will be served, if not in this world, in the hereafter. Those who wrongly suffered will attain salvation and those who created mischief and caused suffering to others will be made to rue their actions.


Anonymous said...

Asm Sir,

I remember you told this story in my CCP class. Banyak yg nangis dengar the story of the mother with two husbands. Ya, memang betul cakap sir.. hidup kita di M'sia memang senang tapi kita mesti prihatin masalah org lain dan tak boleh hina pendatang asing di sini kalau kita tak tahu kisah hidup mereka.

Thank u sir!

Zaki Samsudin said...

Thank you sister for the above comment. It's always nice to hear from a former student although I don't know who you are exactly since you chose to remain anonymous. But that's fine :)

The story of the lady with two husbands has been one of my favourite stories to tell especially in Cross-Cultural Psychology when we discuss some of the critiques against Kohlberg's theory of morality development. I do find that between man and woman, they react differently to this story i.e. morality of justice vs. morality of responsiblity. Will write specifically about this inshaAllah.

Ma'as salam.

Anonymous said...

After reading your personal account,I used to ponder upon the future of these immigrants whenever I see a Bangladeshi at Mamak stall serving a customer frantically whenever new customers come in.It seems to me like these people don't have future at all.I'm sure they have dreams too,like all of us when they were little.Least they expect they would ended up being pariah in foreign soils.
I'm sure these people are like all of us;yearning to have a well-paid jobs,to start a family and have kids.All of those dreams crash and burn when they start to realize they struggle every single day for one's own pot.the future looks even more bleaker if they dare to dream more.
Then, I start to look at myself.How lucky I am.If I were born in Bangladesh,I would be like one of them.Life must be tough.I might struggle to get access to proper education and be driven out of my country to find greener pasture.i could have landed in a country that hostile to immigrants.I might take any job that come my way and being treated like a slave every now and then.If I were to live till my old age,I have to remain fit, strong and adaptable.Darwin said only those who fit with ever-changing environments can afford to survive and remain fit and alive.I have to agree with him on that point.
Everyday, I've never failed to show my gratitude to Him and pray for the prosperity and political stability of my beloved country, Malaysia.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Dear Anon 11:07,

Thanks for the very perceptive comments. I'm sure the world will be a much better place "for you and for me and the entire human race" if we have more people like you who values another human life just like you value yours.


shamster said...

Slm w.b.t.

Bad thing that I could not attend/reg that class. Thankfully you shared the story here in your post, most grateful for that.

I thought I was reading a novel then suddenly realized that I was reading a blog post :P

That was truly an aspiring story. It really makes people think that a good heart still does exist despite meeting many harsh and selfish people. Not to forget the appreciation for our comfortable lives and those people who do kind to us, especially Him. All praise be to Him. Wassalam.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Brother Shams,

Thanks for the comment. There was a time I thought about writting a collection of short stories on 'Tales of Refugees in Malaysia' by interviewing some of the refugees who are still around (and quite easy to locate despite their illegal status here). But I began to wonder whether as a former staff of UNHCR, I would be breaching any rules or commit something un-ethical.

Now that I have more free time, maybe it's worthwhile to find out.


Anonymous said...

salam, as for me, i heard this story when i was in ur class. it was a sad story but with a good ending. as a malaysian, i observed that we quite indiscent to immigrants. it does not matter whether they are immigrants/ internationals/ foreigners but they are all human beings. we should respect them and treat them well. once i was called to attend an interview in UNHCR, after i got down in KL sentral, i took a cab, he charged me RM 12 without using taxi meter, actually it juz around RM 5.00 if he used taxi mater and treated me disrespectfully;because i was in hurry, i juz keep quiet. when i reached to UNHCR, i discussed this incident to UNHCR staff, he explained may the taxi driver thought me as a refugee or immigrant even i am a malaysian.