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As Tillerson Calls For Investigation Into The Rohingya Crisis, Two Refugees Arrive In Boston

As Tillerson Calls For Investigation Into The Rohingya Crisis, Two Refugees Arrive In Boston

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Muhammad Anwar, left, and Hussein Muhammad, center, sign up for emergency food assistance on their first day in the U.S.
Gabrielle Emanuel/WGBH News
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As Tillerson Calls For Investigation Into The Rohingya Crisis, Two Refugees Arrive In Boston

This is the first story in a WGBH News series following two Rohingya refugees as they settle in Boston. The second story is also available online. 

Today, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stopped off in Myanmar and pledged support for the country's Muslim-minority called the Rohingya.

The Buddhist-majority country — also known as Burma — has come under international pressure for its treatment of the group. In the name of putting down a Muslim rebellion, the army has waged a sweeping military campaign in the Rakhine region. They've been accused of burning villages and raping Rohinyga women.

This has prompted more than half a million Rohingya refugees to flee for neighboring Bangladesh. And just last week, two Rohingya refugees arrived in Boston.

Less than 12 hours after Muhammad Anwar and Hussein Muhammad landed at Logan Airport, they are sitting on folding chairs in their sparsely furnished Dorchester apartment. Across the table is their case worker, Rahmatullah Aka.

Pulling out his cell phone, Aka dials a translator to help him communicate with Anwar and Muhammad.

“I put it on loud speaker. They are listening,” he says, placing the phone in the middle of the table. But it doesn’t take long to realize there’s a problem. The translator speaks the wrong language: Burmese, not Rohingya.

Aka is himself a refugee, having arrived two years ago from Afghanistan, and, luckily, he happens to speak Urdu. “Okay, do you speak Urdu?” he asks, thinking quickly. “Can I speak with you in Urdu?”

Urdu seems to work, so they get started. Aka explains everything in the third-floor apartment these two men will share with four other refugees, who are all Muslim men. They pause at the front entrance, where Aka shows them how to unlock the door to their new home.

It’s been a long journey to get here. Both men grew up in Myanmar but in distant villages: 19-year-old Anwar was with his family, including several brothers, and 30-year-old Muhammad was married and a rice farmer.

Muhammad says he faced constant persecution: beatings, bribes, and the regular threat of being hauled off to jail without explanation. For decades, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship and basic rights in Myanmar.

And, Muhammad says, several times in the past few years his villages has been consumed by violence. They were attacked, he says, by Myanmar's military, who indiscriminately killed community members. Muhammad particularly remembers seeing people — even children — being thrown alive into fires.

Both Anwar and Muhammad fled by boat in 2015 without their families. When the men eventually reached Indonesia, they shared a room in a refugee camp for a few years.

“It’s a terrible, terrible world tragedy right now,” said Jeff Thielman. He is the CEO of the International Institute of New England, the group resettling Anwar and Muhammad. “What’s going on in Myanmar right now is just like Rwanda. It's practically a genocide ... We should do something about it as a country.”

Several European countries and a U.N. official have called the situation "ethnic cleansing." But, on his brief five-hour visit to Myanmar, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wouldn't go that far.

“Whether it meets all the criteria for ethnic cleansing, we continue to evaluate that ourselves," he said at a press conference.

Tillerson called for an independent investigation. But Nazda Alam of Weston isn't waiting for an investigation.

“It feels like it is our human consciousness and responsibility to help,” she said.

Alam has been in the U.S. for more than three decades. She's originally from Bangladesh, which is hosting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, and she worries the international outcry has been muted because of their religion.

"A lot of time you will see the headline: Rohingya Muslim, Rohingya Muslim. But we don't want to see that this is a human rights issue — it's not a Muslim issue," Alam said.

She’s teamed up with others to send doctors and supplies to the refugee camps. She’s also focused on political action, including pushing federal legislation that would impose sanctions on certain officials in Myanmar and limit the U.S. from military cooperation with the country’s army, among other things.

As for Muhammad Anwar and Hussein Muhammad, they’re busy with the logistics of starting their lives in America. They’re buying cell phones and signing up for emergency food assistance. But they are also thinking about the future, including the possibility of one day bringing their families over and getting citizenship — something they were denied in Myanmar. 

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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