Seeking Solace

Soewin Sabirahmad opened the door to his tiny concrete home and looked at a litter of cats curled up on the tiled floor, their sleepy eyes blinking back at him.

“This is my family,” he said, dropping his camouflage backpack against a wall and sitting on the floor, where he picked up a ginger kitten.

Soewin Sabirahmad at his home in Kompong Chhnang province in March, surrounded by various painkillers—which he says he has since stopped taking. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)
Soewin Sabirahmad at his home in Kompong Chhnang province in March, surrounded by various painkillers—which he says he has since stopped taking. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

The mother, a former stray with one eye and a bent tail, arrived at Mr. Sabirahmad’s home in Kompong Chhnang province eight months ago, and soon delivered a litter that turned his house of one into a house of five.

His actual family, which he left behind in Burma six years ago, is about twice the size. Mr. Sabirahmad, 40 and single, is a Rohingya, a religious and ethnic minority from predominantly Buddhist Burma. He was an Islamic teacher and endured three decades of persecution at the hands of the Burmese military before fleeing through the mountains in search of a better life.

He walked for about six months before reaching Chiang Rai in Thailand’s north, where he caught a bus to Cambodia, arriving in November 2010.

“It is far different here from in my country,” he said, speaking in Khmer and broken English. “My country is only better than here because my family is there; here I am just alone. When I had no food, I would just go to my brother and sister or my mother so I could eat. But here, when I have no food, nobody knows because it is just me.”

Mr. Sabirahmad, however, had good reason to leave Burma.

The country’s government has for decades systematically denied Rohingya people basic rights and enacted discriminatory legislation rendering the majority of them stateless. All but 40,000 of the country’s 1.33 million Rohingya were stripped of citizenship after the introduction of Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, according to a report releaesed by Amnesty International last year.

“These people have been subject to abuses by state and non-state actors for decades, including in 2012 when vicious sectarian violence erupted in Rakhine state in Western Myanmar, which is where the majority of Rohingya live,” the report says, using another name for Burma.

In 2013, the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) estimated that 30,000 Rohingya refugees were living in Bangladesh, concentrated mainly in two camps called Kutupalong and Nayapara. Another 200,000 unregistered Rohingya were living outside the camps, it said.

Cambodia is one of only three countries in Southeast Asia—along with the Philippines and Timor-Leste—that has signed the UNHCR Refugee Convention, which is meant to guarantee that states process asylum-seekers and protect refugees until they find a permanent safe haven.

Denise Coghlan, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), said a majority of Rohingya refugees who end up in Cambodia don’t see a future for themselves here and make arrangements to be resettled elsewhere. She said about 50 Rohingyas had sought asylum in Cambodia since 2009, but that few were still living in the country.

“All those who have stayed have been recognized as refugees,” she said, adding that about four families and four individuals, including a Rohingya previously detained by Australia on the pacific island of Nauru, remained in Cambodia.

Others, she said, had resettled in other countries including Malaysia and Canada after seeking private sponsorship. “Most Rohingya refugees who are here would like to be in another country. I mean, that’s their dream, most of them.”


Josna was born in Bangladesh’s Nayapara camp, but her family is now one of the few trying to carve out a life in Cambodia. During an interview in March, she leaned against the cement wall of her family’s Phnom Penh home, her mother slumped next to her on the floor.

Josna was 8 years old in 2013 when her mother, Romeda Bagiom, bundled her and brother Haron into a fishing boat bound for Thailand. They had hoped to reach Cambodia, where the children’s father, Mohammad Yusuf, was waiting for them, but were detained by Thai officials for more than two months for traveling without passports.

Josna, right, and her mother, Romeda Bagiom, sit on the floor of their family home in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)
Josna, right, and her mother, Romeda Bagiom, sit on the floor of their family home in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Josna said she had made some friends in her new neighborhood, a predominantly Muslim community in the city’s south. She was wearing a fake gold ring on her left hand, given to her by a friend named Tini. The girl’s face lit up when she talked about her classmate, whom she met a few months ago, but the joy faded when the conversation turned to her education.

Josna is at the top of her class at the private Asean International School, but her family hopes for better. She recently interviewed at a German-run international school after being recommended by her principal, but her parents could not afford the school fees.

“I want to go to the German school, and I am not happy that we don’t have the money to afford the German school,” Josna said. “If I get a good education I will be happy.”

Mr. Yusuf, who sells rotis and sandwiches from a cart, wants his daughter to become a doctor so that she can have “a good life” and support her family.

“When she can get a good education she can get a job also,” he said.

“She is No. 1 in her class, and her headmaster told me, ‘Can you go and put her in a German school?’” he said, adding that the school costs $350 per semester. “Very expensive. I say I am sorry. If U.N. and International Organization for Migration (IOM) can pay, we can change it.” He said that other NGOs had previously contributed to the cost of his daughter’s education, but that the payments had stopped.

Mr. Yusuf makes $10 to $20 per day from his roadside cart, which he bought with a $1,000 grant from IOM, but said the money was not enough to support his family.

“I need help for medicine, for my daughter and son to study, for rent, and so our family can eat,” he said, growing agitated. “The government only gives permission for you to stay here legally. The government is good; I like it actually. Only IOM, U.N.—they do me wrong because they don’t help me.”

A bicycle and two bags of rice stored in Josna’s family home (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)
A bicycle and two bags of rice stored in Josna’s family home (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Joe Lowry, the IOM’s regional spokesman, denied Mr. Yusuf’s claims and said the organization was providing services to the man’s family.

“IOM can confirm that the clients mentioned are receiving ongoing assistance from IOM,” he said in an email. “However, IOM is unable to disclose the specific details of the cases due to our data protection principles.”

Mr. Lowry said the organization was focused on helping refugees find employment, integrate into the community and become self-sufficient.

UNHCR handed over asylum processing duties to the Cambodian government in late 2009 but continues to provide support services to “the most vulnerable” refugees, according to Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for agency’s regional office.

“While I can’t provide information on individual cases for confidentiality reasons, I can say that UNHCR assesses the needs of new cases and provides assistance to the most vulnerable individuals either directly or through NGO partners,” she said.

Grace Smith, operations manager at Hagar International, said the organization had been contracted by UNHCR to provide some of the Rohingya refugees with “specialist counseling and support to enable them to settle into society here and obtain work.” But the contract ended in January, with some of the work being transferred to the IOM, she said.

Romeda Bagiom sits on the floor of her home. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)
Romeda Bagiom sits on the floor of her home. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

“Hagar used to have a contract with UNHCR to provide assistance to a limited number of refugees each year and was one of two NGOs regularly working with refugees in Cambodia, the other being the Jesuit Refugee Service,” she said.

Ms. Coghlan of the JRS said it was difficult for refugees to integrate into Cambodian society, but that the struggle was often more about the individual than the amount of assistance they received.

“I think they think it’s hard in Cambodia, but my theory still is if you’re motivated to have a go you can have a go,” she said.

“But if you don’t want to stay here because your dream is somewhere else, then you probably don’t work very hard and it’s very difficult for you,” she added.

“A lot of refugees, for instance [those] who want to go to Australia—that’s what they want, so they’re not going to be very happy if they’re sent somewhere else.”

Cambodia offers refugees a new start, said government spokesman Phay Siphan, but leaves integration or resettlement services to NGOs because it can’t afford the costs, he said.

“We don’t want the cost ourselves,” he said. “We offer to settle them in Cambodia, as humanitarian [help] only.”

Josna plays with a toy. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)
Josna plays with a toy. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Given the government’s lack of capacity to help care for refugees, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, questioned why Cambodia had sold itself as a suitable destination for refugees under a controversial deal signed with Australia in 2014.

“While the Rohingya may be safe in Phnom Penh, they face a daily struggle to make ends meet in a country where local officials view them as an easy target for extortion, and economic opportunities are few and far between,” he said in an email.

“Cambodia has advertised itself to the Australians and others as a country prepared to resettle refugees and now the international community needs to demand that Phnom Penh show the commitment and invest the resources to make that statement a reality.”

In the deal signed by Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Scott Morrison, then Australia’s immigration minister, Cambodia agreed to receive an unspecified number of refugees from Nauru, where Australia runs detention centers for asylum-seekers who are caught at sea trying to reach its shores.

The deal specifies that Cambodia will only take refugees who volunteer to be resettled here and that Australia will pay about $11.5 million to cover resettlement costs and provide the government with an additional aid package worth about $28.5 million.

But four of the five refugees who have come to Cambodia under the deal have already returned to their home countries. Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has hit back at critics who have repeatedly labeled the deal a failure, defending it as a “pretty good outcome” after the third refugee went home.

Two boys walk along the road in front of Josna’s family home. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)
Two boys walk along the road in front of Josna’s family home. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)


In late March, Burma swore in its new president, Htin Kyaw, ending 50 years of military rule after an election in November delivered a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.

Ms. Suu Kyi, who has promised to run the government despite constitutional provisions barring her from being president, has come under heavy international criticism for her refusal to speak out for the Rohingya, whom some have called the most persecuted people in the world.

During a visit to Burma last month by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Ms. Suu Kyi said her government needed “space” to deal with the sensitive issue.

Mr. Sabirahmad said he had no hope that the leadership change would end the abuse of his people, and that he had no plans to return to Burma. A scar above his right eye is a constant reminder of the discrimination he endured—a line of ridged skin where a Burmese soldier hit him with the butt of a gun while he was laboring.

“I want to have a better life,” he said.

Mr. Sabirahmad holds two of his kittens. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)
Mr. Sabirahmad holds two of his kittens. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Making that happen, however, hasn’t been easy. He had been earning up to $10 a day, also from a roadside food cart, before being hit by a car while riding a motorbike in 2012. The crash resulted in a long-term back injury that he said had affected his ability to work.

“Since I had the accident, I don’t have enough food,” he said. “I was earning 30,000 to 40,000 riel per day and had some money from my country. But since I had the accident, I don’t run this business anymore.”

After the accident, Mr. Sabirahmad bought a new cart—parked and in pristine condition outside his front door—but said he could not use it because of his injury, and an accompanying dependence on pain medication, taking as many as 14 pills per day.

“My money is finished. For eating, the community is supporting me but for the medicine, I get it from the hospital for free,” he said in March. Last week, he said he had stopped taking prescription pills and was instead drinking traditional Cambodian medicine to relieve his pain.

Mr. Sabirahmad said that learning more English would be his best chance of finding a better job and building a network of friends, but that he needed help from NGOs to make this a reality.

“I have made this request to the NGOs 100 times—that I want to study English,” he said. “I want an NGO to help me with renting my house, food and study. I expected that they would help me.”

Mr. Sabirahmad still imagines a future in Cambodia where he has a comfortable house, a family and the fresh start that he had hoped for when he left Burma. But despite escaping the terror he often faced in his home country, he misses the love and stability that came with having a family around.

“It was very hard to leave; even now I still cry,” he said, clutching a kitten to his chest.

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