On World Refugee Day, a former Rohingya refugee who lived in a refugee camp for 16 years shares his story. In 1992, Hanif, his new wife, and their baby daughter fled Myanmar with nothing but the clothes on their backs and as much as they could carry. They both now live in Auckland with their five children.

***Trigger warning: Mentions violence and abuse***

My name is Hanif, and I am from the Rakhine State in Myanmar-formerly Burma. On March 3, 1992, shortly after my wife and I got married, we fled our country with our young daughter due to the ethnic and religious persecutions of the Burmese Government.

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Hanif.

For many years, my father was a respected commander in the army, but when he moved to the Rakhine State, people stopped listening to him as he was a Rohingya (a minority group), so he decided to resign. My mum was a housewife. When I was just 14 years old both of my parents passed away within six months of each other.

I am the youngest of 13. I have one stepsister and 11 adopted siblings. When my parents passed, my stepsister and I lived with our neighbours for a couple of months before my sister got married.

Armed conflict between minority groups and the government’s military forces have gone on for decades. But the violence escalated and as I grew older, I started to realise what was happening in our community.

One day stood out to me. It was a Monday and I walked to the flea market. There were between 2,000 and 3,000 people at the market and the soldiers started shooting. Two men died. It seemed to me that they were shot just because they were Rohingya. I was also beaten twice by the soldiers. One time they asked me to buy them a goat and I refused, and the other time they forced me to work.

I was married in 1990. My wife and I moved to what is called “No-Man’s Land” near the Bangladesh border. I worked there planting rice.

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Hanif and his wife when they first arrived in New Zealand.

Before we fled from Myanmar, our movements were heavily restricted. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere without permission and weren’t allowed access to higher education. It was extremely difficult for my wife and me to get permission to marry, and we were not allowed to go out at night.

We used to see thousands of people crossing the border. We questioned them about why they were crossing, and they told us they had experienced abuse, murder, forced labour, looting, or their land and property had been confiscated.

In 1992, we fled from Myanmar and walked an hour to Balukhali refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. We grabbed all we could carry, a couple of pots and pans, some plates and a couple of changes of clothes. We stayed there for three years before the camp closed, and then moved to Kutupalong refugee camp where we stayed for 13 years. There we had four more children.

Kutupalong is near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, which is now the biggest refugee camp in the world—home to about one million refugees.

We were unjustly and inhumanely forced out of our country. We had no dignity, no respect and no freedom. For me, the definition of a refugee is that you have nothing left. The refugee camp is like an open prison. You are a nobody, no one welcomes you, you are not welcome anywhere.

Kutupalong was crowded, dirty, unsanitary, unhealthy, had no privacy and everyone was malnourished. We lived in a little hut where the walls were made of bamboo and the roof was made of black plastic.

It got so hot that we would be dripping with sweat from head to toe. We also experienced heavy rains and winds. Some makeshift shelters blew away. One time we lost our roof, and there was only one space left that we could huddle under with our neighbours.

In Kutupalong, I worked as a community health worker during the day and taught English and the local language at night. My kids were allowed to go to primary school, but higher education was not available to us.

The only food we received was weekly food rations including rice, oils, garlic, dahl and sugar. It was only just enough for my family to survive. We would line up from early morning until late afternoon. It would also take us a couple of hours just to collect water and wood to make a fire, to keep us warm and to cook our food. Living was a daily struggle.

In 1997, I was arrested for protesting. The Bangladesh government wanted to repatriate the Rohingya’s back to Myanmar. I was put in jail for five years. My wife’s health was very poor, so my children had to look after themselves.

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Hanif's wife and three children while Hanif was in prison for 5 years.

My children would sneak out to the Myanmar/Bangladesh border (a day’s walk) to meet with my wife’s brother. He would look after them for a while, feed them and clothe them. When the military came, they had to hide and sometimes their uncle would get beaten.

Thankfully, we were able to settle in New Zealand in 2008. I remember sitting for hours with the immigration officers and finally being accepted.

I was very happy. The night before we left, we stayed up the whole night singing, dancing and celebrating. The neighbours cooked us a farewell dinner. It was very sad leaving, as we knew we would never see them again. I have been in New Zealand with my family now for 13 years.

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Hanif, his wife and his five children (photo taken when they first moved to New Zealand).

A lot of my family are still stuck in the camp, including my sister. I speak to her a lot. Covid-19 has made it even harder for refugees. They can’t go anywhere, they can’t self-isolate, it’s so overcrowded.

I am grateful for the work of charities like Tearfund that are helping to educate refugees and look after my people. I think they are the best people in the world. I will never forget their help and how they are helping my sister.

I now volunteer with the Red Cross to help reintegrate new immigrants into the community. It is such a privilege to live in New Zealand—I am so grateful.

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