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Resettled Rohingyas in Nashua fled horrors in their homeland

New Hampshire Sunday News

October 14. 2017 11:13PM
Lynn Clowes, cultural orientation instructor for Ascentria Care Services, shares a laugh with Rohingya refugees Ali Zohor, left, and Mohammod Sobbir in Nashua. (Shawne K. Wickham/New Hampshire Sunday News)

NASHUA - For most Granite Staters, the "ethnic cleansing" against the minority Rohingyas in their native Myanmar is a horrific tragedy watched from afar in news accounts.

But for some of Nashua's newest residents, the trauma is deeply personal.

Najim Ullah, 23, fled to neighboring Bangladesh when his family's home in Myanmar, also known as Burma, was burned. "My whole family was trying to escape," he said through a translator.

"They're killing us, and we do not have any rights in my home country, so I decided to leave the country."

The family split up; Ullah learned years later his mother had died. His father disappeared; his siblings and other relatives still live in Myanmar.

"I walked for 15 days in the mountains and jungles with an empty stomach and no food," he said.

Ullah landed in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, where there wasn't enough food, water or sanitation for the huge number of people pouring in. He ended up in Sri Lanka, and was granted refugee status.

Ullah now lives in Nashua with two roommates who are also Rohingya. They work, take English lessons and worship at a local mosque.

The United Nations' top human rights official recently declared that Myanmar was carrying out "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing" against Rohingya Muslims, citing accounts of killings, rapes and other atrocities.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), half a million Rohingyas have fled violence in Myanmar, the vast majority of them women, children and the elderly. It's the fastest-growing refugee emergency in the world today, according to UNHCR's website.

Amy Marchildon is director of Services for New Americans at Ascentria Care Alliance in Concord, which resettles refugees fleeing conflict and oppression. In the last eight years, she said, 227 Rohingyas have been resettled in New Hampshire.

From left, Najir Ullah; Ali Zohor; Lynn Clowes, cultural orientation instructor for Ascentria Care Alliances; and Mohammod Sobbir talked about how the three Rohingya men are adjusting to life in Nashua during a recent visit to their home. (Shawne K. Wickham/New Hampshire Sunday News)

Recent arrivals have been young men like Ullah, who make their way here alone, leaving parents, siblings and sometimes wives and children behind, she said.

Resettlement agencies see "higher rates of immediate trauma" among Rohingya refugees, she said. And amplifying the trauma is their status as a "stateless" people, she said; Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens.

"It's your whole being, your identification of self," she said. "You may identify yourself one way but your country doesn't recognize you."

Myanmar's security forces blame the recent violence on uprisings by Rohingya militants. But human rights groups have documented atrocities committed by government forces against civilian villages.

The oppression of Rohingya is not new. A 2015 legal analysis by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School found "persuasive evidence" that the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar fits the legal definition of genocide.

One of Ullah's roommates, Mohammod Sobbir, 22, arrived here in May. "My home country is in chaos, and so much ethnic fighting is going on," he said.

"They're taking our property away. They took all the jobs away."

He left Myanmar but was arrested in Thailand and taken to a detention camp. The UNHCR intervened and granted him refugee status to resettle in the U.S.

Sobbir has a job in a factory and is learning English. He hopes one day he can bring his wife and 3-year-old son here.

The government of Myanmar denies civil rights to the Rohingya. But Sobbir said his people have lived there for generations. "That's our home country - my father's home country, my father's father's home country," he said.

"We want peace and we want our rights as a citizen in the country," he said. "Our voting rights, education rights, and our freedom."

Another roommate, Ali Zohor, 23, also fled oppression in his homeland. "The government is taking everything away from us," he said.

He left by boat, leaving his parents behind. His mother, he said, "was so sad, and she cried a lot."

Zohor works in a factory. He's happy here, he said: "This is my country."

The roommates used to watch news reports about Myanmar, but not anymore. "I watched for a few days. Now I do not," said Zohor.

"Every time I watch the news, someone is getting killed," Sobbir said. "This is frustrating and makes me so mad."

They're not lonely, the three roommates said. But they miss their families. 

"I miss my parents the most," Zohor said. "I still remember how my parents used to take care of me and my siblings."

Ullah has been able to contact relatives still in Myanmar, including his little brother. When he talks to him, he said, "I cannot hold my tears. He cries too: 'I want to go to you.'"

Sobbir's parents are still in Myanmar. He says he's "doing fine here."

"People are good," he said. "People are helping."

What's the best thing about living in America? Sobbir answered at once: "The law and order situation of this country."

He no longer considers Myanmar home. "I'm living here now," he said.

"This is my home."

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