Life of a Refugee Mum

Today Priscilla and Sarah chronicle the journey of Esther, a courageous mother who came to Malaysia as a refugee. Esther tells a harrowing tale of how she came to Malaysia, for a better life for her and her child.

Esther has not seen her parents in five years.

Photo by Priscilla Chin

Tears fill her eyes every time she spoke of Mama and Papa. It was painfully clear just how much she misses them.

Esther grew up in a small village called Selbung, situated within the Chin state of Myanmar. She is of the Zomi ethnic minority in Myanmar. After she stopped attending school at the age of 16, she continued to help her mother to harvest the crops that they planted and sold in the market. Their workplace was a long commute from home – a three-hour journey on foot over rough and hilly terrain. It was far because the land around the village was unsuitable for farming.

Living wasn’t easy because they hardly had enough to get by. Esther was one of 10 hungry mouths that had to be fed in the family. But times got tougher whenever the rogue policemen came and took away the food they were carrying home on their journeys back from the fields. When a senior police officer heard of these incidents carried out by his juniors, he warned them to stop. However, these bad policemen returned to the village and cornered Esther.

“We know your father is an Evangelist,” they threatened her. “You’d better not get us into any trouble, otherwise we will hit you!” (A large majority of Christians face persecution in the state).

Her eldest brother was bullied by the army. Jhon was a victim of forced labour, made to carry the army’s equipment for them. He fled to Malaysia first.

Esther made the decision to seek refuge in Malaysia after a few encounters with the rogue policemen, and because there just wasn’t enough to eat at home. She was barely 18 when she travelled all alone across the border, with nothing but the clothes on her petite frame. The journey from her village, through Thailand and into Malaysia took around 14 days. There were numerous days where she was starving without any food to eat. There were times where she tried to telephone her brother, desperate for help. On one occasion, she and a group of people were smuggled inside a lorry. The men were lying down in the back (of the lorry) while she and six other women squeezed together and crouched hidden at the front. It was so hot and cramped, she felt like she was going to die.

That day, one of the men in the back suffocated and died. Esther would never forget that journey.

Photo by Priscilla Chin

At last, Esther found her older brother and stayed with him in Subang Jaya. She found a job at a seafood restaurant. Jhon would teach her Bahasa Malaysia every day – starting off with words like “plate” and “bowl”. She learnt and memorised about 40 words a day.

Five years has passed since she first arrived on Malaysian soil. Esther is now 23 years old, married to Joseph who also came from the same village back home. They have a three year old son, who is affectionately nicknamed ‘Sing Pi.’

It is still hard to scrape a living, but she has a lot of support from Aunty Yani, one of her closest friends, and Aunty Petrina, her current employer – who is the co-founder of Dignity for Children (Dignity). Dignity has helped her a lot by providing basic amenities, including pampers and milk. Dignity also subsidised the school fees for Sing Pi, who gets to learn lots in kindergarten and is able to teach his mommy simple English words like “red” and “yellow”. Esther is grateful that her child has a brighter future here compared to the education back home in Myanmar.

Esther working in the kitchen | Photo by Priscilla Chin

When asked about the best thing about Malaysia, Esther replies simply that at least, she doesn’t go hungry here. However, although meat is more readily available here, she doesn’t enjoy eating it too much. Her face grimaced in sorrow as she explained softly, “Being able to eat meat reminds me of Mama and Papa, because they can’t afford to eat meat back in the village.”

Life in Malaysia may be better in some aspects, but it has not been a bed of roses. There was one night where five robbers broke into her house. She was alone with Sing Pi at the time. Helpless, Esther held him protectively to her chest, while the men threatened her with knives and took away all the money in the house. Luckily, she was left unharmed. A police report was made the next day, but no authorities came to investigate.

For the future, Esther wishes that she and her family could be resettled overseas for a chance to have a better life. As for her parents back home, she gets to talk to them once every two months – telephone calls abroad are expensive. “Every time, Mama will ask me whether I’m doing well. And every time I answer the same. No matter whether I’m actually okay or not okay, I will tell her not to worry, that everything is fine.”

Esther blinked back tears as she spoke of her mother’s illness. But she cannot return home to visit them, as she and her brother Jhon has been ‘blacklisted’ by the Burmese authorities. Her parents cannot afford to travel here either.

She does not know if they could ever be reunited.

Graced with a rare smile, when she received our little Mother's Day gift | Photo by Priscilla Chin

As of March 2017, there are some 150,845 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. More than 130,000 are from Myanmar (see UNHCR – Figures At A Glance). Malaysia has yet to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The current policy allows the presence of refugees on the basis of humanitarian grounds. However, unregistered asylum-seekers are especially at risk of prosecution for being undocumented under immigration laws. Refugees and asylum seekers are also not allowed to obtain legal employment, and children cannot attend public schools. Hence the UNHCR, NGOs, religious-based organisations and other non-profit organisations such as Dignity for Children play a significant role in protecting the refugees and their basic human rights.

Dignity for Children Foundation welcomes all contributions whether by volunteering or donations of gifts. Visit their website at Dignity for Children for more information.

Come and drop-by the lovely Project B café, Sentul (proceeds go towards Dignity) | Photo by Priscilla Chin

Disclaimer: Esther shared her story with us on a friendly, informal basis. We aimed to keep the story as accurate as possible but there may be gaps in our understanding and information. Please do not use the material above (including pictures) for any official or legal purposes.


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Priscilla Chin is humbly budding lawyer. When she's not bumbling about during the day trying to learn the ropes of life, she is a warrior princess battling dragons by night. Cheesy poetics are her favourite weapon of choice. Waking or sleeping, she aspires to be a learner, defender, practitioner of peace, justice, and all things overratedly noble and righteous.

Posted on 11 May 2017. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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