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'They are our brothers': Rohingya refugees find rare welcome in Aceh
The Guardian - May 25, 2018
Washing up on the shores of a country they were not expecting seemed, at first, like yet another blow.
They had set off for Malaysia where families and jobs were waiting. Instead they arrived in Indonesia's Aceh province, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra.
The deeply conservative Islamic province is home to Sharia law and remembered worldwide as the epicentre of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. But it is also one of the only places in the world to openly welcome Rohingya refugees, whom many Acehnese regard as their Muslim brothers and sisters.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar, have been called the most friendless people on earth. Nearly 700,000 live in refugee camps in Bangladesh after fleeing violence and persecution at home, something the UN has described as having "all the hallmarks of genocide".
Refugee boats have been turned away from Thailand and Malaysia, but in Aceh arrivals have been met with generous donations and fellowship ever since the first of nine Rohingya vessels washed up in 2015. At least 1,740 Rohingya have landed in Aceh in the past 10 years, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Nearly all have been from the state of Rakhine.
'Taking care of us like parents'
The most recent boat arrival, in the coastal town of Bireuen, population 40,000, came during the weekly Friday prayers a few weeks ahead of Ramadan, the holiest month of the year.
"They are taking care of us like parents take care of their children," says Mohammad Shobir, a Rohingya man who came with his wife in the boat. "We were very scared when we landed, but these people have given us everything: food, medicine, shelter... we want to express our sincere gratitude to them."
The refugees are staying in a temporary camp run jointly by the IOM and a local social services agency. After Ramadan they will be moved to more permanent shelter in the city of Langsa.
The first day of Ramadan was bittersweet in the camp.
"We are fed very well here but we don't taste the food," says Mohammad Illyas, 24, who left three children behind in an internally displaced persons camp in Rakhine state. "My family doesn't eat if I don't work for even one day, so right now I have no idea how they are coping."
He had hoped to find work in Malaysia, where at least 150,000 Rohingya live. He has no plans to leave now because they are under the care of IOM and the UN and have no way to organise another boat trip.
The Rohingya are not generally welcomed in Malaysia – they have no legal right to work or to formal education – but their sheer numbers mean they can find work in the "grey market".
Donations pile up
The camp in Bireuen is in an empty government complex of cream and dark green buildings around an open field. There are men's and women's dormitories and a mosque where some of the Rohingya work together with local people to conduct their prayers five times a day.
"We take turns singing the azan [Muslim call to prayer] and then the Acehnese lead us in prayer," says Huzaifa, a 16-year-old boy known as "the imam" because he spent years in a madrasa and is proficient in Qur'anic Arabic.
There is also a health clinic and one large room devoted to donations: towers of instant noodle boxes, egg crates, cooking oil and piles of clothes. The refugees wear donated hijabs and sarongs, and the men have white pecis, the stiff caps common to Muslim men in the region, which were donated by local mosques and charities.
Young Acehnese volunteers appear united in their sense of duty. They variously say they are helping out "because they are our Muslim brothers"; "because my soul felt called to do it"; and "because it's our duty as Acehnese".
Saw Myint from the office of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees in Bangkok has been visiting the camp and says the reception given to the Rohingya had been "unique" in the region. "The refugees cry when expressing their gratitude. The Achehnese are very pious, humble, helpful."
'I am a survivor too'
Zulfikar is an Acehnese man from the social affairs ministry and is in charge of running the camp. He has been sleeping in the camp and has put all other duties on hold.
"My wife hasn't seen me in 22 days!" he says cheerfully. "According to our maritime law in Aceh, we don't ask any arrivals' religion, race and so forth," he says. "The most important thing is saving lives, not national law."
Indonesia does not officially recognise refugees and is not a signatory to the 1945 UN convention.
"I'm a survivor of the [2004 Boxing Day] tsunami too, like many people in Aceh," adds Zulfikar. Aceh bore the brunt of that tsunami with a death toll of more than 100,000. "We all know what it is like to live through a disaster."
The first fast of Ramadan is broken at 6.45pm. In the afternoon about 40 volunteers cook the evening's feast: rice, fish, noodles, cucumber salad, beef in a coconut milk curry, fried and spiced eggplant. All the ingredients come from donations.
A Rohingya woman named Fatima Khatu, the fiancee of Mohammad Shobir, cooks a spiced chicken recipe from home called kurar gustu rendi. Some other Rohingya men shake a tamarind tree in the compound to make juice from the pulp.
At sundown everyone gathers, the women and children on one tarp and the men on another. When the evening call to prayer finally sounds they gulp down fruit punch and eat dates, the traditional fast-breaking food, and then polish off a selection of Acehnese sweets, including slabs of jelly and buns stuffed with sweet shredded coconut.
The men pray together on a large, raised platform in rows, while the women retreat to their dormitory building to pray in private.
But beneath the celebration and the relief, anguish remains. "We are glad to have food here," says Fatima, who left two children behind in Rakhine. "We are very lucky. But nothing else is certain. We don't know how our families are."