Part I: Escaping conflict
In the premiere episode of our season chronicling the refugee experience, we’ll take a closer look at the moment of displacement and its immediate aftermath. Hear from experts on what causes displacement, and what resources refugees and internally displaced persons have once they decide it’s no longer safe to remain at home. This episode features the story of Mohammed Anwar, a Rohingya refugee who nearly lost his life on a fishing boat while fleeing violence in home country of Myanmar.
Episode artwork by Ada Jušić.
During this season of Course Correction, we’re challenging you to reflect on different aspects of the refugee experience and share your thoughts with us.
For today’s episode: Tell us about a time when you were in a difficult circumstance and needed help from a stranger. What was it like when you were in need? Did you repay the stranger’s kindness, and how did that feel? If you are a refugee yourself, have you experienced help from strangers?
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
On February 24th, the first Russian bombs landed inside the sovereign nation of Ukraine.
NEWS CLIP WITH BRITISH ANNOUNCER SPEAKING:
Breaking news this morning: It’s war. President Putin announces the start of a military operation.
[SOUND OF EXPLOSIONS]
NELUFAR: While the world watched in shock and horror, those at the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, warned of the cost of conflict, including a mass movement of people. Here’s the statement put out on the day by the head of the UNHCR, High Commissioner Filippo Grandi.
We are gravely concerned about the fast-deteriorating situation and ongoing military action in Ukraine. The humanitarian consequences on civilian populations will be devastating. There are no winners in war, but countless lives will be torn apart.
NELUFAR: In addition to expressing his concerns, High Commissioner Grandi detailed the actions his agency would be taking.
FILIPPO: UNHCR is working with the authorities, the United Nations and other partners in Ukraine, and is ready to provide humanitarian assistance wherever necessary and possible. We stand ready to support efforts by all to respond to any situation of forced displacement.
NELUFAR: In the first two weeks of the invasion, more than two million Ukrainians fled across the borders as Russian forces closed in on population centers. We sent a producer to capture some of those voices on the Ukraine-Polish border.
FIRST UKRANIAN WOMAN:
I — I was traveling during four days, four days from Kharkiv to Lviv, using different trains, cars, even by foot, just to get safe.
SECOND UKRANIAN WOMAN:
We have left just where the first bombs have — I think it was six o’clock in the morning.
Where’s your husband?
SECOND UKRAINAN WOMAN: He stayed in Kiev to protect the city.
THIRD UKRANIAN WOMAN:
Ukraine is totally damaged now by bombs, by different kind of weapons. I even didn’t know that that kind of weapons still exist on the Earth.
SECOND UKRANIAN WOMAN:
So all this time, the kids were sleeping in the car, and the last two days and one night we spent here in this queue just to cross the border.
NELUFAR: The number of refugees forced to cross the border continues to grow. Ukraine is a country of 44 million people, and it’s been estimated by the European Union that up to four million of them will flee their country because of this conflict. Another seven million are predicted to become internally displaced. Now, while these figures are staggering, they pale in comparison to the total number of displaced people globally. The UN estimates that there are 84 million forcibly displaced people around the world. Twenty-seven million of those are considered refugees. These are the highest they’ve ever been. And while the cause of displacement varies from country to country, region to region, those who have fled their homeland all have one thing in common: None of them chose this path. Refugees are made, not born.
Nobody wants to be a refugee.
NELUFAR: This is Saleema Rehman, an Afghan doctor now living in Pakistan.
SALEEMA REHMAN: Nobody can understand the significance of peace until they walk in the shoes of a refugee.
NELUFAR: So that’s what we’re going to try to do: try to put you in the shoes of displaced people. Well, as much as we can in a podcast. And we’re not going to do that just on today’s episode, but for our entire third season.
From Doha Debates, this is Course Correction. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. For the past two seasons of the podcast, we’ve challenged ourselves to find ways to change the world. In the first season, I did personal challenges to see how individuals can have a real impact. In season two, we focused on having challenging conversations to figure out how to bridge the gaps that divide us. You should go back and listen to those.
For this season, we’re focusing on the refugee story. Why just this one topic? Well, I believe displacement of people is arguably the biggest humanitarian and geopolitical issue of our time, and it’s something we focused on a lot at Doha Debates, who produce this program. Check out the debate from March 2019 on YouTube on the global refugee crisis to see what I mean. This season of Course Correction is going to look at all the aspects of the refugee experience and follow refugees along their arduous journey from the moment they become displaced to the challenges they face along the way. And finally, we’ll talk about resettlement or returning back home. It’s a process that can sometimes last years.
AUSTRALIAN WOMAN: So many refugee situations — we’ve seen people spend decades, often, being a refugee, because peace is not on the horizon and they’re unable to return back.
NELUFAR: That’s Shabia Mantoo. She’s a spokesperson for UNHCR based in Geneva. This season, you’re going to be hearing a lot from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, since we’ve teamed up with them as partners. They’ve reached into their vast network to connect us to experts who can give context to the two groups of people we’ll be focusing on this series: refugees and internally displaced persons.
SHABIA MANTOO: When we talk about refugees, they’re people who are fleeing armed conflict, violence, persecution, and crossing international borders in search of safety and protection. And these people are recognized under international law, and they have a right to what we call “protection for internally displaced people.” These are people who also may have the same reasons for being forced to flee their homes, so they may be fleeing conflict, persecution, human rights violations, but they remain within their country.
NELUFAR: The word “migrant” is sometimes used interchangeably with “refugee,” but there are key differences. Migrants are people who choose to move, not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but to seek a better life for themselves and their families for work, education and other reasons. While refugees cannot safely return home, migrants don’t face this obstacle. While stories of migrants are important, care for them falls outside of the UNHCR’s mandate.
In addition to hearing from UNHCR and other experts, we’ll also hear from some of the agency’s Goodwill Ambassadors, like actors Mahira Khan and Cate Blanchett.
You can often sort of forget that people who don’t look like you, or that live in a different culture, or speak a different language are somehow different organisms. But they’re not. We’re all flesh and blood with a lot to offer, and that has been my experience time and time again with the refugees I’ve met.
NELUFAR: Most importantly, throughout the series, I’ll be in conversation with refugees themselves. We’ll hear from those who are currently displaced, as well as those who have resettled and are now helping others in need.
SALEEMA: Before my birth, my mother faced severe complications, and my father did not expect that I would survive. And he vowed to himself that if the baby will survive, he will ensure to make the baby a doctor, regardless of the gender, because at that time, my father realized the importance of having a doctor in our community.
NELUFAR: I understand very deeply what Saleema’s talking about. I spent the first seven years of my life as a refugee. My mother made the decision — if it can be called a decision — to leave my birth land of Afghanistan for the safety of the unknown future as a refugee, which she believed would be a safer path than staying in the war-torn country of Afghanistan. She was right. Now, as a professional journalist, I’ve spent over a decade documenting my, and other refugees’, stories.
So let’s dive right in for part one of our program. We’re going to take a closer look at the moment of displacement and its immediate aftermath.
I don’t think anybody wakes up in the morning and says, “I would like to be a refugee. That’s what I want to be with my life.” And so you have to think of these people as being really out of other options.
NELUFAR: This is Erol Yayboke.
EROL YAYBOKE: I am at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where I am a senior fellow with the International Security Program, and I run a project on state fragility and human mobility issues.
NELUFAR: Once a person decides to leave home, each subsequent decision takes on massive consequences.
EROL: So how do they survive? They generally sell off goods, especially the ones who didn’t have to leave right away due to some sort of immediate crisis or rapid-onset event. They will sell their, their assets, they will take loans from family and friends, and a lot of times they will move irregularly. One of the biggest challenges for people in situations like this is that there are not easy pathways to go.
NELUFAR: Writer Rodaan Al Galidi told me that his plan to flee Iraq was less about what he wanted to do and more about what he didn’t want to do.
RODAAN AL GALIDI:
My plan was not to go to the army of Saddam Hussein. And I didn’t have a plan, because if you don’t have country, if you don’t have ID card, if you don’t have a passport, if you don’t have money, how you will have the plan? My plan was just to eat in the day, because sometimes two days you don’t have eating or drinking.
NELUFAR: This is something I can relate to as well. When I sat down and asked my parents about why they finally left Afghanistan, they both said the same thing: It wasn’t that they were looking forward to settling in a foreign country, it was that the country that they thrived in, and were rich and healthy in — it was gone. What was left in its place was the worst of humanity, something to run away from. That’s when we decided to leave our home in Afghanistan. But even if you have a plan, once you leave, there are inevitably countless pitfalls and obstacles that must be surmounted. Some you can account for. And then there are ones you have no way to anticipate.
EROL: I can’t just get on a plane and go somewhere else.
NELUFAR: Again, this is Erol Yayboke.
EROL: I have to apply for a visa. I have to then probably get that visa request denied. And so then I have to explore all sorts of irregular routes, which themselves come with lots of danger. You know, you’re talking about smugglers and traffickers and, you know, violence along the way, particularly against women and children. And so this is why these decisions are not easy decisions, because people that are forced into making them a lot of times know the peril. They don’t know the specifics, but there are people that went before them.
NELUFAR: It’s one thing to conceptualize how hard it is. It’s another thing to hear directly from refugees about their experience. Listen to Mohammed Anwar.
I am from Burma. I’m a Rohingya.
NELUFAR: Burma, now known as Myanmar, is a country in Southeast Asia with a population of about 55 million people, the majority of whom are Buddhists. Rohingyas are Muslim, and until the latest exodus of Rohingyas in 2017, about a million of them lived in Rakhine State, which is in the western part of the country bordering Bangladesh. But despite having lived in Myanmar for generations, the Rohingya are not considered citizens.
MOHAMMED: Our government’s saying we are like Bangladesh people, and we are not Bangladesh people. They’re trying to kick out us, but we’re — our grandparents was lived there, Burma.
NELUFAR: Without citizenship, the Rohingyas have been unable to access basic government services and have been vulnerable to exploitation and violence. In 2017, violence against the Rohingyas caused hundreds of thousands of them to flee, mostly into neighboring Bangladesh.
NEWS CLIP WITH BRITISH MAN SPEAKING:
Many in Myanmar simply don’t want them there, so their homes are burned. Fleeing gunfire with their lives and families on their backs.
[SOUND OF ROHINGYA WOMAN SPEAKING]
We had to walk a long way. We had to cross hills, marshes and paddy fields to make the journey to the Bangladesh border.
NELUFAR: Mohammed says that even as a young boy, he witnessed violence constantly being committed against his people. And as he got older, he saw his friends start to disappear.
MOHAMMED: If you are a boy, the government take you to the jail, and just take you and disappear. They not tell your parents anything. They not say nothing, and they take you.
NELUFAR: Then one day in 2012, when he was 12, Mohammed was at home when he heard cries throughout his village.
MOHAMMED: Women was screaming and going, “Here, if you are a boy, please leave the house, and we have a lot of farmland. There is rice, grass there, and hide there.”
NELUFAR: While hiding under the cover of paddy fields, he found a friend, a slightly older boy who encouraged Mohammed to head out with him to the port. Their plan was to find a boat that would take them to safety.
MOHAMMED: I just followed my friend, and we work two days and two night, and then we came to the Bangladesh ocean. Then there was fishermen. We asked them, “Can you help me to cross to the Bangladesh?” He said, “If you pay me.”
NELUFAR: Using the little money he had in his pocket, his friend paid the fishermen for a trip across to Bangladesh. But their stay in Bangladesh only lasted a night or two. At the time, there were already many refugees, and Mohammed and his friend were not sure how welcome they’d be.
MOHAMMED: This is not my — our country. Bangladesh also, like — they might kick us out, and let’s see if we can find better country. And then a lot of people, like Rohingya people, join together, and board a small fishing boat, and we take that boat and we’re trying to find a country.
NELUFAR: Mohammed says there were about 120 Rohingya crammed into one small fishing boat. They left Bangladesh not knowing where the vessel would take them. The goal was to just get away from Myanmar and to find a country — any country — that would receive them.
MOHAMMED: We don’t know where we are going. We don’t have destination.
NELUFAR: After six days, the vessel finally made it to the territorial waters of Thailand, where they encountered the Thai Navy.
MOHAMMED: The Thailand Navy was telling us, “Where are you guys from? What are you doing here?” We told them, like, “We are from Burma, Rohingya, but we don’t have any place to stay. We’re trying to find a place to stay.” Then Thailand Navy was saying, “OK, we are going to help you. Be patient.”
NELUFAR: Mohammed and the other Rohingya were grateful. Using a rope, they attached their boat to the ship from the Thai Navy.
MOHAMMED: And they tied our boat to their ship with a rope and they brought us, like, two days and one night. And it’s, like, a deep ocean. They took us and they cut the rope. We don’t have oil, we don’t have food or nothing. Then we are crying and we are asking, “Why do you guys leave us? We don’t have oil,” and we are crying. But they left us there.
NELUFAR: So there they were. A hundred and twenty Rohingya with no fuel, food, or water, having been towed out to sea with no means of communicating with other boats. Things began to get bleak. Some of the Rohingya attempted to forge makeshift sails from the blankets on the boat.
MOHAMMED: Some people took some blanket, and we put sail on our boat. Then whenever wind come, sail will take us wherever wind go.
NELUFAR: Their fate would be left to the winds and the currents. Days turned to weeks.
MOHAMMED: I was, like, crying and fall asleep; wake up and crying. Whenever I fall asleep, it is a dream come true, like, drinking water, eating food. Whenever I open my eyes, I am still on the ocean. It’s make me cry, why I left. What is happening? It was very difficult for me.
NELUFAR: Mohammed’s faith began waning. Already, one person had died, and Mohammed was very weak and began losing hope that he’d ever make it back to shore.
MOHAMMED: We didn’t have any food. Like, we are without drink, without food, like, 25 days with just drinking salt water. I am starving. I was dreaming or hoping to find a country. That’s all.
NELUFAR: Finally, after 25 days, hope came in the form of a Sri Lankan fishing vessel. The fishermen on board gave the abandoned Rohingya some food and radioed the Sri Lankan Navy.
MOHAMMED: The Sri Lankan Navy came, pointing gun at us. We raise our hand, but we can’t move our hand either, and we tell them, “We are Rohingya people and we are suffering from 25 days in the ocean. We don’t have food, we don’t have water. We are trying to find a place to live.” Then they say, “We will help you.”
NELUFAR: Mohammed and the others were absolutely overjoyed. Once in Sri Lanka, they were taken to a hospital. They were given food, clothes, and beds to rest in. After that, they were transferred to camps where they were encouraged to go back to Myanmar.
MOHAMMED: We are telling the Sri Lankan government, “If you want to send us Burma, why you pick us up in the ocean? You can put us back on the ocean again.”
NELUFAR: This apparently didn’t sit well with the Sri Lankan government, because afterwards, Mohammed and the other Rohingya were moved to a jail. This is not uncommon for refugees seeking help or asylum.
MOHAMMED: After three months, we are thinking, “Why we are at the jail? We didn’t do nothing. They help us, save our life, and why they put us at the jail?” Then we decide to — not to eat food, one day, two days.
NELUFAR: The hunger strike lasted two days, after which they came before an official who asked them what they wanted. Their answer was simple.
MOHAMMED: We say, “We don’t want our embassy. We don’t want to go back our country. We want to stay here, or any other country where we can practice our religion, or we can live freely and get education.”
NELUFAR: And then finally, a reprieve. UNHCR helped Mohammed and the others get out of prison. Mohammed was sent to a group home in Sri Lanka along with other minors from his group. There, he was well fed and began receiving schooling. Still, he was not free to move around. He didn’t have an ID, and so any time he left the house to buy clothes or to contact his family, he needed a local to accompany him. Mohammed’s situation was better, but still he yearned to have full rights.
MOHAMMED: I just wanted, like, freedom. Like, I can go outside and I can go to school. That’s what I wanted, if it’s Sri Lanka or any other country. I mean, I just needed, like, a free and peaceful place I can stay.
NELUFAR: After nearly two years spent like this, Mohammed finally got his chance.
MOHAMMED: One day, one of my officer who was taking care of us, he was telling me, “Mohammed, you have interview for tomorrow to go to the United States.” I didn’t believe that. He was saying, “No, I’m serious. You are going.”
NELUFAR: After the interview, and through Catholic charities, Mohammed was placed with a family in Dallas. Things moved quickly from there, and pretty soon he was on his first plane ride. And not before long, he was meeting his new foster family. But it wasn’t all hugs at first.
MOHAMMED: He was big, and he said, “Welcome to my house. This is your house.” But I thought he was going to beat us. I was scared, because back in my country, our government always, like, beat us. Like, that’s scary, and still in my heart. Then one of our Rohingya brother who was translator as, “He is your foster dad. He will help you whatever you need.”
NELUFAR: That was seven years ago. Since then, Mohammed has graduated high school and has received permanent resident status in the US. He’s now studying to become a nurse. He says it’s impossible to directly repay all those who helped him on his journey. So this is the next best thing.
MOHAMMED: That’s why I decided to be a nurse. I can help some people in future who need it.
NELUFAR: Mohammed’s story is inspiring, right? But it also illustrates how there are limits to what humanitarian organizations like UNHCR can do when refugees are fleeing violence. The aid that they give addresses the effect, not the cause of displacement.
CANADIAN PALESTINIAN MAN:
I’m dedicating my life to speak out. This is not acceptable. This is avoidable. Killing will never put an end. There is an alternative way.
NELUFAR: This is Izzeldin Abuelaish. He’s a Canadian Palestinian doctor specializing in women’s health. And like me, he’s a former refugee. His career is a roadmap of how to help refugees in need. He believes strongly that part of the solution has to be global condemnation of wars and violence.
IZZELDIN ABUELAISH: It’s time for the international community to work together to prevent conflicts and violence, because we all are potential victims of violence and conflicts. And violence and conflicts, they cross barriers. You know, with refugees, it’s a global challenge to the world.
NELUFAR: In our next episode, we’ll hear more from Dr. Abuelaish, who will talk about his push to end violence. We’ll also address some of the unique challenges women face when they become displaced.
IZZELDIN: Women, they pay the major price, they face the major challenges. And they bear the heavy burden of conflict. They have to keep the family moving. And what do they have? It’s a challenging — I can’t describe the impact of war and conflict on women.
NELUFAR: Before we wrap up today’s episode, we want to issue a challenge to you listeners. As I was mentioning in the beginning, challenging ourselves to change the world for the better is a core value of what we do at Doha Debates. We believe dialogue and listening to a broad spectrum of ideas is fundamental to finding solutions to issues and to make real breakthroughs. That’s why we’d love to hear from you on our social channels on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We’re @DohaDebates. Each week during the course of the series, we’re going to have a new challenge as it relates to the episode of the week. We’ll start off reflecting back on Mohammed’s story, as well as the millions of others who have been forced to flee their homes.
The challenge is to put yourself in the shoes of a refugee. Tell us about a time when you were in a difficult circumstance and needed help from a stranger. What was it like when you were in need? How did you feel in repaying the kindness of the stranger? And if you are a refugee going through this right now, please share your story with us.
That is our show today. Course Correction is hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Editorial and production assistance comes from Foreign Policy, with producers Manveena Suri, Anisa Pezeshki and Claudia Teti. The managing director of FP Studios is Rob Sachs. Our special thanks to UNHCR for working with us on this season. This show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation. Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.