KUALA LUMPUR – Escaping humiliation and killing in their home country, Myanmar Rohingya Muslims are feeling to Malaysia where they hope to get refugee rights to end their plight as one of the world's most enduring refugee crises.
“I pray to my god, my Allah, that I can stay in Malaysia forever,” Sharifah binti Hussein, a bubbly 17-year-old Rohingya Muslim, told the BBC on Monday, June 18.
“I don't want to go to other countries where it is not a Muslim place.”
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Sharifah shares the miserable life of thousands of Rohingya refugees.
Born in Myanmar, she was denied her simplest rights including a birth certificate.
Sharifah's father says he was harassed by the Buddhist military government and fled to Malaysia in 1994.
The rest of the family tried to join him a few years later. It took two attempts before they could flee.
Sharifah herself travelled alone for a month.
"We would sleep in abandoned buildings," she says.
"It was very scary at night. One night, we stayed in the city, one night in the jungle."
When she arrived in Malaysia her father could not even recognize her.
"When he left me, I was fat. I had lighter skin. I was beautiful. He said I was cute," she says.
"But now I looked like a boy because my hair was short. I was dark-skinned. I was thin and my father didn't recognize me."
The recent violence in Burma's Rakhine state makes it even more unlikely that they can return.
Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have prompted the Burmese government to declare a state of emergency in the area.
Hundreds of Rohingya refugees showed up at the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur last Tuesday, calling for international intervention.
"We had hoped that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would change the situation in Burma," Zafar Ahmead Mohd Abdul Ghani, from the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia, said at the rally.
"But now, our hopes for her have been banished. We are very scared to go back home."
Hope in Malaysia
Going through a series of life difficulties, Sharifah’s life was not that easy even in Malaysia.
She attended a regular school, but no one wanted to talk to her because she was a refugee.
"They accused me of coming to Malaysia to take away resources from them, taunting me for having darker skin," she says.
Her life improved after she switched to a school for refugees at the Harvest Centre. She now has friends, is earning top grades and dreams of working at the UN to help refugees.
Her favorite subject is learning Malay, the national language of Malaysia.
"If I can, I would like to stay in this country forever, so it's important for me to learn Malay," she said.
For her father, Hussein, 45, life was not much easier in Malaysia.
The country is not a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, so asylum seekers are treated like illegal migrants and are vulnerable to detention.
He struggles to feed his family. He lives in constant fear of the police. Although he holds a refugee card from the UN, it is not a legal document, so immigration officials can still detain him.
International rights groups say arbitrary detentions of refugees and extortion by Malaysian immigration officials are common.
But a 2011 report by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, noted that there have been "significant achievements" by the Malaysian government to reduce the number of arrests of refugees last year.
Though she has been trying hard to fit in Malaysia, Sharifah still feels unwelcome in the country. Yet, she remains hopeful.
"I believe that Malaysia will recognize refugees," she says.
"I don't know why in my heart I believe in this, but I do."
Described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, Rohingyas are not allowed to own land.
Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship rights since an amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 and are treated as illegal immigrants in their own home.
They suffer frequent food shortages and they are technically restricted from travel outside of Rakhine.
Every year, thousands of Muslim Rohingyas flee Myanmar in wooden boats, embarking on a hazardous journey to Thailand or Malaysia in search of a better life.
Rohingyas say they are deprived of free movement, education and employment in their homeland.
They are not recognized as an ethnic minority by Myanmar and say they suffer human rights abuses at the hands of government officials.
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