He Fled Myanmar on a Deathtrap. Now He’s the ‘Luckiest Man Alive.’

October 23, 2017

By  Patrick McGee
The New York Times
Oct. 20, 2017

DALLAS – Mohamed Rafiq was emaciated, close to joining the pile of dead bodies at one of the board, when he was rescued.

Barely conscious, Mr. Rafiq was too weak to walk. Foreign sailors picked him up and gave him medicine.

“I couldn’t even speak because I didn’t know how to move my mouth,” Mr. Rafiq said recently through a translator. “I was so hungry and so thirsty. I wished I could drink, but I could not drink.” When help came, he added, “I thought I was reborn.”

Mr. Rafiq, a member of one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world, was fleeing Maynmar in 2008, aiming to find work to support his growing family. But the ferryboat on which he and scores of other Rohingya men fled their country, with benches and no shade, became a deathtrap.

The Rohingya in Myanmar are restricted to their villages by laws that prohibit them from traveling within their own country. They are a stateless people denied citizenship, rights and protection.

And abuses against the Rohingya — shootings, rapes and burning of villages — have recently intensified to such an extent that United Nations officials have said they may constitute crimes against humanity. The United States secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, visited Myanmar this month and called the situation “horrific.”

Mr. Rafiq and his family, who were separated for eight years, settled together in Dallas last year. Helping Mr. Rafiq reunite with his mother, his wife and their three children was the International Rescue Committee, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

After his rescue at sea and recovery in Sri Lanka, the International Organization for Migration helped Mr. Rafiq enter the United States and settle in New Hampshire. He heard that Dallas had a larger Rohingya community, so he moved there and began the paperwork to bring his family to America.

Around age 10, Mr. Rafiq began traveling on foot to sell vegetables and cheap clothing in nearby villages. The police would beat and rob him, he said. He sometimes begged them to let him keep half his earnings, but such pleas were ignored; Mr. Rafiq said the beatings were often so severe that it was painful to walk home. He continued this work until he was about 30, when he had two children and a pregnant wife to support.

He decided to join other Rohingya men in an attempt to find work in a neighboring country. Nearly 100 of them crammed onto a boat in February 2008 and set out for what they expected to be a 12-day journey to Malaysia.

The engine died at sea. Thirst and hunger set in, killing more than a dozen men. Bodies eventually had to be thrown overboard because the smell was so horrible, Mr. Rafiq said.

Adrift at sea for four weeks, Mr. Rafiq was stripped of energy and could not move. He watched a friend pass out and die after he drank seawater. “I am ready to die,” he recalled thinking.

Then the Sri Lankan Navy found the boat drifting in the Bay of Bengal.

“Two young men grabbed me by my arms. They pulled me out from the boat,” Mr. Rafiq said. “They gave me an injection because I wasn’t able to speak. After two or three days I got better, and they gave me soft food, spoon by spoon.”

Mr. Rafiq’s mother, Sara Khatoon, 60, said concern for her son was compounded by the complete lack of news about what had happened to the men on the boat.

“For two months after he left I did not receive any information about my son,” she said. “I didn’t know where he was.”

A tremendous sense of relief spread through the village after the BBC reported that a foreign navy found a boat full of skeletal men clinging to life. A woman came to Mr. Rafiq’s mother and told her, “Your son survived, and my son survived,” she said.

Mr. Rafiq and the other survivors were brought to a refugee camp in Sri Lanka, where he said he was unable to speak for a month. He made a clawing motion at his throat, saying that it felt so dry that he could not make a sound. When he finally could talk, he asked to call his family. He called the one person in his village who had a cellphone.

Mr. Rafiq’s wife, Nur Hasina, 33, recalled the villager running to her with the phone.

“When I heard his voice,” Ms. Hasina said through an interpreter, “I asked him: ‘Where have you been? It has been too long. We have not heard anything from you.’ He said: ‘I cannot explain it right now. It’s a very long story. I will talk to you later, but I am alive and in Sri Lanka.’”

Mr. Rafiq and the other survivors refused to be sent back to Myanmar for fear of torture and execution. He stayed in Sri Lanka for four years, spending most of his time living in group housing provided by the Muslim Aid charity. After arriving in Dallas in 2013, he began working with the International Rescue Committee to reunite with his family.

His family had no legal rights to leave Myanmar, so they followed his instructions to sneak into India. They told border guards that they were traveling to Bangladesh for medical treatment, paid bribes and had other relatives furtively pass them their documents over a fence at the border. After two years in India, Mr. Rafiq’s mother, wife and three children arrived in Dallas in August 2016.

“I was so happy when I saw them,” Mr. Rafiq said. “I was thankful to the U.S. government, the community and the people who helped to have my family reunite with me. I thank all of them, and God,” Mr. Rafiq said. “I have three children, but my youngest one didn’t recognize me. I needed to talk to her a lot, and after that she started talking to me.”

The family of seven lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a tiny kitchen in an apartment complex filled with other refugees.

Congolese and Bosnian children played soccer outside in mid-November as Mr. Rafiq talked of his new life and the arrival of the couple’s fourth child over the summer.

Asked several times to describe his family’s needs, Mr. Rafiq would say only that he had to keep his 2002 Toyota running to get to his job as a dishwasher and that he faced $4,000 in medical bills for his mother’s high blood sugar. The family says her worries about the relatives she left behind in Myanmar exacerbate her health issues.

Mr. Rafiq walks with a limp and suffers back pain and memory problems from the beatings he once endured. But he says he is living a privileged life.

“I feel like I am the luckiest man alive — I can build my life in the United States,” he said. “Here it’s easy. I was dying on the boat. Compared to that here, in America, it’s easy.”

His gratitude is mixed with anguish about the staggering atrocities unleashed back home on his fellow Rohingya in August. He said he watched news of the mass murders on his cellphone and cried. He worries for relatives who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh and India.

“I want to donate some money to my sisters and their family in Bangladesh; I won’t use any money here for Thanksgiving,” he said. “I am fine, but they are suffering.”