Memory & Action
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Memory & Action

Parents Like All Others

Rohingya mothers and fathers will try everything to protect their children from harm, which has now included a genocide and a global pandemic

Rohingya who fled violent attacks by the military in Burma wait for medical assistance and humanitarian relief in southern Bangladesh in September 2017. —Photo courtesy Greg Constantine

Ten-year-old Jahingir loved learning. After he finished his homework, his parents would often catch him reading even as other neighborhood children played outside. “He was that kind of kid,” said his mother, Jomila.

Thirteen-year-old Tasmina enjoyed school too — though part of the appeal was definitely in socializing. Two of her friends, nicknamed Lalu and Tatu, would come over in the afternoons. The girls would sit together on the balcony with an electric fan so they could feel the cool breeze while they worked on their homework and discussed plans for upcoming holidays.

Mohammed Anwar and his older teenage brothers, Salamot and Zahed, used to take turns riding the bike they shared up and down the road near their house. Their grandparents couldn’t afford such a luxurious gift for their father, Mohammed, when he was their age. He felt proud to be able to gift one to his own children and to watch them enjoy riding it together, often with one peddling and another balancing on the back wheel.

These kids and teens led relatively normal lives in Maung Nu, a town in the western part of Burma near the border with Bangladesh. Part of that normalcy was the result of concerted efforts by their parents to shield them from the escalating restrictions on their day-to-day lives and, ultimately, the threats to their physical safety. As Rohingya, they had been the targets of Burma’s government and military for decades because of their Muslim faith and ethnicity, which have been treated as a threat to the country’s majority Buddhist national identity.

Like all parents, the mothers and fathers of Jahingir, Tasmina, Mohammed Anwar, and their peers did everything possible to protect them from these dangerous developments. That meant adapting and often. When authorities imposed an arbitrary curfew and their sons and daughters could no longer leave home to see friends, attend evening prayers at their mosque, or even turn on the lights to eat dinner, they prayed at home and made up stories together in the darkness. When authorities stopped allowing Rohingya children to attend school, their parents taught them at home in secret.

Every time a new restriction was imposed to limit a new aspect of their daily lives, Rohingya parents tried to come up with a patch.

Unfortunately, the children couldn’t ignore the changes or the fears that came with them.

In the summer of 2017, military trucks crowded the streets in their town. Some soldiers started harassing kids as they walked home. Jahingir became so concerned that they might come looking for his books, he asked Jomila to help him hide them.

Children are not immune to signs of terror despite their parents’ best efforts.

And on August 27, 2017, terrible things would happen to this village, to these families, and even to these kids and teens. Terrible things that amounted to genocide. These parents did everything physically possible to put themselves in the way of harm in order to shield their children. But in the chaos and violence, many families became separated. Some parents kept eyes on their sons or daughters but could do nothing as they were dragged away. In Jomila’s case, a soldier cut off part of her finger as she ran to reach Jahingir. Then the worst happened.

Restrained by soldiers, Jomila witnessed the murders of her son and husband. All she wanted was to lie on the ground next to her boy, but she had to leave him. The military trucks rolled out of town the next morning. Jomila put a child on her back and three others close to her sides, and she fled.

The youngest children didn’t understand and couldn’t understand. They didn’t know their father and brother had died. “Why won’t you carry us?” they begged again and again as she held their hands and helped them to wade through rivers and navigate barefoot over mountains. All these children knew was that they were tired and hungry and too wet or too hot. And all that Jomila, and Rohingya parents and relatives like her, could do was to try and tend to the most basic needs and keep moving forward into the unknown.

For those who have not experienced such a singular trauma, it’s impossible to fully grasp what the surviving Rohingya have suffered. And yet, in this unprecedented moment, many readers can understand what it’s like to nurture security and normalcy even as insecurity and the unknown hovers just outside the front door.

When the global pandemic hit, nearly a million displaced Rohingya were living in Bangladesh. Safe from persecution but unable to safely return home to Burma, they continue to live a fragile existence. Crowded together in refugee camps, they must rely on humanitarian assistance. They are unable to work or send their older children to school. The relentless heat and monsoon rains beat down upon the makeshift homes they share with the surviving members of their extended families.

Even here, grieving and traumatized parents find the willpower to wake up each morning. They look for even the smallest gestures of safety and sanity for their grieving and traumatized kids.

Security concerns in the crowded camp prevent Tasmina from being able to leave her home unaccompanied. And since there is no school to attend, she spends nearly 24 hours a day in the single-room hut she shares with her family. And yet the room has been divided by a home-made partition stuffed with a plastic sheet. It’s a deliberate gesture to create privacy for the teenager. There is a stack of paper and colored pencils nearby so she can write and draw and even affix her art to the walls in her space.

What is happening to the Rohingya in the camps in Bangladesh during the pandemic might also be difficult for some to imagine. There is no space to social distance, restrictions on internet access impair their abilities to receive updated health guidelines, and, since Rohingya cannot work, they cannot purchase protective materials. They are entirely dependent upon humanitarian assistance.

And yet, Rohingya parents still seek to soften the cruelest blows. Despite the scale of the disparities between many readers and this community, that instinct is universal. The Rohingya have suffered horrors beyond words. Their lives and experiences and the threats they still face may seem far, far away. And also, they are parents. They are children. They are trying to survive.

Jennifer Koons is a global storyteller based in Washington, DC. The events of August 2017 in Maung Nu, and the conditions that led to them, are explored in a new online exhibition, Burma’s Path to Genocide, from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org