December 12, 2013
The first time I met Yasmin was on the side of a road near a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Wearing a black chador, a robe which covered her from head to toe, she and her father, Zakir, bundled into my car and we drove to my hotel.
As new arrivals from Myanmar they were too scared to be seen talking to a western journalist at the camp.
In the hotel room Yasmin showed me her few possessions – her work papers, and two photographs of her family. Among her nine brothers and sisters, I struggled to find her in the grainy picture.
The photo was of the kind taken annually by the Myanmar Government to keep track of the number of people in each Rohingya family. Yasmin’s family are standing behind a blackboard which has written on it her father’s name, her village and the number of people in her family.
I couldn’t identify Yasmin in the photo so I asked her to show me where she is. She pointed to a girl wearing a light yellow blouse, and with her long dark hair tied back in a pony tail.
I realized it wasn’t just the quality of the photo that made her hard to identify – the girl before me looked like a completely different person. I asked her why in the photo she was not wearing more modest Muslim dres
“They wouldn’t let me”, was her answer, ‘they’ being the authorities in Myanmar.
Yasmin fled Myanmar because some of her former UNHCR co-workers had been assaulted and raped by the army.
Worried she too would be targeted, Zakir sold the family home for much less than it was worth to finance a journey into limbo – Bangladesh doesn’t grant Rohingya refugee status and Myanmar won’t take them back, leaving them stateless, without a home, or an identity.
I’ve since been told that a few weeks after our meeting, Zakir managed to get his wife and nine other children across the treacherous Myanmar border into Bangladesh, and then into India.
I understand they are now living in Jharkhand state, but that is where the story ends.
The Indian phone number Zakir gave me is no longer working, and it’s not easy to find someone in a country of 1.2 billion who, officially, doesn’t exist.