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‘I’m really excited to see my girls growing up in Ireland’

Mohammad Rafique, his wife Rafika Begum and their children Jamalida (8) and Waheeda (4) at their home in Carlow. “We never enjoyed citizenship but today my girls are Irish and have rights as citizens.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

By Sorcha Pollak, THE IRISH TIMES

New to the Parish: Mohammed Rafique fled persecution in Myanmar, arriving here in 2009

Mohammed Rafique’s eldest daughter was born on the floor of a makeshift hut in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

A few women from the camp had gathered to help Mohammed’s wife, Rafika, give birth to her daughter Jamalida. There was no doctor, no nurse and they had no hospital equipment.

Four and half years later, Rafika gave birth to her second daughter Waheeda in a clean hospital bed in St Luke’s General hospital in Kilkenny with the guidance and support of a whole medical team – a world away from the dusty streets of her former Bangladeshi home.

Along with thousands of other Rohingya, she spent 17 years living in a refugee camp

The Rafique family are part of the Rohingya community that was resettled in the town of Carlow in 2009. Before arriving in Ireland, Rafique and his family, along with thousands of other Rohingya, spent 17 years living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim group based mainly in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, with smaller communities in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. Often dubbed the most oppressed people in the world, this small Muslim community has endured decades of persecution and human rights abuses.

Rafique was 10 years old when in 1992 his family were forced to flee their home in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Ten years earlier Myanmar had enacted a law stripping the Rohingya of their citizenship and leaving their people stateless. In 1991 the nation’s military began implementing the “clean nation” operation to rid the country of its Muslim minority groups with widespread forced labour, summary executions, torture and rape.

It was horrible what we went through

More than two decades on, the group’s plight continues with an estimated 65,000 Rohingya having fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar since an army crackdown in northern Myanmar in October 2016.

Rafique can still remember the night his family climbed into a boat to make the journey into Bangladesh. “We felt a lot of fear because on one side there was the Burmese military and on the other we were scared of what would happen in Bangladesh. It was horrible what we went through.”

Nowhere to call home

After crossing the border, the family registered as refugees and made their way to the Kutupalong camp where Rafique would spend the next 17 years.

“In Burma I had no right to freedom of movement and no citizenship. I was born in Burma but sadly they denied us citizenship and said we were illegal immigrants. When we were in Bangladesh they called us Burmese and when we were in Burma they treated us as illegal immigrants. We had nowhere to call home.”

Conditions in the camp weren’t much better than home. The family lived off rice donations from local NGOs and were denied access to school or freedom of movement.

“Whatever we suffered in Burma, it was just the same in Bangladesh. The only difference was there was no forced labour in Bangladesh.”

Rafique met his wife Rafika while living in the camp. Rafika was just one year old when she left Myanmar and had spent her life in the refugee camp. The couple had to request permission from the Bangladeshi authorities before they could get married.

Rafique was working as a United Nations Refugee Agency camp community helper when he was selected to be relocated to the UK with his wife. However, he did not want to leave his parents and siblings behind. “I said I would go anywhere in the world, I have no preference for which country, but you have to let me bring my parents as well.”

In danger

When the violence in the camp began to escalate, Rafique realised his family was in danger. When he was offered the chance to leave for Ireland, he knew it was time to go. “I explained to my parents and my father said ‘don’t worry about us, go yourself’.”

Rafique, his wife and their eight-month-old daughter arrived in Ireland, a country which a few months earlier they did not even know existed, in April 2009.

“I’d never heard Ireland was a country. We had no chance to read newspapers and had no radio or television. There was no electricity in the camp”

Eight years on, Rafique can call himself an Irishman

After six weeks of preparation and English classes in the Ballyhaunis direct provision centre in Co Mayo, the group of more than 64 Rohingya were brought to Carlow town.

Nearly eight years on, Rafique can call himself an Irishman from Carlow. In 2013, all members of the Rohingya community in Carlow were naturalised and made Irish citizens. For the first time in his life, Rafique became the proud owner of a passport.

“Between 1982 and 2013 I was stateless. I know where I was born but unfortunately I had no right to call Burma my home. I really appreciate what the Irish people have done for us. They gave us the chance to call Carlow home. Now, when people ask where is your home, I can say Carlow is my hometown.”

Cricket club

Rafique is now an active member of the Carlow Integration Forum and secretary of the Carlow Cricket Club which he helped re-establish in 2011. The club is made up of 13 nationalities with men from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand joining the Rohingya players for training.

Rafique is proud to see his two daughters, now eight and four, thriving in the family’s Irish hometown. “I’m really excited to see my girls growing up in Ireland. They have the opportunities now to make friends and go to school. I’m also very proud because their teacher says they are very polite and helpful.

“We never enjoyed citizenship but today my girls are Irish and have rights as citizens.”

The people here really welcomed us

Rafique is particularly grateful to the people of Carlow, who he says have provided huge support and guidance in helping the Rohingya settle into life in Ireland.

“Nobody wants to leave their own country; everybody loves their own country. But the people here really welcomed us and understood our feelings. They knew we had been persecuted.

“When we came here we had no English but in those eight years we have learned a lot. Without the support of the local people, we never would have settled.”