Mohammad Yusuf Bin Abdul Rahim was just three when his parents scooped him up and fled their native Myanmar nearly three decades ago.
They are Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority that has long faced persecution in their predominantly Buddhist homeland. Their desperate plight is now drawing international attention as tens of thousands are casting off from Myanmar on rickety fishing vessels piloted by abusive smugglers. Hundreds have died along the way. Some have ended up stranded at sea when other Southeast Asian nations turned them away.
Many of them are settling in Georgia. Abdul Rahim is among them. Now 29, he is one of the lucky ones. His family made it safely to Malaysia, though they continued to face challenges there. With the help of a refugee aid group, he, his wife and their three young children resettled in Clarkston this year.
“We feel free. We just started our new lives,” Abdul Rahim said through a Burmese interpreter for the International Rescue Committee, which helped his family relocate to the U.S.
Also known as Burma, Myanmar is the source of the largest group of refugees to resettle in Georgia in recent years, U.S. State Department figures show. Since 2012, 2,713 refugees from Myanmar have arrived in the Peach State. The federal agency couldn’t say how many of them are Rohingya. But a State Department spokesman said the U.S. has resettled more than 3,000 Rohingya nationwide since fiscal year 2010, with more than 1,000 of them arriving since October. This year, 118 Rohingya have arrived in Georgia, according to the International Rescue Committee.
Most of those who have come to Georgia have initially resettled in the Atlanta and Clarkston areas. Like Abdul Rahim, many worship at the Masjid Al-Momineen mosque on North Indian Creek Drive. The mosque — which also serves many African immigrants — was so crowded on a recent Friday that dozens of worshippers were forced to pray outside atop a blue tarp under a blazing sun.
Georgia ranks fourth among states for the number of refugees from Myanmar it has received so far this fiscal year at 700. Texas ranks first at 1,855, followed by Indiana, 1,063, and New York, 942. Federal and state agencies work with private resettlement organizations, which determine where the refugees should be located. Factors include where relatives reside and the availability of jobs, public transportation, affordable housing, English lessons and interpreters.
Last year, the U.S. State Department confirmed it had limited the number of all refugees coming to Georgia, based partly on requests from Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration for sharp cuts. State officials have cited state and local taxpayer costs associated with taking in the refugees, school budget shortfalls and other concerns. The number of refugees who have been resettling in Georgia dropped by less than one percent over the last two fiscal years, from 2,710 to 2,694.
Immigration watchdogs have also raised concerns about potential security threats posed by Muslim refugees – specifically those from Syria — amid the international war against Islamic terrorists. Before refugees can resettle in the U.S. they must undergo intensive security screenings involving multiple federal agencies, according to the State Department.
“Applicants to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program are currently subject to more security checks than any other category of traveler to the United States,” the State Department said.
Before they can resettled in the U.S., refugees must also demonstrate they were persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, political opinion, race, nationality or membership in a particular social group. The federal government gives them funding that partially covers the cost of rent, furniture, food and clothing. Private contributions supplement that funding. Refugees are allowed work in the U.S.
The Myanmar government regards its estimated 1.3 million Rohingya as interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh and blocks them from obtaining citizenship. More than 416,000 people now need humanitarian assistance in Myanmar, according to the United Nations, including almost 140,000 who are confined in camps in “dire conditions” and many others who are living without citizenship in isolated villages.
During the first three months of this year, an estimated 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis boarded smugglers’ boats on the Bay of Bengal, almost twice the number from the same period last year, a U.N. report shows. Their destinations: Malaysia and Thailand. An estimated 300 have died on such voyages this year from starvation, dehydration and abuse from their smugglers. One refugee from Myanmar told the U.N. that “it was as if we were in a graveyard. We lost hope we would reach shore alive.”
Some refugees are held in offshore camps until their families pay ransom for their release, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a May report. This year, 30 bodies of people believed to be from Myanmar and Bangladesh were found in graves in human smuggling camps in Thailand.
Abdul Rahim follows the news about the refugee crisis on television, saying he prays for his countrymen. Still groggy from working a night shift at a local poultry plant, he sunk into a couch in his family’s tidy apartment and began to tell his the story of his own family’s odyssey. Ornamental black and gold tapestries from Malaysia adorn his apartment. A photo of Mecca occupies a prominent spot on the wall in his den.
Abdul Rahim and his parents fled Myanmar in 1988 and illegally immigrated to Malaysia. He met and married his wife there. Like Abdul Rahim, Zainah Binti Gulam Mohammad is the child of Rohingya parents who fled Myanmar. Abdul Rahim’s skills in the kitchen attracted her. One of his standbys: Nasi Lemak, a Malaysian rice dish cooked in coconut milk with eggs, fried anchovies and roasted peanuts.
Without legal status in Malaysia, the couple could not work legally or send their children to government schools. Comparing his family’s existence in Malaysia to a “dog’s life,” Abdul Rahim said he supported his family by working off-the-books day labor jobs in construction.
“There was no life at all,” he said of his family’s experience. “When we faced the police or authorities… we had to hide. It is difficult to survive there.”
They have big plans now that they are settled in the United States. One day, he said, he would like to open his own auto repair shop. His 6- and 7-year-old daughters are about to enroll in DeKalb County public schools. One wants to become a school teacher. The other wants to be a doctor.
“At least we can have our own lives in the United States,” he said. “We have big dreams for our kids.”