The Rohingya Refugees who Met Pope Francis

Dhaka — When a bullet tore into Jafor Alom’s forearm, he did what anyone would do — he ran for his life. Bleeding heavily and fearing further worse attacks, he kept going until he reached Bangladesh with his family.

“I came here to save my life.”

The 24-year-old farmer was fortunately directed to an Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital as soon as he crossed the border and after receiving treatment the bullet wound has now healed. The scar, however, will remain with him for life.

Earlier today (01/12), Jafor was one of 16 Rohingya refugees, who met with Pope Francis in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka.

IOM, the UN Migration Agency worked with community leaders in the refugee settlements to identify a group to represent the Rohingya in the meeting with the pontiff. Caritas, a confederation of Catholic relief organizations, organized the group’s travel to Dhaka, as well as, their meeting with the Pope.

And Jafor’s message to the Pope?

“When we say, we are Rohingya, we are attacked. Our lives are connected to this title but I will only go back if we are recognized as Rohingya and not targeted because of it.” He added that every man and woman should have their full human rights respected in Myanmar including land rights.

“All this needs to be guaranteed, if we are ever to go home.”

Jafor will be accompanied by his 14-year-old niece at the meeting.

Hajera Katun, Mohammed Nurulla and two of their three children in Balukhali settlement following a briefing from IOM, the day before they travelled to Dhaka to meet the Pope. Photo: Olivia Headon/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

Twenty-seven-year-old Hajera Katun and her 37-year-old husband Mohammed Nurulla brought their five-year-old daughter with them to meet the Pope. The five-year-old now finds it difficult to sleep due to the trauma of what she has witnessed at such a young age. Since they got married in 2007, Mohammed said they have not had a full week of normal married life due to constantly feeling oppressed and targeted in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine State. When the situation turned violent once again in August of this year, they were forced to flee to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Hajera said she wanted to use the opportunity of meeting the Pope to raise awareness of violence and sexual assault against Rohingya women for all those who suffered at the hands of aggressors in Myanmar.

“As a woman, you are targeted, you cannot go outside alone.”

Hajera walks with two of her children through the Balukhali settlement. The one in her arms travelled with her and her husband to meet Pope Francis. Photo: Olivia Headon/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

Mohammed, who was a religious teacher in Myanmar, said that he knows that Pope has raised his “powerful voice” before for the Rohingya community and that during their meeting with him, he will request him to do it once again.

Having just been in Myanmar, Pope Francis arrived in Dhaka yesterday (30/11) where he said it was “imperative” for the international community to take “decisive measures” to find a resolution to the root causes of the Rohingya refugee crisis.

“None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps,” Pope Francis said.

“It is imperative that the international community take decisive measures to address this grave crisis, not only by working to resolve the political issues that have led to the mass displacement of people, but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs.”

At a meeting with IOM in the Balukhali settlement, Khairul Amin passionately relays his message for Pope Francis in anticipation of their meeting. Photo: Olivia Headon/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

52-year-old Khairul Amin was very influential in his community in Northern Rakhine State — a well to do jack-of-all-trades with ventures in farming, fishing and retail.

“I even used to have a little shop. Now, I do nothing — just sleeping and eating. I am not in charge of anything more.”

He crossed the border on 5 September but also remembers the massacres of October 2016. His village was heavily targeted at that time and his family suffered greatly. He was even displaced to another village but after a few months he was able to return to his property. When the violence flared up again at the end of August, he could not wait anymore and knew it was time to leave the country to save his, his wife, six children’s lives. They all now live close to each other in the overcrowded refugee settlement of Balukhali.

He said that he would tell the Pope, “there is total discrimination” in Northern Rakhine State. Having lived through waves of violence and oppression, Khairul Amin said he that’s all he would talk about with the Pope.

“Even before, they were oppressing us through extortion but then last year it got violent again.”

Mohammed Idris discusses with his sister what he will raise with Pope Francis on behalf of the Rohingya community. Photo: Olivia Headon/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

Mohammed Idris had dreamt of becoming a village doctor like his father but this was crushed when he was forced from his home during the outbreak of violence on 25 August. Now living with his large family in a few tiny shelters in the refugee settlements in Cox’s Bazar, he said he had one message that he hopes the Pope will use his platform to project.

“I will tell the Pope that Rohingya need freedom of speech and freedom of nationality.”

Mohammed Idris and the 15 others who met with Pope Francis today have a common hope that the attention brought to the Rohingya’s plight through this meeting with the pontiff would contribute to fostering a long-term, dignified and safe solution for their situation.

This story was posted by Olivia Headon, the UN Migration Agency’s Information Officer for Emergencies, currently based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. For more information, call: +8801733335221.

The photos used in this story can be downloaded here.