I moved back to Washington, D.C., this summer, after eight years in Jakarta. I felt guilty saying goodbye to my refugee friends, knowing that my move was by choice and fueled by good things: a chance to be near my extended family, a new job for my husband, the pull of home. I wasn’t forced to leave by events beyond my control. I wasn’t fleeing. I chose to go home.
Looking for Freedom and Missing Mom’s Homemade Meals
In my home country, the U.S., people everywhere are now packing and looking at map apps to figure out which route to their relatives’ has the least traffic. Thursday is Thanksgiving in America, a time when people do two simple things: we gather with family and we stop to reflect on what we’re thankful for. And we eat a ton of savory food and watch American football, but I won’t dwell on the things I miss (too much).
This week Indonesia celebrates Teacher Appreciation Day. My Indonesian friends are good at keeping things social and supportive, and they love food. If we went back to Maryland for Thanksgiving–which we can’t, because it’s too far–we’d have to bring back some snacks for our friends in Jakarta. My husband repeatedly forgets to bring back oleh-oleh (tasty treats from where he has traveled) for his colleagues, and they gently tease him about that. I guess it’s a little hard to travel with pumpkin-pecan pie, but if we were going home for Thanksgiving, we’d have to bring back a little piece of home to share with our friends.
But many of our teachers can’t go home–not because it’s too far, but because they’re not welcome or not safe. As with the original Thanksgiving feasters, America’s pilgrims, our refugee teachers would be in danger if they returned to Afghanistan or Iran, places that are unstable at best and violent at worst. Governments can’t protect their citizens in some cases, or torture, imprison or do worse to them in others.
Two-thirds of girls in Afghanistan still can’t go to school; they weave garments, beg or pick trash to bring in meager cash for their families. Even among boys, and even 16 years after the U.S.-led military intervention ousted the Taliban 34 percent are illiterate, according to Human Rights Watch. Going home is not only unsafe, there is not much of a life or a future there. Of course, this line of thinking skips over the fact that refugees in Jakarta don’t have passports or money, so they can’t travel home even if they were welcome. For some, it has been five lonely years since they last had a homemade meal with their mothers and fathers.
In spite of their painful pasts, they are doing everything in their power to not only survive in this foreign land, Indonesia, but to heal and, remarkably, give back to those who have less than they do. Our refugee teachers who are educated or who have learned English at Roshan give back abundantly.
They spend hours (400, to be precise, collectively) preparing lessons, meeting with co-teachers to refine review sessions, assembling materials to do an art project with children, sitting with a crying child on the grass to comfort him or her, or enthusiastically explaining how to calculate the area of a triangle. They problem solve, scrub bathroom floors, organize enrollment and registration, organize students to put on fabulous performances at end of year parties, and share their own food when a student has nothing to eat. These are some of most generous, resilient people I have known.
I am thankful to know them and I’m inspired by them. That sounds cliche and does not adequately capture how truly moved I am by their grit and generosity. People think we who try to support Roshan do this to help. In truth, my refugee friends have taught me far more about what’s important in life than I have taught them. Our Indonesian teachers and expat volunteers–all of whom also pour hours of love, talent and devotion into Roshan–have told me the same thing. “I thought I could maybe be a blessing to refugees by coming to help,” they say. “But honestly, I have been far more blessed by being part of this community than I contributed.”
Roshan’s refugee teachers have struggled for basic rights–safety, education, freedom–yet they teach others how to live with generosity and good humor. They seem to have have arrived on strange new shores after enduring plenty of hardships but, far from home, look to the future with optimism and hope. That is something to be thankful for indeed.
Since its inception, the life blood of Roshan has been the kindness and generosity of others willing to serve the refugee community in Indonesia. As the center grows and changes, we see the limitless capacity of the refugees to serve one another.
They also serve others, in keeping with the top value promoted at Roshan, “Do good for others.” A few months ago, a small group of students from my English class at Roshan, where I volunteer, served both the American Women’s Association (AWA) and local Indonesian children in Fatmawati Hospital by delivering gifts and good cheer.
The AWA does a monthly delivery of hygiene supplies and small gifts for children in the hospital, but this particular month they had difficulty finding the volunteers needed for delivery. A group of six teenage students from Roshan stepped in and made the most of the opportunity to give back to their host country.
It also felt personal for the students, bringing back memories of loved ones left behind in Afghanistan. “It reminds me of my little brother and sister while I was talking with them,” said Mustafa, who left his parents and younger siblings behind in his journey to Indonesia. The important connection between age groups is universal and healing, I realized.
The teenagers expressed the hesitation and concern you would expect when visiting sick children in a hospital using a language you don’t speak well. But they quickly overcame their hesitation and made the most of the opportunity to make children happy. Student Ali said, “It was so great to meet them and give them a gift and make them happy and [put a] smile on their faces. I hope they will get well soon. Also I hope I become rich and [I will] make hospitals for free.”
The Roshan students were kind, engaging and upbeat as they met over 50 children and their families. They also recognized the privilege of being the one to give instead of receive. “Today was a precious day for me. I really had an awesome feeling when I was giving the presents for kids. I felt proud of myself,” said John.
Being able to give is indeed a joy.
The Roshan students spread a heartfelt joy in the hospital that reminded me that no matter what people’s situation or what they have endured, at the heart of humanity, we find goodness.
A robot somewhat in the shape of a bulldozer but not bigger than the size of man’s palm whirred around a circle of plastic balls on a flat white table. The robot scooped and shoved a majority of balls toward one edge of the table and a cheer went up from the three team members, “Yeah!”
This is the second annual robotics challenge organized by the Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS) robotics club, called JIS NXT GEN. Kevin Sisjayawan, David Hartong, Yadan Noerdin, and other students learn under the tutelage of Mr. Detwiler, the Robofest event creator and the club advisor.
The JIS students also teach. Every Monday afternoon for the last few terms, Roshan secondary students have ridden the bus across South Jakarta to take Robotics classes at the JIS Cilandak high school campus. They learn how to think logically, create clear and specific commands, and work as a team.
This week, the Roshan students showed just how much they had learned.
The Robofest competition included 12 groups of three to four members each, including two teams from Roshan. The challenge was to successfully command a robot to move as many balls as possible from the middle of the table to one side. To do this required five to six hours of building and programming.
The team whose robot successfully moved the greatest number of balls won. Congratulations to JIS sophomores Jingtao, Mengzhen, Kerby and Nick.
Mr. Detwiler said the event provided “more fun than humans should be allowed to have.”
The Roshan students would likely agree. One of the two Roshan teams–Mustafa, Armin A. and John–came in second place, beating their own JIS teachers and Robotics Club Officers David and Bagas. The other Roshan team–Shirafzal, Abdul Ghafur and Armin F.–received the Isaac Asimov Award. Asimov, considered the father of robotic philosophy, would have been proud, and so are we. Well done, Roshan!
Author’s note: Special thanks to Mr. Detwiler, Mr. Varnham, Ms. Devitt, and all the JIS Robotics Club members for inviting Roshan to this fabulous event and for your ongoing teaching and support. Thank you Mr. Naser Aran for your Roshan supervision.
Sometimes it seems like I never learn that there are only 12 months in a year. Every year around this time I realize that Christmas is just around the corner and I’m completely unprepared, as if it’s a surprise that November is here again. All of a sudden there is scrambling to decide on holiday plans and work out logistics, to make good on vague gift ideas, to find extra pockets of time and money for end of year concerts, conferences, parties, and writing Christmas cards. And I haven’t even made my Thanksgiving pies yet.
In my better moments, however, I know that so much of what we think we want is a mirage. What is real and important so often is already within reach. Working with refugees is a good reminder to keep things in perspective.
When I ask refugees what they want, they don’t say “I’d love a new 32-inch flatscreen TV,” or “J. Crew has a new pair of suede ankle-strap heels that are super cute.” Even though they have so little, they know what’s really important and what to reach for. They want to be with their loved ones and have the essentials: a home, food and water, and education. These are the needs that are real and important.
This is not to say they don’t have material wants. Mostaba, age 7, asked for a toy car. A single toy car would be tremendous. Erfan wants a stuffed animal in the shape of a large minion. Kimya wants butterfly stickers and paper. Mostafa wants a scientific calculator. But these material desires are so small.
Americans and Canadians have a special tradition of looking for ways to be thankful in November with the holiday of Thanksgiving. In this spirit, some teachers and I asked our refugee students what they are thankful for right now. Here are some of their answers:
“I am thankful to have a friend here.”
“I am thankful to all this school’s teachers who teach our kids and interact with them with patience and kindness.”
“I am thankful to find this opportunity to improve my English and thankful for my teachers trying their best although we have different languages.”
“I am thankful to all the people who help us to rent a home monthly.”
“I am thankful for giving the parents the opportunity to attend English classes which is excellent and is appreciated.” “I am thankful for the discipline and enthusiasm [at school].”
“I am thankful to be safe here.”
“Thank you for books.”
“Thank you for the doll, I love it. Thank you for the food. Thank you guys. I love it.”
When I think about what I’m most thankful for, it’s my family and my community. It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow in the U.S. and I would be lying if I said I’m not homesick for Diane’s green bean casserole and Craig’s apple pie and watching other people watch football on TV. Yes, I even miss watching other people watch football. I miss the camaraderie of people comparing stuffing recipes and gearing up for the road trip to see family. I miss watching kids kick up piles of golden red leaves on the sidewalk.
But I don’t feel forgotten or left out; quite the opposite. I feel how much love people are pouring into us at Roshan. I feel the encouragement with every donation of hard-earned money that could be spent elsewhere. I feel the shared joy when loved ones cheer for us to reach the next milestone at the learning center. I feel the concern when a friend who moved back to New Zealand asks me about people she once knew at the learning center. I feel the connection when a former refugee now in Paris raises money at her school for us. I feel the sense of community when a church back home puts together money to help us pay for next year’s books.
I am so thankful to be part of this diverse, global community. I love it. It’s a joy and a privilege to be part of something this good–so far from perfect, but somehow perfectly good. I am thankful for every single person who has cheered for us, donated to us, raised money for us, visited us, and encouraged us. We couldn’t run the learning center without every one of you creating this net with us. Thank you.
The first time I met Saleha and Mojgan, I was enchanted and troubled. It is rare to meet young Afghan women traveling alone, without a male protector as is the custom in the Afghan culture. These two girls, ages 21 and 16 respectively, spoke some English, although it was hard to gauge how much because they were too shy to say much to me. Although now sharing the tiny cramped room of their brother, already a student at Roshan Learning Center in Jakarta, Indonesia, they had traveled here from Afghanistan alone and they remain essentially alone.
They are lovely young women, and after more efforts to draw them out, I could tell they were also passionate. They are leaking at the seams with grief and quiet anger and a combination of despair laced with hope. They came here because their widowed mother could no longer support them in addition to their younger brother. Their mother had received financial help from the girls’ uncle, who suddenly passed away, leaving them not only heartbroken but also broke.
And so Saleha and Mojgan made the perilous journey to Indonesia to join their other brother Zafar, in the hopes that he could support them. As an asylum seeker, Zafar is not legally allowed to work here and has no financial sponsor. Just 20-years old, he works under the table at a local non-profit as an “office boy” to scrape by enough money for food and rent. Needless to say, he has nothing to offer the girls financially, nor does he have much to offer them socially, as he is also a student at Roshan.
Despite our best efforts, Saleha and Mojgan may not be able to enroll at the learning center for quite some time. (Roshan has a waiting list, due to the lack of other educational opportunities for refugees in Jakarta, especially educational programs with native English- and Indonesian-speaking teachers. We stopped the waiting list at 85, which is more than the 75 we currently serve–the most we can fit in our four classrooms.) The girls, who enjoy sewing and biology, are unable to pursue their interests here in Jakarta, so instead they sleep, eat and above all else wait.
As Saleha and Mojgan wait, they make batches of bread out of cheap flour, which they eat and eat, and then they sleep some more. They miss their mother constantly and aside from each other are lonely — an affliction with short and long-term health implications. Social isolation is more dangerous to one’s health than obesity; it increases heart disease, depression and the chances of premature death by 14 percent. It’s a critical and growing public health concern in countries where therapies are an option, according to researchers at the University of Chicago, the University of Utah, and elsewhere.
Creating caring communities has long been at the core of high-quality early childhood programs in particular, as developmental specialists repeatedly show that young children are rarely able to absorb new cognitive content when they are emotionally out of sorts. Indeed, lack of positive social experiences early in life can have lifelong effects: “The absence of positive social interactions in childhood is linked to negative consequences later in life, such as withdrawal, loneliness, depression, and feelings of anxiety…grade retention, school dropout, and mental health and behavior problems,” wrote Michaelene Ostrosky and Hedda Maedan in an NAEYC article in 2010.
Loneliness is an especially critical problem among refugees who are displaced from their communities and family support–unable to go home, yet also unable to integrate due to their transitional circumstances. This a population without access to therapy and with few opportunities to create supportive, caring communities or integrate into the society around them, wherever it may be. A British organization called The Forum published research on refugees’ experiences citing that 58 percent of refugees living not in Jakarta but in London named isolation and loneliness as their single biggest challenge.
At Roshan Learning Center, we are doing our best to make that transitional circumstance as transformational as possible. While teaching language and academics is at the core of what we do, we strongly feel that a space for community — shared common ground for those in-between their homelands and where their next home might be — is equally crucial. That’s one of the lessons we have absorbed through our daily classes at Roshan. Through our community of learning, we have created a community of belonging and a shared dialogue beyond just the English and math lessons in class.
Today is the first day of the new term at Roshan Learning Center. In spite of the flurry of activity required to get things ready–scrubbing floor mats, cleaning air conditioning vents, juggling complicated schedules in tightly packed spaces–the excitement of new beginnings is always worth the hard work. With all the focus on logistics, it can be hard to focus on the real reason behind all the work, which is to see student progress.
As I reflect back on Term 2, one of the most fun and effective projects that emerged from Roshan also started as something that seemed like hard work for the students, but ended up being well worth it, according to the secondary students. They improved their writing skills one day, one sentence at a time.
Writing in one’s native language can be a daunting experience, but English language learners face the more daunting challenges when they write. Some experience the difficulties of reading and writing from left to right while some struggle with understanding text organisations. At Roshan, our teachers encountered common writing problems in student writing, but they didn’t give up on their students. They cranked up their brains and came up with a creative solution to make their students write a little at a time.
Teachers Francisca Mignano and Dea Sardiyana encouraged their secondary students to “write at least one sentence a day about something positive they experienced, saw or heard or something that made them feel good or happy.” The inspiration comes from an Italian book “Momenti di trascurabile felicità” (Moments of Negligible Happiness) by Francesco Piccolo.
Click here to see what they wrote.
Not only did the students write their daily sentences, but also the teachers compiled their work and published it in a small collection.
“With this collection, we hope that the students can feel proud of the improvements they’ve achieved in their writing. Even if it was only one sentence at a time. It shows improvements in their punctuation, their spelling and in the grammar points that they’ve studied,” wrote Dea and Francisca in the book’s introduction.
Initially, the students found it silly to write a sentence on a post-it note each day. Their reaction was “Oh no, not again!”. However, towards the end, they did it willingly and more creatively. As a result, they were able to make progress in their writing because they could identify common errors and make corrections. Mustafa can now write using past tense verbs in his sentences. Instead of using only present tense, students are now able to also write in the past tense and the past continuous tense.
The compilation of students’ daily sentences reveals the process behind learning English–the value of punctuation, small improvements in grammar, and increasingly sophisticated vocabulary. The reader sees how students made improvements and how they approached the task over the course of 6 months, progress which otherwise can be hard to see if there is no record of it. The practice of daily writing, no matter how brief, gave students the opportunity not only to improve their writing, but also to focus on the good in their lives, rather than the hardship. They learned about happiness, one sentence at a time.
I can’t wait to see what the students will learn about language–and about themselves–in Term 3.
It was the last day of a week-long summer camp at Roshan Learning Center. Inside the red brick building, children were still listening to the dentist’s explanation of the tooth decay process. Outside, teenagers were discussing their tooth problems with a health professional. Many of them hadn’t seen a dentist for a while—or ever.
After his turn to get examined on a portable dental unit, teenager Mujaba (not his real name) learned that the main cause of his tooth problem had to do with tooth brushing technique. He seemed to have an aha-moment, realizing that brushing one’s teeth properly has a lot of benefits, not only to his oral hygiene but also to general health and well-being. He now pays more attention to self-care, knowing that a little oral hygiene awareness can go a long way.
To raise awareness about health and well-being, local doctors Evan Regar and Melissa Lenardi and dentists Eddy Giarso, Hedwin Kadrianto, Rachel Emteta volunteered their time and used their expertise to support refugees at Roshan Learning Center on July 11. They conducted screenings, vital sign checks, vision tests, physical examinations, dental check-ups, and basic dental treatments. They also provided a terrific learning opportunity; clinic organizers required that would-be patients attend a seminar to learn about teeth cleaning and its benefits.
Having a health clinic day provided a useful channel for personal contact and communication between the patients and professionals, which is especially valuable among people who become used to relying information they can find online or through hearsay. Community members at the clinic were able to express their needs and health professionals were able to respond in a personalized way despite the time constraints that afternoon.
The Challenges of City Living
Awareness of urban public health issues is now more important than ever. The world is undergoing a significant growth of urban populations—more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and even more will soon—and a growing number of them are refugees. The United Nations Humans Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) estimates that there are 8.64 million refugees living in urban areas this year. Because of the difficulties cities have in providing clean water, adequate sanitary conditions, timely trash removal, and so forth, urban areas are more likely to provide fodder for illness, especially among the poor and otherwise vulnerable residents such as refugees. Lack of available and affordable health services only exacerbate the problems.
Many refugees in Indonesia choose to live in Jakarta, one of the world’s most populated cities, in part because of the presumed opportunities to access amenities available in the city. However, they quickly realize that services here are not as available as they had imagined. Healthcare providers often see refugees and asylum seekers as temporary visitors to a host country and regarded as separate from the host community. Furthermore, because they cannot work, they have limited opportunities to earn the wages that would allow them to pay for healthcare.
Accessing Local Health Services
The 1951 Refugee Convention protects refugees to have access to healthcare similar to that of the host population. In Indonesia, the most affordable health service can be accessed at puskesmas, government-run community health clinics, which provide basic care services, immunizations, prenatal care, and dental services. Though not top-tier in terms of quality in many cases, puskesmas may be the most accessible basic health service provider for both the locals and refugees. Health status of refugees can vary depending on the context surrounding their flight, lack of immunity to the diseases in their new environment, and the stress factors caused by migration, displacement, and an uncertain future. Typically, these factors converge to cause refugees to need greater-than-average medical attention.
So why are refugees not going to puskesmas when they have bronchitis, a toothache, or dengue fever? One critical barrier is language. Farsi and other language-speaking refugees face issues of communication when health professionals can’t understand the problem or explain information. This situation may result in possible misdiagnosis, patients’ noncompliance, and other medical errors. A great deal of confusion and unreliability of the public health system only leaves them vulnerable to exclusion from healthcare as well. Refugees often don’t have all the facts about what services they are allowed to receive and by whom; and providers also don’t have all the facts about refugees. Every refugee population consists of individuals with diverse backgrounds—it is rarely homogenous—and health providers need to take the time to gather the relevant information from a given refugee patient.
To our delight, it was not only refugees who benefited from the health clinic day. In the spirit of lifelong learning that we promote at Roshan Learning Center, our visitors also had a few things to learn from the refugees. The health professionals learned about different health conditions refugees tend to experience at high rates, such as psychological issues, weakened immune system, and nutritional deficiencies. They said they found it helpful to learn more about refugees’ living conditions and health challenges, which are compounded by general health challenges in Jakarta such as respiratory infections, waterborne diseases, dengue fever, and road traffic accidents; so they can tailor future clinic days to Jakarta refugees’ common health issues.
This is good news for Mujaba. He claims that not only will he brush his teeth properly every day, but also he will enthusiastically come if we offer another health clinic. How many teenagers look forward to a dentist’s appointment? Many thanks to the volunteer doctors and dentists who shared their expertise with us to such good end.
Indonesia is home to more than 12,000 refugees, most hoping for asylum in Australia or the United States. Many of them live in Jakarta. Some asylum seekers live in overcrowded detention centers. The rest share small apartments scattered around the city.
In these concrete apartment blocks, the refugees sit and wait, often with 15 people or more sharing a four room place. Most hope to go to Australia due to its proximity and relative short wait time for a visa, about a year.
In addition to trying to reach Australia, refugees also make a dangerous trip to Indonesia. Those who do arrive are unable to work legally or attend school. Instead, they watch television, spend time on their mobile phones, and go to high-end malls with Dairy Queen, Dunkin’ Donuts, Luis Vuitton and other Western outlets. These refugees exist in an uneasy limbo, fearful of deportation, fearful of denial for asylum in another country, and fearful their dangerous and expensive trip across Asia may not pay off. This past winter, many refugee families in Jakarta were also targeted for extortion by police in search of bribes.
Below is the story of one such young man, Hussain, and his road to Jakarta and ideally a better future. He is now 18 and has been in Jakarta for more than two years, waiting for a visa to Australia.
My Family Wasn’t There
In Colombo, Sri Lanka, I first saw the ocean and truly understood the difficulty of what I was attempting. Looking out to the horizon, I couldn’t see anything except water. The ocean, in its vastness, scared me, but I knew there was no life for me to go back to Afghanistan.
My journey started two weeks earlier in Pakistan. But it also started much before that.
About three years before, when I was 12, my family had fled Afghanistan after my older brother was tortured by the Taliban because they suspected him of helping NATO. We went to Pakistan, seeking medical help for my brother, but he didn’t survive. Shortly afterwards, my mother decided Pakistan was dangerous for me too, so she sent me to Iran. Eventually the police found me and found no papers for me to be there, so they sent me back to Afghanistan. Now 15, I had made my way again through Afghanistan back to Pakistan and the city of Quetta, feeling nothing but excitement to see my family. I had not seen or talked to them in months.
But my family wasn’t there. I learned through relatives that my mother had moved on to seek asylum in Australia. Despite the disappointment I felt when I realized my family was gone, I focused instead on how I too could get to Australia. I had no family, I had never been to school, I was at risk of being shot because of my identity as Hazara. My only hope was to move forward. I knew the journey would be costly, but I knew the costs could be even greater if I stayed.
With help from my old landlord and family friend, who helped take care of my brother before he died, I found a smuggler. My landlord, a Haji and deeply religious person, also paid the more than $6,000 fee. Soon after, I found myself heading in darkness to Quetta.
Getting Out of Pakistan
On the evening of Jan. 12, 2013, I was picked up by a white mini-bus outside Quetta in Pakistan. In the van were three other young Afghans.
After we picked up one more man, we hit the highway heading in the cold dawn to the airport. We were scared, well aware that we could be stopped at any moment and killed, simply for being Hazara.
A minority group, Hazaras have a Mongolian looking face, with a flat nose, small eyes and yellow color that makes them distinctive. Hazaras continue to be persecuted in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of their ethnicity and faith. The Pashtuns, for example, believe that Afghanistan is only their land and Hazara are decendants of Ghengis Khan and don’t belong there. The Pashtuns are also Sunni, while Hazara are Shia.
The situation in the city was very tense, and I was concerned the van would be stopped, but we reached the Quetta airport safely. The plane landed in Karachi, and after a day in a hotel, mostly watching TV, the Smuggler called suddenly. He said an agent would bring me my passport and I had only a few minutes to get ready.
Crossing an Ocean
In Colombo, the hotel was crowded and smelling of the other men. There was no water for bathing. I walked to the beach in search of some peace. There, I saw the ocean for the first time and understood the enormity of what lay ahead.
That evening, back at the hotel, we consumed biscuits and sodas, the cheapest options we could find. Sleep was impossible since nearby there was loud disco music and the sounds of the people praying.
The next morning, early, we had a flight to Bangkok, Thailand.
We reached the Bangkok airport at noon and looked for the smugglers who were supposed to meet us. They discreetly gave us instructions to go to counter 9 or 15 at immigration. I was sweating, knowing I could be arrested and deported if I said the wrong thing.
Two young Pakistani guys were waiting outside the airport to pick us up. We recognized one by his red cap, and he recognized us by our Hazara faces and black laptop bags. The other three guys went in a taxi with one of the agents, and I got on the back of the other agent’s motorbike. He rode the bike so fast that I could barely open my eyes because of the air stinging my eyes.
When we reached the hotel around 1 p.m., he told us we would move in two hours. This time there would be no more airplanes, we would travel by land. And thus began one of the worst parts of the trip.
Jammed into the Trunk
Our drivers dropped us off at a bus station. On the bus, we drove for a full day, finally reaching Dunnok, near the Malaysian boarder. Another agent, who again recognized us by our black laptop bags, took us to the border in a big black car, where we stopped at the border patrol and immigration office. We went into a room to get exit stamps in our fake passports. Officials asked us questions, one at a time, and stamped our passports. Then all of a sudden everything happened in a hurry.
The agent who had driven us from the bus station to the border told us to get in the trunk of a white car. We jumped in quickly. We were in awkward positions; one guy’s shoes were at another’s mouth and elbows were jammed into ribs. We didn’t have time to settle properly, but we would stay in these painful positions, barely able to breathe, for hours.
The car’s engine started and we began moving, though we didn’t know who was driving us. After only about 15 minutes, the trunk flew open, and we were terrified we would be seen. We used our hands to pull down the trunk door and close it, but there was no obvious place to grip the trunk from the inside. We used the tips of our fingers to try to press down on a small lip on the inside of the trunk. Our fingers ached as we tried to grip the trunk to keep it down. It was painful. It was dark and hot the whole way, and we needed air. Our heads smashed against metal as the car traveled over bumps.
After about two hours, our hands and heads in great pain, the car stopped. We had a moment of suspense, wondering what was going on. We could hear someone approaching. The person tried to open the trunk. It felt like our hearts were in our mouths. We were pulling the trunk down as hard as we could as the person tried to open it. He won. As the trunk door lifted, we moved our heads to see who was there, who had discovered us. The policeman, standing there, asked us to get out of the trunk.
Our bodies were numb after more than an hour bumping in the trunk, but our hearts were terrified. We all knew the stories that Malaysia was the worst place to get caught. In other places, they simply deport you. In Malaysia, they torture you with brutal beatings or spray you naked with water hoses for a month or more before they deport you, if they deport you.
As we untangled ourselves and climbed out, we found we were in a jungle. As I took view of my surroundings, I could see only trees and a wood cabin, in front of which a refugee family was sitting. I wondered if they were waiting for an agent to pick them up. Were we caught or were in a transit place? It was not yet clear what was happening.
After getting the blood moving in our stiff bodies, the man in the police uniform told us to get back in the car, but this time, to our relief, we could sit on the seats. He drove us to a place where we transferred to another car, this time a taxi, which would take us to Kuala Lumpur. Evidently the “policeman” was not everything he had seemed to be.
The Boys Had Not Seen Daylight for Months
On the way to Kuala Lumpur, in spite of my fear, I was very aware of the beauty of the place. We passed through beautiful scenery and waterfalls, the tranquil views completely at odds with my tortured thoughts.
After a half day’s drive and a bottle of water and a little bread from a gas station, the taxi driver handed us over to a new set of agents, two brothers, in Kuala Lumpur. The agents took us to a house where we met around 50 other Afghans, all passengers waiting to go to Indonesia. That night, finally, we ate a proper meal for the first time in a week, for once no biscuits and soda. That night we all slept on the floor, using our bags as pillows.
In the morning, we chatted with the other passengers. Most of them were in their 20s, but there were also some younger boys and older men. There were no women. I learned that some guys had waited over two months in the house, not allowed to be loud or go out under any circumstances. The boys had not seen sunlight for months.
I also saw three of the guys I met earlier at the Karachi hotel. They had arrived after midnight, injured and bloody. They said they were caught in Thailand. The police had fired into the air. Of the group of eight, only the three of them were able to escape through barbed wire into the jungle. The other five were arrested and deported. That evening the two brothers returned to the house and made groups and schedules. They took money from each passenger who would be leaving in the next day or two, changing currencies as necessary.
The Boat to Sumatra
I was lucky: That night I would be going to the boat. The other three boys I had previously traveled with were also going, along with seven others. I was lucky to move out of that locked house after only 24 hours. Other boys had been there a lot longer, and they were sick of that house and wanted to move. It was because my original smuggler back in Quetta had paid quickly, that’s why I was moving on and the unlucky ones with less good smugglers had to sit and wait.
After dark fell that night, two cars arrived. The two cars, which held the 11 of us, traveled with 20 minutes between cars to the boat that would take us, at last, to Indonesia.
After a few hours, we reached the edge of a jungle, which I later figured out was somewhere near Medan on the island of Sumatra, although I didn’t know that then. We had to get into the jungle under an iron fence that separated the road from the jungle. We each had our turn whenever there was a gap between passing cars.
After 45 minutes in the jungle, bent low, we reached a shore were we could see a speedboat, even in the midnight darkness. The boat didn’t come to the shore, so we would have to get in the water. On the call of the agent, we rushed into the water. We waded in till the water reached our chests.
The boat ran like a bullet over the water. The only time the boat slowed down a bit was to refuel every 25 minutes from one of the many gallons of petrol stored at one end of boat. The captain told us to sit equally on both sides to keep the boat balanced, but we had to sit low, beneath the rim of the boat so people on other night-time boats would not see us. Our lips became dried out from the salty water. We smashed our heads hard against the side of the boat with each crashing landing on a wave. Then it started to rain.
I prayed harder than I have ever prayed in my life. I was sure I would die. The boat was a joke, cracking with every crash over every wave, I couldn’t swim, and land was nowhere in sight.
All of a sudden we could see lights from a city far in the distance. But then, to my disbelief, the captain didn’t steer us toward the lights, he curved the boat in the opposite direction.
He did take us to land, only it wasn’t to a city. We arrived at the shore again at the edge of a jungle under the light of the moon. I walked along a wooden plank onto the sand, bruised and exhausted, soaking wet, but amazed to be alive.
But there was no time to dwell on our survival. A new agent was rushing us to move quickly into two waiting cars. We drove off through the jungle to a wood cabin at the edge of a village, where we gratefully changed our cloths and lay down to sleep.
We didn’t sleep well, though. The room was so small that we were practically on top of each other as we lay on the floor. There were 11 of us and with each movement we woke up the guy next to us.
Unfortunately we got to know that room very well, as we were locked in for two days and two nights. The walls were covered with written names, places and dates as memorials. All day we read the walls. We tried to sleep, we listened to songs stored on our phones, and we peeked through a hole in the wall, trying to see if an agent might come. A guy checked on us about every 12 hours. We hoped for food and water, though none arrived.
Finally, on the third day, an Indonesian man unlocked the door and guided us out of the cabin into two cars. We drove out of the village and were loaded onto a bus at the side of the road. The bus took us to Jakarta. We were on bus for three nights, still without food except biscuits and water. I thought I was going to faint.
We Didn’t Bother Sleeping
On the third night, a little more than two weeks after we left Pakistan, we finally arrived in Jakarta. We were dropped off a hotel near the UNHCR Office. There was a shop just below our room, but without the proper papers we couldn’t go down to get noodles. My co-passengers with family members back in Pakistan and Afghanistan couldn’t go downstairs to call their families.
We didn’t bother sleeping. We lined up at 4 a.m. outside the UNHCR office to register as asylum seekers. I received my registration card, and for the first time since I left Pakistan I felt safe.
Note: This post is a two-part series to provide a better understanding of the lives and context of refugees here in Jakarta, Indonesia. It is based on real stories of friends and members of the Roshan Learning Center, but certainly each person’s journey is unique.
The Journey to Asylum
Forced to leave
It’s not an easy decision to flee one’s homeland, but every day thousands are fleeing due to political, religious, or ethnic persecution. Their journey begins in places such as Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Syria and other well known, but unfortunate centers of persecution and unrest. The necessity for life drives these individuals to escape by whatever means necessary. Under many circumstances, time is limited and life-altering decisions are made quickly to journey to asylum.
The decision to flee may come when a normal day is interrupted by a phone call, an uprising, a war, or by word-of-mouth. These individuals might not have done anything to deserve imminent persecution except to be born Hazara or Rohingya, or may be a religious minority such as a Christian or Muslim. Whatever it is, racial or political contempt is held against these individuals who have already experienced persecution or would experience persecution in the imminent future. Days, hours or even in some instances minutes count as they pack what they can carry and leave everything and everyone they have known behind. Their journey to asylum is only the beginning and hopefully safe passage to a new homeland is in their future.
Indonesia: a popular destination
Indonesia is a popular destination for many asylum seekers, particularly those from Afghanistan and Iran. Indonesia is not a country in which refugees are resettled to; it serves as a hosting nation for asylum processing. One of the main reasons many asylum seekers arrive in Indonesia is due to the country’s geographical proximity to Australia. Australia represents the land of freedom and equality–a dream. Ironically, recent changes in Australia’s refugee policies have extinguished this dream; Australia will no longer receive refugees processed in Indonesia.
In previous years many people would opt to board ill-equipped boats in Indonesia in the hopes of expediting their relocation in Australia rather than waiting on the lengthy, multi-year process typically required. This resulted in many deaths as boats would capsize or sink due to the boat’s poor conditions for such perilous waters. In 2013, the Australian government imposed a strict legislation removing all rights to asylum for those who made their way by boat to their shores. The consequence of this policy sometimes included turning waterlogged boats back towards Indonesia just as boats neared Australian shores.
A positive result from Australia’s strict legislation is that human smugglers have stopped sending boats, which has saved the lives of many who might have otherwise drowned at sea during the dangerous voyage. Yet now the backlog of those waiting on the already exhausted political process in Indonesia has only lengthened.
Hiring a human smuggler
Leaving one’s country can be difficult depending on available resources and circumstances. Some people are able to afford to travel by air, but there are others who resort to employing human smugglers to take them from point to point. The word “human smugglers” stirs up mixed emotions including thoughts of extortion, thieving and capitalizing on another human being’s suffering. Like many things in this world, the reality is not always so black and white. In many cases human smugglers serve as a last resort for those that wish to escape a country by choice in the hopes of finding safety elsewhere. I have heard stories of human smugglers that recognized the desperation people were facing and out of compassion provided them free passage so they could escape. Whatever we might think, this avenue, despite the risk, has led many people to safety… for a price
This underground railroad is filled with unknowns, fears, and anxieties. Questions abound: Will my money be stolen? Will I die along the way to Australia? Will I be rejected and deported back to the very place I’m running from? These all consuming questions are intensified by the fact that these individuals have placed their fate into the hands of strangers in an often lucrative and lawless enterprise.
With prices ranging from $2000-$8000 USD per person and promises of making it to Australia, choosing the right “agent” is crucial. Once money is exchanged fake passports are issued and tickets purchased. With all journeys being different, an example itinerary begins by air from Pakistan to Sri Lanka and then to Thailand bypassing immigration, who may have turned a blind eye. Next, by land in cargo holds, buses, and boats, and at times with lengthy jungle treks from Thailand to Indonesia passing through Malaysia. The journey to Indonesia can take anywhere from a few weeks to months depending on the chosen agent’s resources.
Food is scarce; some go days without eating, locked up in huts and cargo holds. For certain, no human being would subject themselves to such experiences by willful choice. But this is rarely a choice, it is a road to survival.
UNHCR and the wait
Upon arriving in Indonesia, many make their way to Jakarta–the capital of Indonesia. Since Australia’s policies have changed, the only option is to register for asylum with the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many people come to Indonesia without knowledge of the UNHCR asylum process until they arrive. However processing asylum with UNHCR is becoming the main avenue–an avenue that used to be secondary to chancing their fate on boats heading to Australia.
The long trek to asylum ends when they walk into the UNHCR office to begin processing their asylum claims. This is when they will also receive permission-to-stay papers for Indonesia. Now, the unknown hope for a life of freedom and dignity is an approximately 3-year waiting game. A period with no employment, government provided welfare or life-enhancing opportunities. A period of being a person without a country and without rights and privileges that citizens otherwise expect. This waiting period in Jakarta is not what asylum seekers have sought, it is what they are enduring with the hopes of finding a new home.
Looking back, even though the journey may have been a traumatic experience, many say they are running from far worse things than death that could be encountered on the journey to asylum.