Alice Giraudi, a Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS) high school student, made this 7-minute video about what it’s like to be a refugee in Jakarta. Having moved many times from country to country while growing up, Alice talks about migration and the present refugee situation featuring one of the very first teenagers in our program.
Inspired by Scott Thompson’s BecakTerus, Tiffany Lee, a senior at Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS), challenged herself do something meaningful for others during her winter break. Along with Tejas Widjonarko, Alvin Roh, and Riwa Tamai, she decided to cycle one lap around Taiwan in aid of Roshan Learning Center.
Their Cycling for Charity – Roshan website invited us into their journey on the pedals as Tejas updated their blog with photos and videos taken during the trip.
The day after Christmas, the group set foot in Hsinchu where their cycling starting point was. From Taiwan’s infrastructure and architecture to evidence of strenuous biking to Taiwanese mochi desserts, the group shared their honest thoughts and stories about cruising on two-wheelers for 100 kilometers each day for 9 days. To motivate themselves during the uphill ride, Riwa reminded herself of her cross country runners’ mentality while Tiffany sang a Chinese song and talked to herself so she wouldn’t give up.
“Over the past 9 days, I have learnt to reflect on my place in the world and to stay resilient even when the task got challenging,” wrote Tiffany at the end of the trip. Long distances, challenging terrains, and stormy weather didn’t let them lose their sense of humour and purpose — why they decided to take on this journey.
Since October 2015, Tiffany has been volunteering on Saturday mornings with the JIS GIN (Global Issue Network) Club. Her soft heart and her passion for service prompted her to further support Roshan Learning Center.
As of today, Cycling for Charity has raised approximately one hundred million Indonesian rupiah for Roshan Learning Center. The funds will be used to pay for each participant who makes progress to sit an official Cambridge English exam which comes with an internationally-recognised certificate if they pass.
Their cycling trip was momentary, but their service is enduring.
One of my dearest childhood friends, Kevin, was diagnosed on October 23 with stage IV glioblastoma: brain cancer. This is a man who got a PhD from Duke University and became faculty at Cornell, Princeton, and the University of Pittsburgh. But more importantly to me, this is the almost-brother with whom I played at the beach every Sunday, walked dogs, pulled Christmas crackers, and goaded into dancing with my father in a restaurant—as a teenager. This is the guy I can’t beat at Blockhead, tennis, or word games but who is simultaneously one of the nicest people I know and always has a smile for everyone.
Without treatment, Kevin’s neurosurgeon said Kevin might live three months—although of course, there is treatment.
One never knows how you would react to such news. My guess for myself would be denial, fury, indignant cries of unfairness, bottomless grief. Kevin’s reaction was none of those, or at least those emotions were a distant second to something different. He told us he became aware of two things. First was his contentment with how good his life has been; and secondly was awareness of how connected we all are, this family of humanity.
“If you think of me during the day, please just use the moment to think about your shared connection with humanity, and our fragility—not just to cancer but to the hardships of life. And perhaps let that influence you a bit during your day,” Kevin wrote.
But the funny thing about fragility is that it’s not always obvious who is fragile and when.
We get many requests for visitors to come to Roshan Learning Center “to help.” We deeply value those offers and we cannot operate without the help of the people who come to help us. But invariably the teachers and visitors who come to volunteer with our community of asylum seekers and refugees are changed by the experience and not in the ways they expected. They expect to do a good deed and feel good about it; they leave feeling lucky they came.
“You have no idea how much being part of this community has meant to me,” said Greta, one of our departing long-term volunteers. “I’ve learned so much more from them than they have learned from me,” said Tobias. “Working here is an absolute blessing to me; I need them more than they need me,” said Christine.
One exchange in particular stands out to me from recent weeks. A high school student from an affluent international school was part of a group coming to do fun activities with the primary school students at Roshan. As the student and I sat at the table chatting, the mother of three boys in the program came to rest with us, and so I introduced the student and mother. The mother, a young widow, is a very elegant lady, poised and gentle. She thanked the student for coming, smiling and saying, “We are so lucky, you come here to help us.”
The student seemed not to have heard her and continued tapping away at her laptop, and so the mother and I started talking about the difficulties of reining in a rambunctious three-year-old. But then we noticed that the student had tears coming down her cheeks. “I can’t believe you feel lucky,” she said.
In that moment, my heart went out to this girl. She—a talented, lovely, star student with a loving family likely living in a nice home and certainly attending one of the best schools in the world, with a bright future in front of her—seemed so fragile. Sometimes those of us who have been given the most are the most fragile ones, if we are not careful to cultivate gratitude and contentment intentionally.
The student was aware in that second of how strong this woman was, of how much resilience and resourcefulness this woman must have had to have gotten herself and three small children across the world alone in the most dangerous of circumstances after her husband was killed. To have done that and to have gratitude for the life of poverty, isolation, and hardship she is living in Jakarta shows immense strength. The student recognized this and it touched something in her.
It made me think of Kevin.
It makes us feel small and humble—fragile—to be in the presence of people who have seen the worst of life and come through it with gratitude, kindness and optimism remaining. We wonder if we could have such strength facing the same circumstances.
My hope for all of us this Christmas season is that we can each be “a force for generosity, compassion, and simply being nice to others,” as Kevin wrote. With every act of kindness and generosity, we cultivate that gratitude and contentment. It’s a gift to give ourselves this Christmas.
A woman hung outside the third story window of Bataclan Theater, one of the targets of this weekend’s horror show in Paris. At the exit door on the ground floor below her, people fled, stepping over debris and the injured. People screamed and cried as they ran. One man dragged an injured person up the dark street to safety. The woman continued hanging outside the window.
It is hard not to watch video footage of the violence, see the heartbreak of people who lost a loved one, or hear people call out in terror and not feel afraid and angry oneself. Just as the perpetrators would hope, people respond with high-intensity emotion. “Now show a photo of a piece of a terrorist stuck to a wall,” comments one online news reader. “As my aging grandmother once said to me, ‘If you can’t find peace, find revenge,” writes another.
In the U.S., some governors and presidential hopefuls favor shutting the borders to refugees from Syria. “I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the [U.S.] citizens of Alabama in harm’s way,” Governor Robert Bentley said Monday.
Refugees Want Nothing to Do with the Extremists
There must be multifaceted responses to acts of terrorism, including from political, intelligence, and military arms of global coalitions. But to simply shut out entire populations of people or to wish violence on them seems both short-sighted and naive. The vast majority of the people fleeing Syria–or Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar, or other countries in the area–are daily, not occasional, victims of the terrorists and fundamentalists. They’re fleeing because they hate the situation too.
The families coming to our learning center in Jakarta left their Middle Eastern countries because they want nothing to do with the extreme fundamentalists who threaten their livelihoods and children and who have upended formerly peaceful cities throughout the region, turning citizens into homeless refugees even within their own country borders.
Taking the Long View: Winning the War
It seems clear that in addition to political and military responses, education has to be high on the list of systematic and coordinated responses to terrorism. Creating an education system for asylum seekers is perhaps more difficult to implement and requires more patience than a military response, but it’s no less important–at least in winning the war and not just the battle.
Consider Mostafa, Ahmed, and Hussein, let’s call them. They are teenagers who left their parents in Afghanistan a few years ago. Their families spent all their collective savings and hope on these boys, desperate to get them out of harm’s way even without any real assurance they would land safely in another country, and now they’re waiting in Jakarta for UNHCR and the Western world to determine their fate. These boys could become the next generation of terrorists with nothing to lose; or they could become the next generation of tailors, engineers, and teachers. It’s partly up to us.
The woman hanging on the ledge, who was pregnant it turns out, was pulled to safety by another civilian who heard her crying. This seems like a great metaphor for what we “regular people” can do even if we’re not in positions of power. We can be that anonymous civilian who helps someone out when they need it. We can teach a class, buy some groceries for a family of immigrants, or help a new refugee neighbor fill out paperwork for the gas company–we can give people a hand up. We can educate them in language skills, academic knowledge, and our ideology that love trumps hate.
Unfortunately, we know these kinds of attacks will happen again. Better to start taking the long view than to stick our heads in the sand. Better to give children as many light bulb moments as we can than to shun them to lives of darkness so that they seek comfort in the wrong places.
There are thousands of expats who come to Jakarta each year to help the vulnerable, the down-trodden, the “least of these.” We come with hopes of lifting people out of poverty and improving health, education and livelihoods for the poor. But of course, we usually come to help the Indonesian poor, of which there are many. Indonesia’s growing economic strength belies a deep and broad population living in poverty. Therefore, people are often surprised to hear we work with refugees, the poor among us who are not Indonesian by definition. “Why are there refugees in Jakarta?” people often ask.
There are as many reasons as there are asylum seekers, since each person’s story is uniquely personal. Yet there are points of convergence as well.
Asylum seekers and refugees come from all over the world, but participants at Roshan Learning Center (RLC) come mainly from Afghanistan and Iran. We have a bilingual approach to children’s learning that requires understanding of Farsi. Adult participants who mainly come to learn English may come from Mali, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, or Ethiopia.
Some people received a good education at home and in fact are teachers or managers at our center; and others received no schooling at all before attending this learning center. Their families may be generations long without access even to primary school. Some were middle-class professionals in their home country–registered nurses, civil engineers, or business owners–and some came from deep poverty. Some come from major cosmopolitan cities like Tehran, and some come from remote villages where sheep herding runs the economy. Some are Muslim, some are new Christians, some are atheists. Some have dearly beloved family members still in the home country, some people have no one left.
In other words, our group is extremely diverse.
Nonetheless, there are common bonds: They left their home countries because they felt they had no choice. In addition to war and conflict, there are three types of persecution our participants are usually fleeing:
- Political (people disagreed with their government or their government can’t protect them from extremist leaders)
- Ethnic (people in certain groups are executed because of family heritage)
- Religious (people changed religions or considered changing religions)
For any of these reasons, our participants could be hanged, shot, imprisoned, or tortured in their home country.
And they often have family members who were. We have a widow with three young children in our community who lost her husband during a bombing in Quetta, Pakistan. We have young man whose father was hanged for disagreeing with his government too vocally; another whose brother was tortured by the Taliban twice before he died; and another whose parents were burned to death for converting to Christianity.
But Why Indonesia? And How?
They come to Indonesia typically because it is an easy place to land without a visa; they can get a visa on arrival. They also come because as a predominantly Muslim group, at least at the time of arrival, many of them feel comfortable arriving here in another predominantly Muslim country (although some of them have become Christians while here). Until 2014, many came with the hopes of taking a boat to Australian territory, Christmas Island. Although the boats stopped going shortly after July 2014, when Australia stopped accepting boat arrivals for resettlement, many asylum-seekers in Indonesia came prior to that policy change.
Immigrants arrive by plane, boat, bus ride, walking, in the trunks of cars, or some combination of the above. Some have authentic passports and some used fake passports. Some better-off individuals simply fly to Indonesia as they can get a visa on arrival; and others who can’t afford to fly pay smugglers to help them get here. These are usually more arduous and traumatic journeys.
Steps to Get from Here to a Third Country
Upon arrival, immigrants usually go directly to the UNHRC office and register. Once registered, they are considered asylum-seekers. After a waiting period that can take between 9 – 24 months, UNHCR officials interview them in what’s called the First Instance interview, and decide whether there is a legitimate case showing persecution in the home country. If UNHCR sees a case, the person becomes recognized as a refugee. This is a moment of huge relief and joy for the person. It means the person will get to go somewhere other than back to the home country–although they do not get to choose where they go.
The consulate of a third country will then interview the refugee person or family and may or may not accept them for resettlement in that country. They may be interviewed by two countries or more before a country accepts them. Our participants typically go to the US, Australia or New Zealand.
If UNHCR does not find enough evidence of persecution after the First Instance interview, the asylum seeker is rejected. This is extremely difficult news for the person in question. They may appeal one time. If their appeal is accepted, the asylum seeker becomes a refugee. If the appeal is rejected, UNHCR and Indonesia expect the person to go back to their home country, although some countries will not repatriate a citizen who has tried to leave.
The process of status determination and resettlement now usually takes around 4 years.
Work and School
During those 4 years, asylum seekers and refugees may neither work nor go to school. The laws state clearly that any attempt to earn an income by working while in Indonesia while lead to a rejection as a refugee; and there is an absence of law to protect children’s right to education. Barriers to school enrollment include:
* Inability to speak Indonesian.
* Inability to pay for required school uniforms and books.
* Lack of interest in Indonesian curriculum, as Indonesia is viewed as a temporary stay.
* Disinterest or sometimes hostility on the part of Indonesians to accept them in school.
Roshan Learning Center provides a bilingual approach: Half of our classes are held in English (with a focus on learning English) and half of classes are held in Farsi (with a focus on teaching content knowledge such as math and science, mainly, although we do try to offer music, art, and physical education when possible).
We do not charge tuition but we do require families to pay for their own transportation costs, which is not insignificant in Jakarta.
Some participants receive a small stipend each month to live on (about 1,000,000 rp or US$85), provided by various church congregations, private individuals who want to help, or the International Organization for Migration (IOM), but others receive no financial help from anyone. They live off savings, help from family members, or illegally doing odd jobs.
Participants live in various places around Jakarta (there are detention centers and shelters for refugees in Jakarta, but we do not specifically work with those groups). Asylum seekers generally try to avoid congregating in a single area or apartment complex because those areas become targeted by Indonesian Immigration officials or scam artists looking for easy prey. As a result, refugees in Jakarta are geographically and emotionally isolated. The learning center therefore provides a community center of sorts, as well as a place to offer classes.
Because child well-being is highly dependent on parental well-being, and because single adults need connection and community, we try to provide classes and groups for refugee adults when we can find volunteers. In some ways, our participants are nothing like each other, but in other ways, they share many common bonds.
Ironically, they also share many things in common with poor Indonesians: lack of adequate health care, education and a voice in the community, among others. But with many people working to make a difference for both Indonesians and asylum seekers, good things are happening in Jakarta and throughout Indonesia.
I have a little boy, a 6-year-old who likes Spiderman and watches that can go underwater. He has a room full of books and a playroom full of toys and lacks for nothing. We had the privilege this summer of going to Turkey on holiday, from where we took a boat to the island of Kos. Our boat was a large ferry, well constructed, lined with life jackets, and complete with drinks and popcorn for sale on board.
When we got to Kos, we decided to take a bus to visit the ruins where Hippocrates once practiced his art of healing. We waited for the bus in a park. Syrian refugees waited with us. I wondered where they hoped to go and how they got to Kos. I sincerely doubted it was on a comfortable ferry that served popcorn, though I did not at the time realize the horrific journey most of them had likely taken on a fragile plastic dinghy.
A little boy about my son’s age saw my kids playing. He ran up to them and gave my son his stuffed animal, a small brown little thing, that had clearly been loved to bits. My son, who has shelves of stuffed animals, did not have a clue what that child had offered him. That child had offered my son a treasure that had probably seen death more than once. After playing with it a little while, my son returned it, and we made our way onto the bus.
I wonder about that little boy now. I wonder where he is and how he is, even more so after seeing the horrifying image of the toddler lying inert in the Turkish surf, face down in his sweet red shirt. And after reading about the individuals who died after being abandoned in the back of a truck in Austria left. Abandoned is a word that keeps coming to mind as I continue to watch cable news videos and read articles of the thousands of people fleeing to Europe from Syria. How to do the right thing without abandoning these people, I wonder?
That feeling is not shared by all, of course.
Video footage of a Hungarian camerawoman purposely tripping refugees running across the border may not have been seen by as many because it is not as obviously compelling. But it was absolutely astonishing. In the footage, a Syrian man, was literally fleeing for his life with nothing more than a backpack on his back and his more cherished possession in his arms, his child. Suddenly, a journalist with a camera flung out her leg deliberately to trip him, and he and his child tumbled to the ground. The camerawoman’s petty gesture of hatred gave me, and probably most other viewers, terrible pause.
How could she do that? Have these poor refugees not suffered enough during their journeys through war, starvation, illness, fear, and betrayal? It seemed shockingly cold-hearted to see this by-stander add to the man’s hardship through that small but excruciatingly mean act.
How she could do that, or rather, why she did that, is a crucial question. We all feel crushed for that father, hurt that he had to endure one more act of violence in this flight for life. Yet the camerawoman’s vantage point is also worth examining. It may be that she was afraid of the asylum seekers because they have experienced so much war and death; they are different in their clothing, religion, and language; they could take away jobs or scant resources that she and her family feel a need to protect—all the usual reasons.
Just as individuals are afraid, governments have been afraid too. It’s hard to fathom how to absorb these millions of people into sometimes tiny countries, as in the case of Jordan, and sometimes already financially burdened countries, like Greece. Governments want to be responsible to their own people first and foremost, and part of that responsibility involves fiscal prudence and good use of resources.
It seems like governments also need to consider humanitarian responsibility. Individuals want governments to sanction our collective empathy. We know that we too would flee our own neighborhoods if our children were daily at risk of dying and if extremists were recruiting our husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons to kill and be killed.
My conversations with Mary (not her real name) remind me that people fleeing their home countries are not leaving because they love our countries so much. In her case, she left behind a gorgeous home near a lake in northern Iran. A woman “of a certain age” left a lifetime in her home town, including her parents, siblings, and friends in a sudden departure with her husband and two grown sons. Her sons had been caught on video at a home group trying to learn more about the Christian faith. Although none of them were yet Christians, the mere idea of it, with proof by video, was enough to leave them vulnerable to execution. Although they had family sell the house to pay for their journey and waiting period in Indonesia, Mary would love to go back to that beautiful hometown and her beloved family, and she holds out hope that someday she will be able to do just that.
Similarly, other refugees we know here in Jakarta would far rather return home if it were safe—return to their parents, homes, the food they prefer, and the landscape they are used to—than go it alone in unchartered territory where they will be “aliens,” usually at the bottom end of the ladder when it comes to jobs and equitable social status.
Based on my experiences, particularly at Roshan Learning Center, I encourage nations hosting asylum seekers and refugees to do at least three things:
- Welcome refugees with kindness and compassion, providing temporary refuge while their home countries get out from the worst of the disarray and violence. Temporary refuge could mean creating refugee camps or offering provisions to individuals for short-term (1-2 year) accommodations, living expenses, and access to health care and education.
- Increase financial and human resources to major humanitarian agencies such as UNICEF, World Relief, and so forth, so that aid is available to the neediest immediately; and to processing agencies such as UNHCR. It is imperative that people’s cases receive adequate attention efficiently so that people don’t languish too long on the sidelines of society and become less productive, less skilled, and less well over time. People have the right to know relatively quickly (again, within 1-2 years) if they have the option to resettle in another country. So far this year, the UN has received only $1.67 of the $4.5 billion it needs to support Syrian refugees alone.
- Make longer term (3-5 year) plans for both repatriation and expatriation. Millions of these asylum seekers will want very much to go home and rebuild their neighborhoods as soon as it is safe to do so. Individuals in safe and educated nations should take every opportunity to send repatriating refugees back home armed not with weapons that will feed extremists’ armies but rather with an appreciation for democracy and the goodwill of hundreds of individuals in host nations who acted with compassion and generosity.
Finally, I urge people to keep in mind the wisdom of Queen Rania of Jordan. The small country in the Middle East recently accepted 1.4 million refugees (unlike most of its neighbors). Queen Rania pointed out that it is this is a refugee crisis, not a migrant crisis, and perhaps the biggest humanitarian emergency of our time. Migrants come and go as they please. Refugees are in search of survival.
Take that little boy in Kos. He no doubt would rather be with his friends on a Syrian playground, surrounded by family and neighbors. But hard reality made him a refugee, one with little possessions and security. Even so, he reached to my family as best he could. Perhaps it’s time for the global community to return the favor.
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.
BBC reports that the number of displaced people is at an all-time high. There are floods and earthquakes demolishing peoples’ homes, but that’s not the real problem, in spite of the deep suffering natural disasters cause.
The real problems are human made. People are fleeing the persecution that follows the features of their face, as in the case of Hazara peoples in Afghanistan, or the beliefs they hold about the shape of a government. They will do everything in their power to move out of a war zone where death is more common than rain. They understandably want to move out of a county where a brother is hanged for becoming a Christian.
What mother wants to raise her children in a place where children are abducted simply because they are girls? What man can stand to stay in a county where his parents and relatives were burned to death because they changed religion?
What truly strikes me as tragic, though, is that numbness of mind and death of heart are considered less tragic and less compelling than physical death.
Migrants risking the waters between north Africa and southern Europe or between Myanmar and Malaysia are not going because they think it will be a nice few days on the open seas. It is certainly true that they are sometimes tricked or forced to get on boats by nefarious people smugglers, but more often than not they are just desperate to find a humane place to live.
One African woman interviewed by American radio station NPR said she wanted to get to Spain because it seems like heaven. If she got there, she thought, she could be a little bit closer to God–or at least a little further from hell.
There is nothing frivolous about leaving a place because it is hopeless. Why would she, or any other young woman, want to stay in a country where she has no hope of finding any paid work beyond prostitution? What about the woman with a master’s in civil engineering who can’t find work at home except for selling bread?
What teenage boy would want to live in a place where there is no hope of going to school, getting a diploma or any training, and getting a job so he could someday marry and provide for a family?
Governments and citizens in more affluent countries often dismiss “economic” asylum-seekers — those seeking education and jobs — as mere opportunists. While we must recognize the very complicated problems associated with job creation and the need to protect the employment of citizens in any country, it seems like there is room to discuss the problem of hopelessness and at least try to solve it.
Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day. Today is as good a day as any to say a prayer or make a contribution or send a letter to an influential person in your government on behalf of refugees. It will only take a minute and most importantly, it will take a fraction of your good fortune, whether financial or based on the gift that you can read and write, or in the fact that you have a voice in your government. Today is a good day to share our good fortune and bring a little more hope into the world.
The Long Wait for Hope
The young woman looked at me, her brow furrowed, her head tilted. We continued walking around the back of the red brick building. “I don’t mean to be—well, maybe this is rude, but what do they do? How do they live?” she asked, clearly embarrassed by such an indiscreet question. The young woman in question was a visitor at the learning center, an expat considering volunteering to teach.
I get this question all the time, both directly and indirectly, from people like myself, people who are lucky enough to have job, or if not a job, a relative who has a paid job or a pension. Melinda, I’ll call her, was trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together about how the families participating in the learning center—not to mention the 11,000-plus other refugees in Indonesia—could get by while they wait for “a durable solution.”
Arrival: Rushing to Wait
Upon arrival and after registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), new arrivals are called asylum seekers. They are seeking asylum from the dangers in their home country—inquisition, imprisonment, hanging, or torture perhaps, for “crimes” such as disagreeing with their government, believing in Jesus Christ, being homosexual, or being born Hazara or Kurdish or another ethnicity. Within hours or days after putting their feet on Indonesian soil, most head straight to the UNHCR office to register and get papers that allow them to stay in Indonesia until they can move elsewhere to a permanent new home—that’s the durable solution they hope for. They get up and get in line at 4 am to get those papers.
And then? And then they wait.
They wait and wait and wait some more. They wait for months until the UN calls them for an interview. Then they prepare with the devotion of an elite university hopeful— though with higher stakes than a university entrance. Applicants recreate the timeline of their moves, every move they have ever made—along with addresses—over the last 30 years. They memorize their timelines, their relatives’ birthdates, their employers’ last names and addresses. Spouses work to match their answers precisely. Parents quiz their kids so they will get the “right” answer when the case officer interviews them.
Rejection takes many forms — a mismatch between what is said on paper and verbally, a mis-remembered story by a family member, a missing detail on persecution at home — all equal rejection. Economic hard times, or a lack of jobs in the old country, are not sufficient for acceptance. Instead, danger is paramount. Asylum seekers must demonstrate they were in danger at home and will be in danger again if they are sent back. With this mind, and a long journey at their backs and possibly ahead of them, refugees try to make their case, their fate in the hands of a case officer.
And then? And then they wait.
Waiting for the Golden Ticket
They wait for the answer from UNHCR. Have they gotten the Golden Ticket to a new home country or have they gotten the “Return to Start” or “Go Back to Jail” card? Except instead of a game, the stakes are real and learning the answer can take many more months. They wait and pray and try to distract themselves. If UNHCR hands them a Golden Ticket, an acceptance that moves them from asylum seeker status to refugee status, they are relieved and excited and have a moment of celebration.
And then? And then they wait.
A consulate officer from some country, perhaps Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, or another Western country, will interview the family for acceptance into that country. That process likewise takes many more months. Even after interviews are successfully passed for the new country, getting through medical exams, immunizations, and visa processes takes many more months. It is quicker for some than others, which is discouraging for those whose process lags. Nonetheless, the refugees are the lucky ones because they know they will be resettled, if not with the first country that interviews them, then with another. We have friends who have been accepted by UNHCR as refugees, rejected by Australia, and accepted by the US. We have friends who have been accepted by Australia but whose cohort has long since moved there while they remain in Jakarta. The refugees do a lot of waiting.
Those who are not accepted by the UN as refugees wait even longer. They can appeal their case with the UN one time. The process remains essentially the same—asylum seekers must make the case in a second interview that their home country is no longer safe for them—but the wait period is longer and more agonizing. On average, it seems, applicants here in Jakarta wait about 3 years.
“How Do They Live?”
So to get back to Melinda’s questions: What do they do? How do they live?
They play games on their phones, study if they can, cook and clean up, Skype with family members, look for free places to be outside or be entertained, window shop in malls. They just…wait.
This is one of the reasons the Learning Center started. Refugees may be short on resources, but they are long on one commodity — time.
“I can’t think of anything worse than unoccupied teenagers,” high school principal Dorothy Hoddinott and Human Rights Medal awardee said of her work with refugee students.
And it’s not just teenagers that suffer when there’s nothing to do. Young children desperately need interactions with other children, middle school students need something interesting to occupy their minds, and adults need a chance to learn English or vocational skills. With the learning center, a handful of families have a little bit more to do while they wait—they can come to our classes a few times a week.
But for most of the thousands of refugees here and elsewhere, we as a collective global society waste the one valuable resource they have by not taking advantage of their time.
Because they are barred by law from working in order to protect jobs for Indonesians (the same policy exists in other temporary host countries), refugees have no income during this long wait. A very few who had property back home have usually sold it to live off that income while they wait, and those who had savings live off those funds as long as they can. These funds usually disappear faster than homemade cookies at a Learning Center potluck, however, and the families slide into financial poverty relatively quickly. Those who can (and who can set their egos aside) ask relatives back home to wire money if they can.
But most of the refugees came here with nothing, left nothing behind, and have no one to wire money. The father who is a shepherd in rural Afghanistan and has 11 other children in the village has nothing to wire. The depressed brother who is hospitalized for drug addiction in Tehran has nothing to wire. The relatives back in Shiraz whose house fell into disrepair because they had no jobs to pay for a new roof have nothing to wire.
So the refugees, here in Jakarta without any safety net, sleep in parks or crash with other refugee families if they have nowhere to stay. A handful of people—perhaps 500 out of many thousand—receive support from an institution. In these cases, a person gets about $85 (US) to live on per month, plus a room to stay in. That money comes from organizations like the International Office for Migration, Jesuit Refugee Services, Church World Service, or sometimes private individuals. But again, only a relative handful of refugees get that meager financial support. Sometimes, in desperation and at great risk, refugees try to sell bread or kabobs to make some extra coins to feed their families. Working becomes the crime in this complex situation.
I explain all this to Melinda. “So they can’t work and they can’t go to school,” she summarizes, “but maybe if they learn English now, they’ll be able to get a job faster once they get to their new country.”
Yes, I affirm. And it’s not just having English skills, it’s having a place where you belong, having support networks, and having a stronger state of mind to endure the long wait. That’s the best thing we can do for now. Provide friendship, fun, skills and the beginning of an education for their children—that’s what we can do. People can’t live on hope alone, but they surely can’t live without hope.
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.