By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Among the festive crowd at the airport on Dec. 8, Mohamad Imran, 21, was a lone figure. Holding his hands to his face, he was fighting back tears. It had been 10 years since he saw his parents, brothers, and sisters. But now he had done it. Tirelessly, he had written thousands of letters, pleas, exhortations. Some elected officials had listened—and helped. And now his entire family was emerging from the hell of a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, where they had lived for six years since being forced out of Myanmar.
“They had never even seen a plane before,” he said in an interview. “They prayed as it took off and then when it landed.”
Their prayers were answered. And their miraculous escape was thanks to the efforts of not only their eldest son, who arrived here eight years ago after a harrowing journey that took him through the hands of pirates, to crawling through the jungle, to imprisonment for years. But after he forced himself to learn English in a flash after arriving, he befriended, seemingly, all around him. U.S. Rep. Adam Smith. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. Washington state Rep. Tana Senn. Community leaders on Mercer Island, where he lives with a loving foster family. Now all that had paid off.
In the hugs and tears that followed at the airport, time collapsed.
But then it stretched out again—the long slender hands of 10 years.
“My parents looked so much older, they were so frail,” he said.
And his siblings had grown up. No one recognized each other—at first. Then it all broke down, and they cried together.
“They needed to be taught everything”
Soon after, ensconced in a house on Mercer Island temporarily donated by a generous member of the community, Mohamad realized the challenges were not behind him. There were more ahead.
It was his mother, father, three siblings, aged 9, 12, and 14, and his sister, her husband, and their 2-year-old daughter all living together.
“They needed to be taught everything. You have to understand they lived in a different world their whole lives. I needed to teach them how to turn on the stove, how to use the microwave, how to use the laundry machine,” he said.
Still, he was smiling ruefully as he said this. He took them to a mosque in Kent so they could pray—no doubt for thanksgiving. His parents and family knew not a single word of English.
“I would tease them by saying, ‘hi,’ and asking them to repeat it,” he said.
But the challenges are immense—even for someone who has climbed out of hell. He is now supporting eight people, with his two jobs, one of them at Pagliacci’s Pizza. He does not know how long he can pay for their food. And then there will be his mother’s medical treatment—she developed cancer in the refugee camp. And they were too poor to afford medical treatment, even if they had been let out of the camp, which they were not.
His family goes outside, but they say it’s cold.
“They brought a few pieces of clothing from the camp. And kind people have donated clothing from Mercer Island,” he said. “I am truly blessed.”
And yet the challenges increase and increase. He plans to enroll his father and mother in Bellevue College, where he is a student, to have them learn English so they can work in this new world. His brothers and sisters, he wants them to go to public school, so they can become regular students. It is all a dream at this point. But he is optimistic.
“Yes, it will happen,” he said.
The help of many
Imagine—perhaps only a refugee can imagine—not seeing your parents for 10 years. After being held captive yourself on a boat for months and in prison for several years, all part of your journey out from the genocide of Rohingya people that the government practiced, starting in 2017.
Since Burma’s military began “razing villages, raping, torturing, and perpetrating large-scale violence that killed thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children,” more than 740,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to refugee camps, according to the U.S. State Department.
Mohamad was the first of his family to leave—as the eldest son, he was required to go first.
To leave your family behind, as he did. To journey alone, as he did. To arrive in foreign countries, beaten, sick, and dirty. To somehow survive malnourishment, mistreatment, hunger, and abuse. And then to make it to the United States, where help and friends awaited. And yet to know your parents and your younger brothers and sisters were back in the hell you had just escaped from. Not just for one year. But for 10 long years.
Earlier this year, he got a younger brother out. He had the help of many officials. It so happened Rep. Suzan DelBene was part of a trip to Malaysia and met with the prime minister. She mentioned the younger boy’s name, and one thing led to another. Former Gov. Gary Locke had helped, too. As did Rep. Smith and Sen. Cantwell.
But this was the whole family.
A tough choice
I remember when I first interviewed Mohamad last year. His parents and siblings were still in the refugee camp. Someone had just threatened to kill or kidnap one of his younger siblings, unless, of course, he paid a ransom. This person believed that because he was living in the U.S., he was flush with cash. He played for me the messages of his parents on his phone. He showed me his diary.
Their liberation happened so fast. In fact, he didn’t know how it happened. Suddenly, a few weeks ago, he got a phone call from an international travel agency.
“They will be here in a few weeks,” he was told. And just like that, his life changed.
I was not allowed to photograph their faces at the airport. No one was. Safety is still paramount. Distant relatives, neighbors, and friends are still back in Myanmar, or still in the refugee camp. All care must be taken not to put them in danger. So we are not listing their names here.
What is Mohamad going to do now? What is he doing? Alone, he purchases food for all of them. Alone, he plans for their days. Alone, he plots a future. Friends have told him to drop out of school and work full-time for them.
“But I want to finish my education. I feel that is my only chance now,” he said.
He is studying accounting and business. He has two more quarters to go.
Hopes and dreams
The race is on. He has raised $20,000 through a GoFundMe page to which friends on Mercer Island have generously contributed. But he just learned his family owes $10,000 for their travels. And he has pared down his dream of somehow buying them a home—on his salary from Pagliacci’s and one other part-time job
“Maybe we can get an apartment,” he said. “But maybe no one will sell us an apartment for eight people.”
It has not been easy in other ways. His family has wanted to talk to him about their travels.
“They told me about whole families fleeing, but old people not being able to make it and dying by the roadside or staying in homes that were burned up by the government,” he said.
“When I heard that, it brought back memories for me, and I regretted listening to it,” he said.
Even as he was telling this, his forehead grew shiny with sweat, and his eyes rolled slightly up.
Still, as the eldest, Mohamad has had to force his way into survival and flourishing. His younger brother, who arrived in Seattle nine months ago, still bears the signs of real trauma. He walks sluggishly and rarely smiles.
But the family reunion has been beyond anything either of them could imagine. Despite knowing they must soon find treatment for their mother, despite knowing their days are numbered in the guest house, despite knowing they have a hard task ahead of them, learning English and finding stable housing, they revel in being together.
For one thing, with the food, meat, rice, spices, and vegetables Mohamad brought to his family, his mother cooked a home-cooked meal—the first of its kind he had eaten in 10 years.
It was beef with spices like turmeric, cardamon, and lots of chilis.
“It was very spicy,” he said. “I wasn’t used to it at first. But now I love it.”
Mohamad’s dream, beyond helping his family recover from their trauma and get set up in the region, is to start a nonprofit and help other Rohingya refugees still hoping to get out of camps.
To read about Mohamad’s escape, in his own words, go to:
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.