While teaching in northeast India last March, Mark Finney, director of the Spokane office of World Relief, decided to take a weeklong trip to Bangladesh to see a Rohingya refugee camp and find stories to share with Spokane. What he saw was a camp of a million people, nearly five times the size of Spokane’s population, who were fleeing the persecution and systematic killing by Buddhist nationalists and Myanmar’s government.
“The magnitude of it was completely overwhelming, especially to think that most of those people just fled to that camp in the last year,” Finney said.
As he walked through the camp, Finney said he heard the stories of the refugees, who all told him how they were minding their own business in their village when the Myanmar military appeared and started slaughtering people.
“In some cases, they [military] were using aircraft to drop bombs, they burned everyone’s village to the ground even with people inside the houses, I mean just a total massacre,” he said. “And to see a city of a million people where you know that every single one of them has a story of intense trauma, I just don’t have any words or categories to even make sense of that.”
Even though the Rohingya people have existed in the Rakhine state in Myanmar for centuries, John Sheveland, a religious studies professor at Gonzaga University, said Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar are trying to suggest that the Rohingya Muslims do not belong, that they are interlopers. They have been stereotyped as foreigners who threaten national unity.
Sheveland added the anti-Muslim rhetoric includes calling the Rohingya rapists, criminals and violent by nature, and claiming they are hyper-fertile people who will outproduce the nationalists and take over their communities. These tropes are often seen in global regions where Muslims are the minority.
Despite the camp having a million people, with around half being children, Finney said there is no infrastructure to provide schools to the children, and the aid organizations were only able to provide food, shelter and medical care.
Not only that, he said, the refugees are not allowed to leave the camp, and because there are no jobs there, they are economically stuck and depend on whatever aid comes into the camp.
One encounter that stood out to Finney was meeting a refugee who was an elementary school teacher in Burma and would do lessons in alphabet, reading and math for his nieces, nephews and some neighbor children using a tarp next to his family’s shack. However, Finney said they did not have pencils and paper to use, and had to resort to practice writing in the dust on the ground.
When Finney offered him several packages of dollar-store pencils, he said the man was elated to get them.
“They’re [refugees] just these really sweet, kind, gracious people,” he said. “Folks invited us into their homes. Anybody who could speak to us at all was happy to welcome us there and have conversations with us.”
Finney added that the beauty of their humanity stood out to him, and that the camp was not a million faceless numbers, but rather a million individuals who, from his Christian perspective, bear the image of God and are a “unique gift of God’s goodness and beauty to the world.”
“There is this paradox of seeing so much suffering but also seeing so much potential, and hoping that somehow the world will be able to give those beautiful people an opportunity to thrive,” Finney said. “Especially the kids, that they’ll be able to have a future and not be stuck in this camp for decades or generations.”
He said the children are no different from refugees in the U.S. and are “precious, sweet kids who deserve an opportunity to have an education and have a future.”
Despite the United Nations calling the violence against Rohingya Muslims ethnic cleansing, Finney refers to it as genocide, because everything he has seen about the crisis fits into its definition. He compared the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in the past year to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, where members of the Hutu government killed close to a million Tutsis.
“I avoid that term [ethic cleansing] because I feel like the language makes it sound very sanitized, and when you slaughter a people based on their religion or ethnicity, that’s not cleansing anything,” Finney said. “Also, people, I think, are hesitant to use the word genocide, because that triggers more of an obligation for the international community to respond.”
The U.N. defines ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.”
It defines genocide as any act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. These include killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about a group’s physical destruction in whole or in part, and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
Sheveland said that ethnic cleansing and genocide can easily get blurred when examining the facts that are taking place on the ground.
As for the handful of Rohingya refugees currently in Spokane, Finney said that World Relief has assisted them with finding housing, medical care, jobs and education, and to navigate the legal system to obtain green cards and eventually help them become U.S. citizens.
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