Across the road from Springvale train station, about 20 kilometres southeast of Melbourne’s CBD, there is an unmarked café—the Rohingya Bazaar.
Along one wall, shelves are stacked with produce from Myanmar—biscuits, rice, noodles, spices and sauces. There are few customers but they stay a long time, sitting on the orange plastic chairs and talking at the long row of tables in the middle of the shop, or charging their phones at the tables by the other wall. People order coffee with condensed milk, or a plate of rice with curries from the bain-marie. Young men step outside for a cigarette and then return. One man has the remote control for the TV and chooses a string of Taylor Swift video clips from YouTube.
Shawfikul Islam comes in, wearing double denim and a backwards baseball cap. He arranged to meet here, but he’s late because he has been at the police station, helping interpret for two men who were in a dispute. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar—although the country’s government refuses to use the word ‘Rohingya’, and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Shawfikul explains that there are 500 Rohingya in Melbourne—mostly living in Springvale—and about 3000 in Australia. Mainly, they are young men like him. “For Rohingya boys growing up, the dream is to escape,” he explains. “We’re the most unwanted community in the world.”
Shawfikul begins to introduce people in the community, starting with Kabir, the owner of the café.
Kabir Ahmed is 44 years old. He is slim, clean-shaven and fresh-faced. He took over the premises at the start of the year and intends to make a sign as soon as he can, but he’s very busy: the café is open from 9 am to 10 pm every day. Kabir has eight children, including two sets of twin boys. Several of them squeal around the café while he stands beneath a low fluorescent light at the counter, or sits with his customers, or disappears to run errands. His youngest daughter was born in Australia, after everyone arrived by boat from Malaysia in 2013. Kabir is waiting and hoping for a visa that will allow his family a pathway to permanent residency. “I had no work rights in Malaysia,” he says. “In Australia, I have support.”
When Kabir was a teenager, he fled from Rakhine State—the coastal province in Myanmar where most Rohingya have lived for generations—and into Bangladesh, but five years later he was repatriated by force. It still wasn’t safe, so he fled again. Last year, he says, his aunt and nephew were shot and killed by the military. Kabir’s brothers and sisters escaped to Cox’s Bazar in south-eastern Bangladesh. About one million Rohingya live there now, in over a dozen makeshift refugee camps. Ahmed is worried about how his family will cope as the monsoon season begins. The monsoon is troubling many people we meet at the café. The first rains have begun, but the heaviest falls will come from June to September—during these months alone, the region averages more than five times Melbourne’s annual rainfall.
Ash Ashrafalie started work this morning at 7 am at a lettuce and herb farm on Melbourne’s outskirts. When he finished, he came to the café. At the farm, he labours in the fields—picking, cutting and bunching leaves—and he enjoys the work. His father was a farmer too. Ash grew up in Rakhine State, where they would grow vegetables or rice, or go fishing, depending on the season. Since late last year, he has been working six days a week so he can support his wife and three of his siblings, and their families, who are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. One of his sisters fled from Myanmar last year when her village was attacked—she is among the estimated 700,000 Rohingya who have crossed the border since August. “Her baby was 14 days old, but she wasn’t able to take her baby. She couldn’t manage to… she couldn’t...” he says, trailing off. He is stony-faced. The baby died in the fire as her house burnt down. His cousin and his uncle died too.
He does not know how his family will survive the coming months. Cyclone Mora hit the district on May 30 last year, killing at least seven people and destroying or damaging over 50,000 houses. Since then, the camps have quadrupled in size and large areas of forest have been cleared, as people seek land and firewood. The hills are now bare; there will be landslides and flash floods and water-borne diseases. “I am doing what I can,” Ash says. “It is up to God.”
He has not seen his wife since 2007, but they speak every day. She gave birth to their child after he’d fled to Thailand, but the baby became sick and died. He says his wife was not permitted to leave their village to visit a doctor for the boy. Ash maintains strong eye contact as he speaks—he is determined that his situation be understood. His parents died after he left too and he could not go to their funerals.
Setara Begum is in the kitchen, making samosas, her blue apron protecting a sparkly silver jumper. She is 39 years old and she has been married to Kabir, who owns the café, since 1994. Their marriage was arranged by their parents in Myanmar. Their youngest daughter—the one who was born in Australia—hasn’t yet started school, but their eldest two children are already married with three kids of their own. Setara works looking after the family and she never has time to relax—she laughs at the thought of relaxation, when I ask. But she does like going to Chelsea beach on Port Phillip Bay with a picnic, because the kids enjoy running on the sand. She helps Kabir at Rohingya Bazaar when she can. “I feel happy about the café,” she says. “Not only about the business, but also because the community has a place to share.”
Setara’s mother and sisters are still in Myanmar, and her other sisters are in Bangladesh—she speaks with them as often as the patchy phone network will allow. “They are still scared,” she says, “scared of burning houses, scared for their lives.” They are not alone in their fear. A UN report about the violence in 2017 stated that “the widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral” to the military’s strategy. “Violence was visited upon women, including pregnant women, who are seen as custodians and propagators of ethnic identity.”
When she was growing up in Rakhine State, Setara didn’t get to go to school, but now she goes to English classes once or twice a week. Rohingya are stateless—in 1982 the Myanmar government passed a law to deny them citizenship. Without those papers, they have no rights to education or health services, and they’re not free to travel outside their villages. Recently, Setara’s young sons told her they want to be doctors, engineers and teachers. “The environment is not like that in Myanmar. You don’t have a chance to dream like that,” she says.
Anwar Ibrahim was one when his parents escaped from Myanmar to Bangladesh and he spent four years there in a refugee camp. Then the family was smuggled by boat to Malaysia, where they lived without rights to work or access to education and healthcare. When Anwar was fourteen, he boarded a small boat from Indonesia to Christmas Island. He was alone. “The waves were as big as a mountain,” he recalls. At the time, he spoke Rohingya, Malaysian and Bengali, but not English. He had always wanted to go to school and, finally, after he was released from Australian immigration detention, he started year nine. Last year, proud and relieved to successfully complete year 12, he remembered his first exam: “I was in tears, because I didn’t have any clue about maths. I couldn’t complete the tasks.”
Now, he’s 19 years old, fresh out of school, studying sports and recreation at TAFE, working at a sports centre and playing on the left wing for White Star Dandenong soccer club. “I really want to be in this country. This is where I belong," he says. Anwar’s parents and four younger brothers remain in Malaysia, but because he is on a bridging visa, he cannot travel to visit them. They speak every weekend. He also has relatives in Rakhine State. In the violence last year, some of them escaped, some got stuck, and some got killed. “I don’t want to think about it, because when I do, I can’t focus, I can’t study. Sport gives me a way to pass the time.”
Jumabi Mohamad Ali sometimes goes to Rohingya Bazaar for a meal with her husband, Ali Sharif, when she is too tired to cook. It’s the place to get the food she loves. “Everything is curry. Spicy curry,” she says, warmly. In the bain-marie, there are two kinds of fish and chicken curries, but the beef is the hottest of all. Jumabi is 28 years old. Her children are 14, 12 and 10. She was born in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, and grew up in Malaysia, where her family fled after her father was murdered by Buddhist extremists. Her mother had seven children to support, so she worked illegally seven days a week, cleaning and cooking for other families—she still does. Jumabi and her siblings had to work too.
Jumabi has nightmares about the sea. She’s had two lives, she says: one ended on the boat; another one began in Australia. She opens a folder to show off a sheath of laminated certificates, detailing the volunteering she has done and the courses she has completed since she arrived in Melbourne in 2013. At a women’s centre she learnt embroidery—she stitched colourful maps of Australia and Burma side-by-side and hung them on her wall. She began volunteering at Springvale Rise Primary School in 2016, and a year later, she started working there full time as a multicultural educator, running playgroups and supporting teachers. On Mondays and Tuesdays after work, she goes to English class. “When my mum called and I told her I found a job here, she couldn’t believe it,” Jumabi says. “Sometimes she cries. She says, ‘My daughter is very lucky.’”
Abdul Rohim begins to cry when he mentions his family. He will turn 50 this year, but it is more than a decade since he saw his wife, daughter and son. They have been held in an internment camp in southern Rakhine State since 2012 and they are not allowed to leave. His wife is very ill, he says, but there is no medical care. Eight families are crowded into a bamboo shelter. He is always homesick, but he cannot return. “Every day of my life I think, ‘How can I be with them?’ My head feels like it is boiling,” he says, taking off his cap and pointing at the peak of his forehead. “I go to the wall and hit my head and cry. I try not to think, but the next day it comes to my mind again.”
It was his big dream that one day he would educate his children. For now at least, they are going to school. Whenever he speaks to them, he always asks what they are learning. “My daughter is very good at studying—she likes chemistry. But I am worried for their future. I am far away, and I am getting older.”
Abdul comes to the café nearly every day. He meets friends and speaks in Rohingya. “It makes me feel better,” he says. In Rakhine State, he was a fisherman. He hasn’t been fishing in Melbourne, but when he was held in immigration detention near Weipa, on Cape York, he was given permission to go fishing three times.
Rehana Rafique was born in Malaysia, where her parents had fled years earlier. She has never been to Myanmar, but her parents always say it’s beautiful. “My dad told me he had a big house there. They were rich—like, normal rich,” she says. In Malaysia, ten people lived in their small rented house, and Rehana remembers always doing chores: helping her aunts with cleaning and her dad with selling fruit. Malaysia hasn’t signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, so the family lived at risk of arrest or deportation.
Rehana and her family arrived in Australia by boat in 2012, just before the Labor government re-opened the offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Many people who came after them remain offshore, but they were held in Darwin for only one month. Now 19, Rehana was 13 years old and she loved detention—you could play with other kids all the time and there was no housework. When an immigration officer asked what career she wanted, she replied: “I want to become like you”. She intends to stick to her word. She finished high school last year and is studying a diploma of justice at TAFE. Rehana had never been to school before she arrived in Australia. “My first year, I just stayed quiet,” she says. “Now my friends say ‘Shut up Rehana—you talk too much!’”
Every Friday for two years she has volunteered at Springvale Neighbourhood House, using her six languages—besides English—to support and interpret for other women in the suburb. Often, the women are dealing with family violence. She is also helping Victoria Police develop a mobile app for the Rohingya community, with audio recordings that provide information about social services. The illiteracy rate among Rohingya is estimated to be 80 per cent, and even higher among women.
Each day after class, Rehana is expected to return home by 4 pm. Parties are out of the question. “My parents don’t like it when girls go outside. They say it’s rude,” she explains. Many of her friends are already married. “I tell my parents I’m too young and I have to study more.”
Shawfikul Islam had ducked out for a little while between interviews, but he returns and signals to Kabir for a coffee. When it arrives, he stirs the condensed milk from the bottom of the cup and talks about himself, quietly.
When he was eight years old, he moved with his family from Rakhine State to Yangon. He had to travel in disguise, wearing thanaka on his cheeks—a white makeup common for women and children in Myanmar—with a Buddhist friend who pretended to be his father. At that time, Shawfikul explains, middle-class Rohingya families could live safely in the capital by bribing their way out of problems. He was able to go to school and university, but he had a habit of talking back against slurs and discrimination. “I was always in trouble,” he says. Eventually, following a serious dispute, he had to leave and seek asylum. Now, he is 31 years old and he’s been in Australia for five years, but his wife and 6-year-old son and his parents and siblings remain in Myanmar. His grandmother is in a refugee camp in Bangladesh; a few months ago they spoke by video call. “I couldn’t control my tears,” he says. “I don’t make video calls anymore.”
In Melbourne, Shawfikul heard about Rohingya labourers who were being paid poorly, so he contacted the National Union of Workers to see if it could help. Now he works for the union, organising farm and poultry workers like Ash to demand their rights. Shawfikul uses his spare time, and his English, to assist the community however he can. It keeps him occupied. Sometimes, after translating for these interviews, he fell silent—people’s suffering is too heavy and he cannot carry his own grief. This week he took three days off work, to try to cope. But his father always helped people in need and he is trying to follow his father’s example. “Wherever you go, if you say you’re Rohingya, you will be looked upon as a victim. This has been going on for generations,” he says. “We can’t wait for solutions to be given to us, we have to build ourselves up.”
Here in Australia, Shawfikul sees that the Rohingya community has real opportunities. And even in Bangladesh he believes that if only ten people in a hundred can get educated, then they, in turn, can educate hundreds. “It will take decades, but I have hope and confidence that we will be looked upon as human—just like the next person.”
Interviews by Michael Green
Concept and illustrations by Tia Kass
Commissioned and produced by Kylie Boltin
Designed by Andrew Wong
Additional Research by Debra Shulkes
Thanks to Shawfikul Islam for his assistance with this work.