What a change for Salim. From living 21 years in Kuala Lumpur as a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, he is now resettled in Utica, upper New York State – about 390km from the Big Apple.
His dream destination, and life, is taking shape.
“Boleh tahan... ada heater (not bad... there’s a heater)," he says while giving a virtual tour of his new home via WhatsApp’s free video call.
It is freezing cold (-6°C) and snowing.
I wrote about Salim, a Rohingya refugee, in one of my earlier columns in May, 2015. And boy, he’s gone a long way. (https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/online-exclusive/whats-your-status/2015/05/07/life-of-refugee-salim/)
His tenacity even then struck me. A "besi karat" (scrap-metal) collector who once helped repair our nation’s Parliament roof, Salim’s gentle grace and mannerism stays true.
Like a brother, he insisted on helping out at my wedding – directing guests to the car park, while looking sharp in a sampin borrowed from my father.
Finally, mid-last year, Salim and family got the green light. They were cleared by the UNHCR for travel to their new host country, the United States of America.
So, how has life been in Utica?
All expenses from rental, travel to groceries etc are being taken care of for the first six months by the resettlement organisations.
The family is adapting better than during their first month of "home sickness". Support from various organisations, as well as other Rohingya families already there, have put smiles on their faces.
And for the first time, Salim, at 30, has a "proper" job as a wireman. He is allowed to work – he is no more an "illegal"; in Malaysia, refugees aren’t legally allowed to work.
“Saya jimat”, he says, of the US$3k monthly salary he is now saving in anticipation of the initial living allowances being stopped. And he coyly adds that maybe in a couple of years, he will have enough to take a holiday in Malaysia.
Salim’s heart is with our country. This is where he grew up. Prior to leaving for the US, he would pop by our home with numerous questions about Utica — Are there mosques there? (Salim reports there’s a fairly big one nearby).
However, most times when he left our place, his parting shot, was, “Tapi saya banyak suka tempat ini....” (but I really like this place – Malaysia).
It got me thinking that it’s time for some concrete soul searching.
Malaysia is all Salim and his family have known; they have their friends and a large community here. And yet, he had always yearned and waited eagerly to go abroad.
Seriously, Utica over Kuala Lumpur (or anywhere else in Malaysia)?!
No offence meant but I Googled the place and TripAdvisor’s list of top 10 sites didn’t really shout “must visit!”. (I digress: Clearly the resettlement organisations there have passionate and wonderful people).
So why did Salim feel the grass is greener on the other side? Does he still think that way now?
Salim’s answer is voiced by his son, Zain, 11, “I’m in grade 6 now”.
In a short span of almost three months of schooling, Zain is articulate, confident and talks to us over the phone in English.
“Yes, I remember seeing you in Malaysia.”, Zain says to my mother, complete with an American accent.
When asked about his school and studies, Zain states: “It’s good, I want to be a doctor.”
And Salim believes that Zain can be just that. The education system in Utica, he says, is “banyak bagus” (very good).
Zain plays translator when any family member visits the doctor or an office, relates Salim with a hearty laugh.
Salim’s belief of a better future has been further fuelled because an agency has reconnected him with his sister who he lost touch with almost 12 years ago.
She had been re-settled in Canada. They have just had an emotional reunion, and Salim narrated that his sister just graduated with a degree in law, while her sons were beginning engineering and medical studies.
Salim is inspired that his son will have the education he never had.
Refugee education opportunities in Malaysia were promised but never came around. Work opportunities for Rohingya announced at a mammoth rally never came around too.
It does seems a gross irony that often enough we seem more keen to hit the streets to protest the mistreatment of people abroad, but when they come here, we mistreat them in different ways.
My guess is that instinctively, we, Malaysians, have become territorial and guarded because we are afraid that if we let “others” in, we’ll lose out.
For me, the ideal Malaysia is one where the worse-off in society – the oppressed, the disadvantaged – can look at us and say: “This is where I want to live”.
Salim’s heart feels it but his head rules. Salim wants his son to have the opportunities he could never dream of.
He once revealed: “Sometimes at night, before I sleep, I have tears.... why is my life like this?”
Salim wants Zain to have the chance to assimilate, to be one of the ‘crowd’; to have access to better living conditions and supportsystems, and yes, citizenship opportunities.
My heart is sad because my family has “lost” a member. But, it is filled with joy because Salim has been given this much deserved opportunity.
Hopefully, this is the start of the “ordinary” life that he’s always sought, and for his son, Zain, to belong to.