The strange life of Salim the refugee

  • What's Your Status?
  • Thursday, 07 May 2015

JANUARY 1, 1984. This is Salim's date of birth. Well, it isn't his actual date of birth. The "new year's" date was given by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) because there's no real record of his birth. If you asked around, you'd find that a good number of Rohingya refugees were 'born' on 1st January. Salim tells me he was born in August. Maybe.

And it was 1988, not 1984, that he was born. He was registered to look older because "lebih tua (older)" could mean faster settlement in a host country - like his brother in Australia and his sister in Canada.

18 years. Salim came to Malaysia aged 9. He and his elder siblings had run here with the help of smugglers (an ironic sentence that). They had fled their homeland due to persecution and racial tensions. His parents who had remained behind were murdered.

Salim speaks fantastic Bahasa Malaysia (better than some of our Parliamentarians). He is a keen learner, picking up on words he hears in conversations - and yes, naturally inquisitive because he never went to school. After 18 years here, he is not entitled to hold a driving licence or work technically. Let's not even talk about permanent residency or citizenship. He's now 27 years old.

Parliament roof fixer. Salim was once part of the labour crew hired (illegally?) to fix our Parliament's iconic Minangkabau-inspired roof. He felt very proud. There was an aura about Parliament, he said. There's an irony in this, somewhere. Since his teenage years, he has done odd jobs - as a welder and labourer in property building projects. Along the way, an accident caused injury to his eye, no one wanted to hire him for even odd jobs so he became a scrap-metal collector.

Understanding policeman. Salim tries not to be too concerned when riding his motorcycle,  knowing that if a policeman stops him, it'll mean trouble. Despite having an UNHCR card, he isn't allowed to own a motorbike or work. But what choice does he have? He was once brought to the "balai (police station)" and, fluently chatting in BM with the officer on duty, was released with a stern warning. He explained that he was in a Catch 22 situation. How does one live if one is unable to work? Or have not transport to work?

Married to his sister-in-law. Officially, he's married with a kid. In reality, the child is his nephew. It's his widowed sister-in-law's child. Her husband was Salim's brother who was also, like their parents, killed in the ethnic clashes in Myanmar. The child was born in a local hospital. Salim paid RM700 of the RM1400 medical bill. The remainder was covered by the UNHCR. He was lucky, he says. This year, there will not be any more financial assistance. He has taken on the role of protector to his family and relatives that arrive here. After all, he has been here a long time.

Europe, Australia, Canada, the United States of America. Dream destinations. Salim prays that he will be fortunate enough to find a home abroad, and leave Malaysia. Why? Better opportunities. I did ask: "What if it only appears better whichever country?" He says it's worth the risk, and he feels confident. His brother, who Salim describes as more educated, is happy in Australia and is going to marry a local girl soon. He has lost touch with the sister in Canada. Many of his friends, who were once in Malaysia but are now overseas, with whom he sees on Facebook or chats with via whatsapp, vouch for it. They have jobs, medical insurance, and some can even vote in local elections.

One day, the UNHCR will send him to one of his dream destinations. One heavenly day.

English. Salim  is learning to speak English. He believes that the reason he hasn't already been sent to another country is because of his inability to communicate in English. He also says he almost got that ticket to go abroad but, alas, got into that accident. That's when his sister left - a good eight years ago. Then there was also this fire at the UNHCR which destroyed records - and he had to re-register.

"Never mind, what to do", he says and laughs. He's learning English fast. YouTube is especially helpful, though he often tunes in to Adel songs in Hindi.

Malaysia. I love this country, but sometimes I wish we can do more, especially for displaced people like Salim. After reading about the mass graves of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis found in southern Thailand recently, it's hard to imagine what someone like Salim has gone through. He likes it that Malaysians are generally hospitable, that the Muslims here are nice and moderate, and that previous bosses, be they Chinese, Indian or Malay, are kind - but there's more to life. For now, it's about survival. An ordinary life, not an odd one. And later hopefully, belonging.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Article type: metered
User Type: anonymous web
User Status:
Campaign ID: 18
Cxense type: free
User access status: 3
Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at


Did you find this article insightful?


Across the site