Muhammad Arif, 30, fled his native Myanmar 11 years ago and has lived a migrant’s life since, including two years in Thailand as a slave.
He speaks softly and projects an inner calm and authority as he tells his harrowing story.
Arif is one of seven Rohingya refugees in Medan, Indonesia who have memorized all 30 juz of the Quran. He leads prayers, and gives lectures on Islam to other Rohingyas, who call him “Ustad,” an honorific for a highly skilled person.
He has lived at Medan’s Hotel Pelangi for the past three years, along with about 100 other Rohingya refugees, who all await resettlement in a third country. Their rooms are paid for by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Until now, not a single Rohingya Muslim in Medan has been granted asylum in a third country.
Hotel Pelangi is outfitted with closed-circuit television cameras. On each of three visits, a representative of Indonesia’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights questioned BenarNews about the purpose of the visit.
BenarNews ultimately interviewed Arif at a nearby café, but did not independently verify his story.
Arrested by soldiers
At age 19, soldiers in Myanmar arrested Arif after his family refused to hand over their home and land in Maungdaw, Rakhine state, to the military-run government.
He was held for two weeks.
“Every day and night, I was beaten and tortured. They broke one of my teeth, and burned my hands with cigarettes,” he said, displaying a burn mark on his hand.
Then he was freed and given five days to think about handing over his familial land. His mother insisted that they should comply rather than see him thrown in jail again.
“After our house and land was given to the Buddhists, every day soldiers would come to my uncle’s house where we were staying. My mother felt my life was in danger, so I decided to leave Maungdaw,” Arif said.
He went to Chittagong, Bangladesh, and continued studying Islam at a madrassa in that city for four years. In 2008, he graduated and began to look for a job. But he could not work, because he was not a citizen.
“One day, I was invited to get on a boat. I didn’t pay because I had no money. They said just get in, because my presence would be a blessing on the journey,” he said.
It was a seven-day journey with 11 other Rohingyas on a wooden boat.
The boat moored in Thailand.
An agent took him to the owner of a fishing boat. Arif said he was forced to clean the boat day and night, without pay. Food rations were tiny.
Arif was deeply isolated because he could not speak Thai.
“If I asked for food, they hit me. When I was sleeping, they gave me shots to make me strong. I don’t know what they put in my body,” he said.
After working for a year on the boat, Arif was sold to work on a plantation, he said. Conditions were not much better: long hours with no pay. None of the other workers could speak his language.
“I worked from six in the morning to eight at night. If I was lazy at my work, they would give me a shot. I slept alone in a warehouse. I don’t know what the name of that place was,” he said.
After about a year, another Rohingya was brought to the site. Arif was elated to have a friend at last. Two months later, the two resolved to run away. In the middle of the night, while the guards slept, they pulled it off.
“We ran, without knowing where we were going. I prayed to Allah to keep us safe. We ate anything edible in order to stay alive. Two days and two nights we ran, until we came upon a river,” he said.
They followed the river until finally they saw a mosque. They learned that they were now in Malaysia.
With help from some local people, they contacted an uncle of Arif’s companion in Penang state.
In Penang, Arif taught the Quran to the children of six Malay families. From his earnings he was able to eat and set aside a small amount, held for him by one of the families.
Arif met many illegal Rohingya workers. They told him about the possibility of a better life in Australia.
The family holding his money introduced him to an agent from Indonesia.
“I don’t know how much money the family gave the agent, because I never asked,” he said.
The trip began with a bus ride from Penang to Kuala Lumpur.
Then he was taken by boat, along with six other Rohingya refugees, to Belawan Port in North Sumatra; from there they went to Polonia Airport in Medan, where they took a plane to Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, via Jakarta.
The next stop was BauBau, on Buton Island, on the southeastern tip of Sulawesi.
‘Saved by whales’
After 15 days in a warehouse rented by the agent in BauBau, Arif said he boarded a boat with 56 other Rohingya, including women and children, headed for Australia. They were told the trip would take four days.
The boat’s engine died two days later. A speedboat came to fetch the captain and three crew. They sped off, leaving the Rohingyas in the middle of the ocean.
“For two days and two nights we pitched about in the middle of the ocean. Everybody on the boat was crying. The women and children were crying because there was no food. Everyone was weak from hunger,” he said.
“In the middle of the night, an old man told me, ‘Ustad, please pray to God to save us.’ I stood up and told all of them to pray together and read the Quran.”
Then, according to Arif, a miracle occurred. He said he saw whales appear and create waves that pushed the boat to a small island. Before dawn, they landed.
“I don’t know how many whales helped us. But the fishermen who helped us said they saw four whales. I truly believe it was a miracle from Allah who saved us in the middle of the ocean because there were children on the boat,” he said.
In the morning, police and immigration officials arrived, and arrested the Rohingyas. Twenty-three men were put in jail; the women and children were released.
Arif was detained for a year and four months in Manado, North Sulawesi. Finally, IOM officials came and brought him to Medan.
Since September 2013, Arif has lived at the Hotel Pelangi. Every day he keeps a routine, although he is not allowed to work.
He studies, exercises, interacts with other refugees, leads prayers and sometimes goes on excursions near the hotel.
He is muscular, diligent about maintaining his fitness. His moustache, beard and sideburns are freshly shaved; his hair is styled like that of Real Madrid football star Cristiano Ronaldo.
Arif holds out hope of finding a third country where he can work, get married and start a family. He is afraid to get married when he has no job.
“I always pray to Allah that Muslim Rohingya will be acknowledged as citizens of Myanmar, so that we can go home,” he said. “I don’t know if my mother and my siblings are still alive in Myanmar.”