MALAYSIANSKINI | Like many Malaysians, Tengku Emma Zuriana only came to know about the Rohingya when a group of around 450 people from the ethnic community arrived on the shores of Langkawi in 2012.
Prior to that, she had never heard of the Rohingya, let alone the crisis surrounding them in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Instead of treating it as another news headline, Tengku Emma, who has been based in Langkawi for the last eight years, decided to take action.
She called up her friends, and they began collecting funds, clothes and other necessities before travelling to Burau Bay, Langkawi.
There, they managed to pass the supplies to the exhausted and desperate Rohingya refugees.
However, to Tengku Emma's outrage, the local authorities arrived shortly afterwards and detained the Rohingya refugees.
It was a repeat of this experience three years later that prompted Tengku Emma to fully commit herself as an activist to help the Rohingya community.
In May 2015, around 1,000 Rohingya refugees entered Malaysian waters in overcrowded boats after Indonesia and Thailand refused to allow them to land.
For days they were afloat off the west coast of the peninsula as Malaysia too refused to take them in.
“Yet again, I pleaded with my friends to help me. However, this time proved to be difficult as we had no idea where to find a boat to take us to them, and the clock was ticking,” Tengku Emma said.
“We did manage to source a helicopter after sharing our concerns on Facebook, but even then we were told it wasn’t the right type of helicopter; it would only be able to track coordinates, not drop food.
“I was frustrated and I had no idea what to do," she added.
Malaysia eventually agreed to temporarily take the Rohingya refugees in, following international pressure, but Tengku Emma (photo) was determined not to see a similar experience repeat itself for the third time.
"After that, I decided to take up a more active role as a Rohingya activist, and take things into my own hands,” she told Malaysiakini in an interview.
Tengku Emma, who hails from Taiping, quit her job as a spa director to become a full-time Rohingya activist.
She now leads Yayasan Salam Rohingya, a foundation that aims to help the Rohingyas by providing education.
She is also working with other NGOs in an effort to build a centre in Kedah to provide healthcare and education for the Rohingya community.
In her own words, Tengku Emma, now 36, shared insights about her work and why helping the Rohingya community matters.
GENOCIDE WAS TRULY THE LAST STRAW. I first heard about the recent developments in Rakhine through my friends on social media. I decided to stand up and help those caught in the crossfire. I gave it all I have.
THOSE WHO ARE STUCK IN THE FIGHTS AND STRANDED OUT AT SEA need our help. We can achieve that by working with governments, NGOs, and individuals. We have to be able to work together, by God’s grace.
WE BELIEVE EDUCATION IS THE BEST MEANS POSSIBLE to enable the Rohingyas to get back their rights.
THE CENTRE WE WANT TO BUILD would possibly have a clinic where we offer services to them, regardless if they have a United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) card or not. The centre may or may not be in Langkawi, as we are still in talks to getting the plans going beyond paper.
MANY OF THE ROHINGYAS I MEET HAVE CHRONIC DISEASES and sadly, they have nowhere to turn to and do not make enough to be able to fork out the necessary costs. The problem is that many Rohingyas in Malaysia are not allowed a UNHCR card, among others. Therefore, they are not allowed to use its 50 percent discount when they go to hospitals or clinics to seek medical services.
I DON'T WANT THIS TO BECOME A RELIGIOUS ISSUE and I hope this is referred to as what it is - an international crisis of epic proportions.
THE PROBLEM IS AUNG SAN SUU KYI REFUSES TO TALK. Our requests are never accepted by the Myanmar government. Just recently, our foreign minister visited Suu Kyi, who is a state counsellor for the Myanmar government, only to find out that she would not entertain any requests to discuss the Rohingya issue.
MALAYSIA HAS TO BE MORE ‘KERAS’ (TOUGHER) because when you have an influx of Rohingyas making their way into Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, it is no longer an internal issue.
This has now become an international issue, an Asean issue. I propose to kick Myanmar out of Asean because the country constantly cites the Asean non-interference clause. The clause allows Asean countries not to discuss issues that they deem internal.
GIVE CREDIT WHERE IT IS DUE. Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has done a good job because he is actively involved in the issue. He personally gave instructions to the foreign minister to meet with Suu Kyi over the matter and he brought this matter up when he met with US President Donald Trump.
MALAYSIA COULD BECOME LIKE RAKHINE if we continue to be racially divided. In Malaysia, the people have always been harmonious with those of the other races, and I hope we do not become like Rakhine. We don’t want to become like them.
We shouldn’t make others uncomfortable and impose our beliefs and cultures on them. Let the Malays speak their language, practice their religion, and let the Chinese and Indians do the same for their own beliefs.
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