Oddny and the Rohingya

Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Psalm 82:2-4

The psalmist’s cry was on Oddny Gumaer’s heart when she recounted the suffering of the Rohingya women she met in Malaysia recently.

The Rohingya women, men and children have fled from the brutalities of oppression and poverty in their homeland, Burma (Myanmar). Not only have they been persecuted and oppressed by their own government, but they have been left undefended by the rest of the world.

In Burma, the Rohingya, a minority group of a million people, are not eligible for full citizenship unless they can meet stringent requirements including tracing their family history in Myanmar back over 150 years. Violence in Rakine state where most Rohingya live has meant that nearly 200,000 are existing in squalid displaced persons camps. Escape across the border seems like a lifeline for the families.

But as undocumented refugees in Malaysia and Thailand, they are still hungry and desperately needy, with no rights to work, no adequate housing and no access to a doctor. Oddny tells me, “They are also fearful because they have no guarantees that they won’t get detained by the police, and either sent back to Burma, or trafficked.”

One young mother’s story has stayed with Oddny. At 19, barely more than a girl, Mawi was forced to work as a slave by the Burma Army. When they threatened to imprison her for reasons she wasn’t told, she ran away to Malaysia.

She has no legal papers, which makes her a target of the police as well as human traffickers. Pregnant and unemployed, Mawi was detained by Malaysian immigration police two years ago. A bribe got her out of prison.

Her son is now 2 years old and she is six months pregnant. Some months ago a car hit Mawi’s husband and son as they were crossing the road. The driver ran off, leaving her husband critically wounded on the road. He is now handicapped and may never be able to work again.

Mawi doesn’t know how her family is going to survive. Without a UN registration card she has no legal right to medical help, so she doesn’t know where and how she will deliver her baby. The family has no income at all and depends on their neighbours’ charity to survive. She is not able to work since she has no legal papers, and also because she will need to look after her two children. She is constantly afraid that she will get arrested. She is frequently hassled by hospital staff telling her that they still owe money for her husband’s treatment.

Oddny has met many women in similar situations but still, Mawi’s desperate need has left her feeling hopeless. She says,

“I found myself feeling desperate, angry and confused. Why wouldn’t God provide justice for them?”

“Why is it always the most vulnerable that keep getting the bad deals? Where are the ones who will speak for them? When will the world decide that every human is valuable, not just the ones with the loudest mouths and the fattest bank accounts? Where is the church?”

Oddny has channelled her desperate confusion into work among the victims of poverty and violence for 20 years. She is the founder and advocacy director of Partners Relief and Development.

She does not let despair conquer her but at the same time she wants more people to become advocates for the poor of Burma where half a million people have fled their homes and where only 4% of children in some areas are in school.

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