“I came to the U.S. with the hope that we could get a place that we could call home.”
Abdul Hamid, a Rohingya refugee, spent 19 years living in Malaysia after fleeing Myanmar in 1997. In the 1990s, many Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, fled to neighboring countries to escape the persecution and oppression against their community. Hamid lived in a stateless limbo for more than a decade before he and his family resettled in the United States in 2015.
“I was stateless in Burma, in Myanmar, and also in Malaysia. I was not recognized by the Malaysian government as a legal resident of Malaysia,” said Hamid.
Hamid ultimately decided to leave his home when the authorities started arresting Rohingya indiscriminately, including students, leaders, and elders in his community. He feared that if he did not leave, he would share their unjust fate: prison and torture. Though his family eventually joined him in Malaysia, he painfully chose to leave without them and make the difficult journey to safety by himself.
“This was a very hard time [for me],” Hamid said. “I am the eldest son in the family, they [my parents] needed my presence, needed me there with them…my wife was pregnant with my second child, only for three months.”
Even though Hamid and his family were able to escape the violence in Myanmar while living in Malaysia, they lived in constant fear without proper legal status. Hamid’s biggest fear was that the Malaysian authorities would arrest him and his family and deport them back to Myanmar, where they would face jail, physical violence, or even death. Refusing to live in danger any longer, Hamid applied for resettlement through the UN Refugee Agency, and after a five-year process they resettled to the United States.
“As soon as I arrived, when I landed at the airport, I saw [resettlement] agencies there welcoming us – at that time I feel, in our whole lifetime we spent time as sub-human beings, there was no one there to welcome us. And they were starting by welcoming us, this was a great moment,” he said.
Today, Hamid, his wife, and their children live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He works as a full-time medical interpreter for the Rohingya and Burmese community at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center.
“I feel that the communication between provider and patient is not obtained without the interpreter. There are limited English speaking patients, they always have a barrier to communicating with providers,” Hamid said. “If they do not get the correct, accurate message from provider to patient, how can they get good treatment? And from the providers’ side, if they don’t understand the language of their patients, how are they going to serve them? Interpretation between patients and providers is crucial.”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in the United States, he has been providing interpretation services remotely, helping non-English speaking COVID patients access the treatment and care they need. Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, when patients everywhere are fearful of how the virus will affect them, medical interpreters like Hamid are there to provide comfort to English-limited communities and assurance that they are getting the care they need.
“We can give some good advice. ‘We are here, whatever you need, whatever you want to speak about we will tell to the providers. I am with you.’ These are the supportive things we say during these situations,” Hamid said. “Kindness is part of healing, which is why it is important to show kindness to patients.”
Hamid and his family hope that they will become citizens in the very near future. They are excitedly awaiting the chance to finally be recognized as citizens of a country, after decades of never being able to truly call any one place home.
“Since we were born, we have been stateless. Can you imagine? Your entire life…you are stateless. And then one day you become citizens of some country – how do you feel? The feeling would be totally, amazingly different I imagine,” he said. “Right now, we are not belonging to any country, although we are existing in this one, we are invisible people, living in an invisible world…when you become a citizen, you can claim ‘I am a citizen of so and so country,’ then you have automatic rights – right to vote, right to voice out…all of these rights within an institution and law.”
Though they have not become citizens yet, Hamid says he “feels like an American” now. “At the beginning when I came here, I felt like an alien – I am not integrated into society. But a day goes by, a month goes by…I feel like society is embracing us. In this way, I feel I am an American.”
At the end of the day, the most important thing to Hamid is that his family can now live without fear and his children can access more opportunities, like higher education.
“You can find every community and race from every place in the world in the United States, and they can live together peacefully. Back in our country, few communities can live together this way…humanity is here, they are welcoming us,” he said.
This story is part of a campaign highlighting stories of refugees contributing to the Covid-19 response. Refugees International wishes to thank Refugee Congress, Refugee Council USA, We Are All America, and other partners for their collaboration.
Illustration by Arden Bentley.