It’s really heart-breaking when we hear about the plight of the Rohingya refugees stranded at sea. Sometimes we feel helpless. We want to help, but we don’t know how, especially those still stranded at sea.
But hey, we can still help those who made it to Langkawi recently, right? They came with nothing but whatever they were wearing. Stranded at sea with nothing to drink and eat, you can just imagine their condition when they first arrived in Langkawi. Many of them were women and children.
So a group of women volunteers in Perak decided we needed to do something to help. We’re not from any particular NGO, just calling ourselves Sukarelawan Wanita Prihatin Perak. We started asking around for donations, be they in cash or in kind. And since a private college in Ipoh, HAAZA Centre for Excellence, also organised their own humanitarian mission to collect contributions for the Rohingya refugees, we decided to work together with them. The college became the collection centre, and their students helped out especially with the packing and sorting out of the items collected.
Thursday, 4th June 2015: The day to deliver all our contributions to Kedah. Basically all contributions are to be sent to the collection centre at the Alor Star immigrations Office.
Initially we intended to send the contributions in 2 vans, but we ended up with so many boxes of goods to be delivered and had to hire a lorry instead.
Group photo before flag off. Sukarelawan Wanita Prihatin Perak together with staff & students of HAAZA.
We went off in 3 different vehicles: One lorry carrying the bulk of the contributions, one van carrying 2 of our women volunteers together with 5 male students and 1 male tutor from HAAZA, while 2 more women (including myself) were in another car, carrying 3 air purifiers.
Those who want to send their contributions, are to send them to the collection centre at Alor Star Immigrations Office. We aren’t allowed to visit the refugees at the Belantik Immigration Detention Depot where the refugees had been sent to. However, among the items identified as urgently needed were air purifiers. Since I managed to collect enough cash from friends to buy 3 air purifiers, we were asked to send them direct to the detention depot in Belantik.
And so our convoy separated at the Gurun exit. The lorry and the van went straight to the Alor Star immigrations office, while the 2 of us in the car exited Gurun and drove on to Belantik, further up than Sik. Quite a remote area I must say, but certainly beautiful sceneries along the way.
When we arrived at Sik town and called Tuan Amir, the immigration officer we were liaising with, we were told we had about another 30km or so to go before reaching their detention depot. We were also told they’d be serving us lunch, and so there was no need for us to have lunch first. The road leading to Belantik from Sik was even more remote. I wouldn’t want to drive there alone, and I definitely wouldn’t want to drive there at night.
We finally made it to the Belantik Immigration Detention Depot at about 2 pm.
Tuan Amir came to greet us before informing his superiors about our arrival with the 3 air purifiers. Our arrival was at the perfect time. They were just done with a meeting and so immediately we officially handed over the air purifiers to their Tuan Pengarah.
Tuan Amir was so nice to get permission from his boss to allow us to visit the detention cells as well. Seeing that there were only 2 of us instead of a big group (and we were very well behaved too, hehehe…), Tuan Pengarah gave us the go-ahead, provided of course that we are not allowed to take photos beyond the green gate separating the other buildings and the detention cells.
Tuan Amir then accompanied us, first to the cell where the clinic is. The same building was also used to temporarily place those selected by UNHCR to be taken elsewhere. The moment we got inside, still at the door, we were given masks to be worn, not only because of the smell, but also for health reasons. The place was so cramped, the air definitely didn’t feel healthy, thus the reason the air purifiers were needed.
In the first cell we met 3 ladies, 2 of them with babies, and the other lady was pregnant, due to deliver any time. Cute little babies I must say, one in the mother’s arms, while the other, just about 2 months old I think, was lying on a piece of towel on the floor. They were among those identified by the UNHCR to be taken elsewhere. We then walked on past a few more cells with adult immigrants also already selected by the UNHCR. The UNHCR was supposed to send busses to pick them up that day, but there were still no signs of the busses when we were there.
We were then shown where the clinic was, and that was where one of the air purifiers were placed. Health personnel from nearby health clinics and hospital come to the clinic 3 times a week to treat the immigrants for whatever ailments they may have.
Leaving that building, we then went on to another cell, placing the refugees who arrived recently in Langkawi. The smell there was even worse. Tuan Amir related to us about one of the Rohingya women they met, they noticed that her blouse was wet near her breasts, and they figured that it was due to her breast milk. She must have a baby then, right? They asked her where her baby was, and it was so heart-breaking to find out that the baby had been thrown into the sea earlier because while they were still at sea, the lady ran out of breast milk to feed the little baby (she herself didn’t have anything to drink or eat…) and so the baby died of hunger.
There were many other sad stories of course, and according to Tuan Amir, hysteria was quite a norm among some of the women. They must have had such a traumatic experience, not only at sea, but also earlier on at home.
After visiting the cells, we identified a few more areas help may be needed. If any of you out there are thinking of helping, here are a few you may want to consider
They do have this water filter system at one of the cells. This is very much needed to enable them to drink right from the tap without having to boil the water first. It would be good if the other building is also equipped with this water filter (with a more hygiene water tank).
The refugees stay in cells where they don’t have anything to look at but themselves and the walls. Outside activities for the moment are not advisable… anything can happen because there are too many of them there and there aren’t enough immigration officers to supervise all of them. Seriously, I think I can go nuts if I stay in the cell doing nothing but stare at each other and the wall (and in a very warm environment). But for these refugees, they were happy enough to be safe at land, with food and drink available for them. They were already thankful as it was.
For the 2 of us who went to visit, our main concern are the children and the teenagers. To change their future, education is of utmost importance. Even during our short visit, when Tuan Amir just spontaneously taught a boy sitting near the closed grill door how to count from one to five, the boy followed after him, one, two, three, four, five. It would be good if we can have volunteers going there on a regular basis to teach the children how to read and count. At least just the basics. Tuan Amir said something can be arranged if there are any volunteers willing to do that. Anyone in Kedah want to take up the challenge? Or any universities want to take that up as a project?
The visit was definitely an eye-opener for me. Thank goodness we managed to get enough funding to buy the purifiers to get the permission to go direct to the detention depot. Otherwise, we would just deliver the goods to the collection centre at the Alor Star immigration office, and that was it. I wouldn’t be seeing for myself the condition of the refugees, and I wouldn’t be able to assess the situation myself.
More needs to be done. We can’t simply close our eyes and mind our own business. This is fardu kifayah.
“Ya Allah, tabahkanlah mereka di dalam menghadapi dugaan demi dugaan. Semoga dugaan yang mereka hadapi akan menjadikan mereka insan-insan lebih berjaya di masa hadapan.
Ya Allah, jadikan kami rakyat Malaysia insan-insan yang lebih prihatin. Jadikanlah insiden yang berlaku di tanahair kami ini sebagai iktibar kepada kami. Jadikanlah kami insan-insan yang lebih bersyukur dengan segala nikmat yang telah Engkau berikan kepada kami selama ini.”