Half a world away from their homeland, a handful of Rohingya Muslim refugees have resettled in Washington. They’ve been through hell and need our help finding stability, writes Thanh Tan.

Share story

Horrific images of gaunt Rohingya refugees fleeing in boats isn’t just Southeast Asia’s problem. More than 25,000 members of this ethnic minority Muslim group have fled extreme persecution in Myanmar this year, and they have not been allowed to return.

Over the past 12 months, the United States has responded to this humanitarian crisis by resettling about 1,000 Rohingya refugees throughout the country, including a handful of families sent to Washington. They are just the latest wave of refugees coming from the troubled country formerly known as Burma, and join one of the state’s fastest-growing refugee populations.

If we want these victims of war and persecution to succeed and become self-sufficient, their first years in America are the critical period when they need as much support as possible from their adopted community.

I’m not so sure we’re doing the job. Refugees seem hidden from view in pockets of King County most of us never see.

Most Read Opinion Stories

Unlimited Digital Access: $1 for 4 weeks

Toyuba Binti Nozumea, 50, fled Myanmar in 1988. Six months ago, the single mother arrived in Kent with two of her children. Her son suffers seizures, and her own knees and back are damaged after years of carrying bricks up stairs in Malaysia.

The family now lives in an apartment complex that houses hundreds of other newcomers — a refugee city hidden in the shadows of a metropolis. Gleeful children played soccer outside as we sat in a dark living room with used furniture and the occasional cockroach crawling across the kitchen floor.

Nozumea feels anxious about the future because she cannot work.

“I can barely put food on the table,” she admits through an interpreter.

Without a TV or computer at home, the family is unaware of the latest Rohingya exodus. Does it matter? They lived it, and are trying to make something of the fact they are among the less than 1 percent of nearly 16 million worldwide refugees to find safety in a new country.

In a North Seattle group home, Ismail Bin Abdul Zawill, 32, is far removed from Myanmar’s tightly controlled camps for Rohingya Muslims. With no prospects of work or going to school, he escaped to Thailand by boat and crossed the border into Malaysia, where he eked out a living as a laborer.

One night, he was robbed and stabbed in the spine. The United Nations expedited his paperwork and sent him to Seattle in late 2012 for surgery.

At first, he was suicidal. Over time, he met other refugees who helped him adjust to living with paralysis. He can no longer walk and uses a wheelchair, but he tells me, in English, that he feels free. For the first time, Zawill is even thinking about going to school.

I hope Nozumea is able to make a similar transition. She wants to work as a hotel maid. The good news is her children, Muhammad Sulaiman Hussain, 12, and his sister, Kusyidah Binti Hussin, 11, have picked up English remarkably fast and translate for their mother. Their resilience shines and they have a bright future, but they will need lots of encouragement from friends and mentors.

A support system shouldn’t be hard to find in a region that fancies itself as an international community. The state’s residents have a long history of providing moral and financial support to struggling refugees, beginning with a mass exodus of Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

The difference is, back then Washingtonians felt personally connected to that war and families, and churches embraced refugees. Congress once provided refugees with assistance for up to three years. Today’s refugees are expected to be on their own after only a few months.

If the federal government accepts these traumatized survivors for humanitarian reasons, that transition period should be longer.

Here in Washington, we can help by encouraging our state legislators to protect funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the State Food Assistance Program. Such programs supply a few hundred dollars each month to refugees so they can focus on learning English, getting healthy, saving for housing and becoming productive citizens.

Nozumea and Zawill are among the first Rohingya refugees to arrive, but they won’t be the last. Let’s remember why they are here and ensure their incredible sacrifices can finally turn into something positive.