A hollow-eyed woman named Amina tended to her malnourished 2-year-old daughter in the humid heat of her hut. Ethnic warfare and a fortified fence kept them trapped in a refugee camp in Burma.
“We will die here,” Amina said.
A life and death in limbo awaits many of the 65.3 million people driven from their homes in the biggest worldwide refugee crisis since World War II.
Every year, fewer than 1 percent of the people uprooted from their homes by conflict resettle in the United States or another advanced country. About the same number return home.
Most live out their lives as outcasts. The largest number – some 40.8 million – are like Amina, homeless in their own countries. These “internally displaced persons” are not considered refugees. They don’t qualify for the resettlement program that brought 164,010 refugees from Burma to America, including 8,350 who came to Buffalo.
Hundreds of thousands of others wait for years, stuck in a huge backlog. A young woman named Dawt Lian Mawi works 63 hours a week and dodges police shakedowns in the slums of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She longs to join her brother in Buffalo.
Some are stranded for medical reasons. Mohammad Yunus Mohammad Hussein remains in Malaysia because of a contagious infection he picked up fleeing Burma. His daughter waits and worries in Buffalo.
Many would rather go home than come to America. Ter Blu’s daughter and sister resettled in Buffalo. But she remains in a refugee camp in Thailand, hoping to return home.
For most people who fled violence, the refugee road won’t end in America. It won’t lead to freedom.
And it won’t lead home.
SITTWE, Burma – Amina expects to die in a Third World hell called Man Zi. It looks like a refugee camp, only poorer.
Children with twigs for arms and distended bellies – signs of malnutrition – sit naked on mud paths. Some howl with hunger.
Bony-limbed men with sunken faces sit idle in the blistering sun. Women with billowing, colorful robes wrapped around their frail bodies peer out from rickety bamboo huts.
Man Zi is a camp for “internally displaced persons.” They are not considered refugees because they live in camps in their home countries.
That means they have virtually no chance of resettling in America. Resettling refugees is part of the U.N.’s mandate. But aiding internally displaced persons – who outnumber refugees by more than two-to-one – is not. So the U.N. devotes less funding to these people. They often live in conflict zones, so charities struggle to deliver aid to them.
That means the world’s internally displaced are often its most helpless, hopeless people.
In Burma alone, about 140,000 Rohingya Muslims live in camps like Man Zi.
That is where Amina, her husband and their two children share about 200 square feet of hut space with another family. A couple thousand people live in Man Zi on small food rations that leave them hungry. Several said conditions are worse during rainy season, when the camp floods.
Moheen Ismail Mohamad’s sister lives in a similar camp in Burma. He fled for Malaysia years ago and resettled in Buffalo last year. When his sister calls, she complains about the camp.
“It’s like being in jail,” he said.
Rohingya have lived in Burma’s Rakhine State for centuries. Yet Buddhist nationalists call them “Bengalis” – illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Burma withdrew the Rohingya Muslims’ citizenship rights in 1982, rendering them “stateless.” More than 900,000 Rohingya remain in Burma, but tens of thousands fled for Bangladesh, Malaysia or Thailand.
“They are the most unloved people on earth,” said Jack Dunford, former head of the charity that manages refugee camps in Thailand.
Ethnic riots drove thousands of Rohingya – including Amina and her family – out of their homes and into camps in 2012. Three years later, several thousand Rohingya fled on rickety boats run by human traffickers, journeys on the Indian Ocean that killed more than 300.
Amina stayed in one of the camps in Burma, where her family lives in squalor.
On a blistering day a year ago, Amina’s 2-year-old daughter lay motionless on a hammock. She struggled to breathe in the hot, fetid air.
She had been sick for weeks, but her mother couldn’t take her to the hospital. Even if she could, Amina said the Buddhist doctors might kill the little girl for being Rohingya.
“Our future is very dark,” Amina said. “We have no expectations. There will be no hope for us.”
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A rail-thin woman named Dawt Lian Mawi earns $1.24 an hour in this steamy tropical metropolis 1,800 miles from Burma.
She shares a bedbug-ridden bedroom with two other young women.
And she waits. It has been six years now, going on seven. She wants to move to Buffalo, where her brother built a better life.
Blame the wait on math. The U.N. says 1.2 million people need to be resettled in one of the few advanced countries that welcome refugees. But last year, only 107,100 were resettled, 66,500 of them to the United States.
Most refugees remain stranded in camps and urban slums. In Kuala Lumpur, refugees crowd into shabby apartments with no air conditioning in a city where the daily high tops 89 degrees year-round.
Chin refugees – Christians who endured persecution in Burma – started fleeing to Malaysian cities three decades ago. So did Rohingya Muslims. Now there are more refugees from Burma – about 135,000 – in Malaysia than there are in the 10 refugee camps set up for them in Thailand.
The Chin often wait here the longest. Refugee leaders said the U.N. gives priority to the Rohingya, thinking their circumstances are more dire.
“The process has always been very slow,” said John Bawi Luai Thang, president of the Falam Refugee Organization, a Chin refugee group in Kuala Lumpur. “Now it is worse. People wait five, six, 10 years.”
Now 28, Dawt Lian Mawi spent years working 10½ hours a days in a clothing store in Kuala Lumpur and shares a
10-foot-by-10-foot room with two friends.
“I have no choice,” she said.
She doesn’t go out much. She is afraid of gangs and the Malaysian police, who frequently stop refugees to check their U.N. ID cards. One time a cop stopped Dawt Lian Mawi and demanded $370 – more than a month’s income. More than a dozen Chin and Rohingya refugees interviewed in Malaysia recounted instances of the police stopping them and demanding money.
Dawt Lian Mawi’s brother, Sui Lian Thang, waited in Kuala Lumpur for six years before coming America in 2008. He moved to Buffalo two years later. He has a good job at New Era now, and he and his wife and children are happy in Buffalo. He said he wishes his sister could join him soon.
“I want to come to America,” she said. “You’re not going to get arrested for no reason in America.”
SEREMBAN, Malaysia – Mohammad Yunus Mohammad Hussein stands awkwardly and with pain. He picked up a contagious infection called jungle rot while fleeing Burma. That infection keeps him stuck in Malaysia.
Some refugees do not pass the multiple security checks the U.N. and the United States require. But people who work with refugees say that a far larger number can’t get the medical clearance they need to come to America.
The U.N. gives top priority to refugees who need better medical care. But those with highly contagious diseases are not allowed to resettle.
U.N. officials will not comment on individual cases. But officials acknowledge they are selective about whom they recommend for resettlement.
“There is no illusion we will be able to resettle all the Rohingya people,” said Shelly Pitterman, who heads the U.N. High Commission for Refugees office in Washington, D.C.
Of the 55,000 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, a significant number arrived in no condition for further travel. At a shelter for disabled Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, one refugee had lost an eye in a construction accident. Others never regained the ability to walk after sitting for days on crowded boats run by human traffickers who shuttle refugees from Burma to Malaysia.
Hussein, 56, has jungle rot. Driven out of his home in Burma along with other Rohingya Muslims during ethnic riots in 2012, his family made a 40-hour walk through the jungle. Ticks ate at Hussein’s legs the whole way, leaving him with the incurable infection’s tropical ulcers. The infection damages muscles, tendons and even bones.
By the time Hussein got to Malaysia, he had difficulty walking and standing. He lives in a shabby neighborhood in Seremban, a sprawling city of half a million. He and his wife survive on the pay his two sons earn and whatever his daughter sends back from Buffalo. Hussein said it costs him $73 every time he goes to the clinic. U.N. officials told Hussein his infection would bar him from the United States.
“I feel very old,” said Hussein, a sad-eyed man who walks with a limp. “I cannot work.”
Life in Malaysia turned out much better for his daughter. She met and married Mohamad Jalil, a Rohingya refugee who left Burma as a teen in the late 1990s. Jalil already had clearance from the U.N. to resettle in America. So in the summer of 2015, Jalil and Zubeda Yunus moved their family to Buffalo. She holds out hope her father can join them.
“I would like to get him here as soon as possible,” she said in the apartment on Buffalo’s East Side that she shares with her husband and three children. “He is so sick.”
MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand – Ter Blu doesn’t dream of joining her daughter in Buffalo. Like many others in this bamboo hut city, she dreams of returning home.
That dream remains a fantasy for most refugees. In 2015, the United States admitted 17,483 refugees from Burma. But only two refugees from Burma returned to their native country, according to the U.N.
People who work with refugees say it is best for people to return to their home countries, but violence back home means that rarely happens. Only about 1 percent of the world’s refugees returned home last year.
Refugee experts said that while Burma may be transitioning to democracy, it isn’t ready to cope with the return of the 103,000 refugees who remain in camps in Thailand. Karen ethnic forces fought a 70-year war with the Burmese Army, and clashes broke out again in October.
“There are no schools on the other side, no hospitals,” said Veerawit Tianchainan, executive director of the Thai Committee for Refugees.
That means there are plenty of people like Ter Blu, whose heart and family are torn among three places: Burma, Thailand and the United States.
Ter Blu misses her daughter in Buffalo. Her eyes welled with tears when she was given a picture of the dainty young woman she raised but had not seen in years.
But she would rather be near her sister and brother in Burma than her daughter and another sister 8,500 miles away.
“I told my sister to come,” said Ma Tway, who has built a new life in Buffalo with her husband and children. “She’s not coming.”
That may divide her family even more. Her teenage son, Di Bo, wears jeans and a plaid sport shirt, just like an American kid. He says he wants a better education than he can get here. He wants to do what his sister did, what 164,010 other refugees from Burma did.
He wants to move to America.
Editor's note: The Buffalo News is using the name "Burma," rather than "Myanmar," because refugees generally refer to the nation as Burma, as does the U.S. government. Burma's military regime revived the nation's ancient name of Myanmar in 1989 in hopes of defusing ethnic tensions.
In addition, refugees will be referred to consistently by their full names in this series. That is because natives of Burma don't have first and last names: their full name identifies them at all times.