Unlike nearly a million Rohingya Muslims living in shelter camps in Bangladesh, Noor Ahmed, 55 lodges in a huge house in a middle-income neighborhood of the eastern district of Karachi — Pakistan’s largest city and the commercial capital.
He is one of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims often referred to as Burmese who have made Karachi their home over the past several years. However, contrary to a majority of his countrymen who have been living in impoverished conditions even by Karachi’s standard, Ahmed manages a roaring business.
Sitting in his jewelry store in the middle-income “Burma Colony” locality one of the two main Rohingya settlements in Karachi Ahmed narrated his success story. “I migrated to Pakistan via Bangladesh and India after a grueling journey in 1982 with a group of Rohingya. I was the only one who migrated and settled in Karachi at that time”, he told Anadolu Agency.
His parents and two younger brothers and a sister reunited with him after a couple of years. Like most of the Rohingya immigrants, Ahmed initially worked as a laborer in a fishery company but soon found a job at a small jewelry shop, where he worked for next seven years, working his way up to sales assistantship.
Rohingya, who came to Pakistan from 1971 until 1980, were granted citizenship along with other communities that migrated from Bangladesh.
“I started my own [jewelry] business in partnership with a friend in a portion of a shop in 1992. I still remember that in the first month, we earned a mere 2,000 Rupees ($14) profit,” Ahmed said, recalling the initial hard times, which also led to his business partner’s withdrawal.
“There had been several ups and downs, including a time when I almost defaulted. But, I did not lose hope, and continued to struggle,” he said adding: “The business started to flourish after an initial tough five years.”
Today, Ahmed not only owns a business not only in Pakistan but also in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well. Born and raised in Karachi, Mohammad Ibrahim, 39, who has recently been promoted as an assistant professor at a local college, is another success story. His parents had migrated to Karachi in the 1970s.
“My parents worked hard and made me go to school, and then college and university, unlike many other children who simply worked to add to their parents’ income,” he said. Ibrahim completed a masters degree in Islamic Studies from University of Karachi, and was appointed as a lecturer at a local college after he cleared the government service examination in 2005.
The Rohingya, described by the UN as among the world’s most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012. According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, have fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017.
Since Aug. 25, 2017, nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces, according to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA).
More than 34,000 Rohingya were also thrown into fires, while over 114,000 others were beaten, said the OIDA report, titled “Forced Migration of Rohingya: The Untold Experience.”
Some 18,000 Rohingya women and girls were raped by Myanmar’s army and police and over 115,000 Rohingya homes were burned down and 113,000 others vandalized, it added.
The UN has also documented mass gang rapes, killings – including infants and young children – brutal beatings and disappearances committed by Myanmar state forces. They are now facing a threat of forced repatriation by the Bangladeshi government despite no citizenship rights and safety guarantees from a defiant Myanmar government.
No Official Status
Ahmed and Ibrahim refused to get their pictures taken. “Officially, I am not a Rohingya but a Bengali,” Ahmed said with a smile.
“In fact, you will not officially find any Rohingya here [Pakistan]. They all dub themselves as Bengalis [who migrated or opted to stay in Pakistan after creation of Bangladesh in 1971] to get citizenship, jobs and other benefits,” he said.
The port city is home to more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims — the highest number after Myanmar and now Bangladesh — unofficial estimates suggest.
Rohingya, who came to Pakistan from 1971 until 1980, were granted citizenship along with other communities that migrated from Bangladesh. After 1980, citizenship was blocked for them by the government, though some managed to gain identity cards and passports by bribing officials.
“Being Rohingya means nothing to immigration authorities. There is no word Rohingya in their dictionary,” said Qari Mohammad Saleh, General Secretary of Karachi-based Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), echoing Ahmed’s words.
“We are advised by the officials — in good faith — to introduce ourselves as Bengali rather than Rohingya if we want to get passports and identification cards,” Saleh, who migrated to Pakistan in 1985, told Anadolu Agency.
Frequent media visits since 2017 have led the community to be even more conscious against pushback towards their nationality. “Portrayal of Rohingya as illegal immigrants by several media outlets has alarmed them. They no longer introduce themselves as Rohingya,” Saleh added.
Ethnic tensions in the southern Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, have also led to tight immigration scrutiny as many local Sindhis accuse Afghan, Bengali, and Rohingya immigrants of disturbing the province’s ethnic equilibrium.
The port city is home to more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims — the highest number after Myanmar and now Bangladesh — unofficial estimates suggest. “We do not have exact figures because in the census, we are counted as Bengalis. Therefore, we do not know the exact figures of Rohingya in Pakistan,” Saleh maintained.
The members of the persecuted community had started to trickle into this part of the world in the early 1940s — before the creation of Pakistan. The first exodus took place in 1942 following the first army operation that killed over 100,000 Rohingya Muslims.
A majority of Rohingya refugees, however, made Pakistan their home from 1970 to 1980 after a long and grueling journey via Bangladesh to India and then Pakistan. Since then, there have been no mass migrations as India closed its borders with Bangladesh. However, people continue to arrive through “human smugglers” according to Saleh.
Pakistan’s former military ruler, Ayub Khan had officially allocated land for Rohingya refugees for the first time in 1962, paving the way for two main Rohingya settlements — Burma Colony and Arkanabad, which was named after the former Rakhine state — in Karachi’s eastern neighborhoods.
Inclined To Education
Young Rohingya, especially girls, have inclined to pursue their education in recent years, even from poor families. Educational trusts comprising of local traders and rich community members are running several schools and vocational centers in both settlements.
Al-Khidmat Foundation — the relief wing of the country’s mainstream religious party Jamat-e-Islami — is also running a school, and other relief projects in impoverished Arkanabad. “Not only the younger generation but their uneducated parents have also recognized the importance of education in last one decade,” Noor-ul-Bashar, the principal of Arakan Muslim Secondary School in Burma Colony told Anadolu Agency.
Some 800 students — 60% of them girls — have been enrolled in the school whose many former pupils are serving as bankers, teachers and even in the armed forces. “We do not want to indulge in any ethnic argument. Despite having a [Rohingya] background, we are citizens of Pakistan and are serving for its betterment like any other community,” said Bashar who has been running the school for over 40 years.
“My mission is to educate my community. This is the only way to elevate their status. Mere complaints and sympathy-seeking won’t work.”
Anadolu with additional input from GVS News Desk