For fear of arrest, daylight becomes an unfamiliar sight for many Burmese child refugees in Malaysia.
When I first sit down I notice the drawings pinned up on the wall in front of me. I'm pretty sure they're supposed to be of Burma. They were made by the children who sit with me around this table--all refugees from one of Burma's largest Buddhist states. The youngest child at the table is 6-years-old. The eldest is 17.
Most of the paintings are filled with brightly colored hills, flowers, rainbows and mountains. The trees are plentiful and green and the sun is big, round, yellow. However, there's one painting markedly different than the rest. In that one I see two soldiers with guns shooting a man. In the foreground of the same painting there's another soldier with his arms in a deadlock around a woman's neck. Her shirt has been torn off exposing her breasts and she is kneeling in distress.
The community leader hands me a sheet of paper with the names of all 16 children who stay here. There are stars by one third of the names and I'm told those are the children who lost both their parents in Burma and they are here in Malaysia without any family to care for them. I tell the man I would like to interview the orphan children first.
Saw Tun tells me his name and age in slow, soft English. He is 14-years-old and came to Malaysia a little over a year ago. Through the help of our translator we continue our conversation. Back home Saw Tun supported himself from a young age by collecting firewood to sell in the market. One day when he was 12-years-old and gathering wood in the forest as he always did, the Burmese soldiers jumped out from behind some trees and grabbed him. They said he had to go with them and join the army.
"At that time I was too young for the army, and I didn't think I was ready for that," he says emphatically. I nod my head in agreement. "That is why I came to Malaysia. I told the soldiers I had to say goodbye to my family and they could come for me the next day. I went to my village and the people called my uncle who gave me money to pay an agent and run away from Burma. That is how I come to Malaysia."
'Paying an agent', means enlisting the help of a human smuggler; it's how nearly every single refugee I've met—young or old—has come to Malaysia. It's a dangerous journey crossing two borders (Burma-Thai and Thai-Malaysia), hiding for many hours at a time in the trunk of a car or under a pile of dirty blankets in a truck with about two dozen others in serious Southeast Asian heat. The journey takes almost a week traveling at breakneck speeds ferried by drivers who are often pumped on amphetamines and often do not speak the same ethnic language. I marvel each time I hear this story. I honestly do not know how these children survive it.
When Saw Tun made it to Malaysia he asked to be taken to Kuala Lumpur and somehow found his way to this community center. Here, they are able to provide him a blanket and a couple of meals a day. I ask him if he goes outside of the center, if he has seen any of Kuala Lumpur in the year that he has lived here? He smiles shyly and looks at the floor. "No," he says. When I ask him why he tells me, "I don't like to go outside, because here I am also afraid of being catched."
There is only one girl in our group at the table, a teenager named Aye Aye. I ask if I can speak to her, and she gets up and sits in the empty chair next to me. Her dark hair hangs to the side in a long ponytail, she tugs on it with one hand and tries to smile and the other hand plays with the edge of her shirt when I begin to ask her questions. Her voice is extremely soft but she speaks without any noticeable hesitation.
Aye Aye's parents both died when she was quite young. When I ask her how her eyes fill with tears and she simply tells me she doesn't know. It seems she grew up with her older sister and her auntie in her native village. It was all right for her until a few years ago when the Burmese soldiers began coming regularly to her auntie's home looking for her and her sister. Aye Aye goes silent and looks down at her feet. I tell the translator we should stop for a moment and he completely understands and says something in Burmese to the leader. Soon a female translator arrives and we are given our own private room to learn more about Aye Aye's story.
After Aye Aye speaks for quite some time, the translator all the while shaking her head in understanding, she begins to tell me what Aye Aye has said: Once a week the soldiers would come and take her and her sister to a place so they could 'entertain' them. At that time Aye Aye was 15. I ask the translator what exactly does 'entertain' mean? Her voice gets firmer and she says, "Uh, I think it is harass. Sexual harass." I tell her I understand. I turn to Aye Aye and nod indicating I understand and that I am sorry. She nods back looks straight ahead as she speaks, her hands remain clasped in her lap. "One day I decide I can no longer take this. That is why I come to Malaysia."
She tells me that now she already has her UNHCR card but she doesn't think it will help her with the police. Aye Aye is a very pretty girl, but her skin looks grey and pale, as if she hasn't seen any sun and I ask her if she has been healthy here. She says she feels o.k. but then I find out that in two and a half months she has only gone outside twice.
"Why is that?" I ask. "Because it is not safe for her," the translator tells me. She explains that in this particular neighborhood there are too many RELA and police. Sometimes the police will release the children if the community pays enough money, she tells me. "But they can't really take this chance because we don't often have enough money for their release."
The air is hot and thick in this room, I see some blankets and pillows in the corner and a small shelf holds toothbrushes and toothpaste; my guess is its where all the children sleep. I decide to change the subject.
"What is it that makes you happy?" I say to Aye Aye, "Tell me what you like to do." She tells me she's very happy being able to play with and help care for the younger children at the center. "I want to be able to help the small children with no parents like me. This makes me happy and I really like to be like that."
I ask her to tell me her dream. "Here I am afraid and I just want to go to a safety place." I ask her which country does she wish to go to if she has the choice. She answers, "Any country where I am safe. That one will be my favorite country."
"Are there many children who have been arrested?" I ask the translator.
"If they stay here in the center they are mostly safe. If they want to go outside we cannot protect them. So they just stay inside."
I ask Aye Aye if she wants to say anything else. "No," she says. Then she adds, "I miss seeing the hills and the trees."
I thank her for her time and tell her she is very brave. I feel sad for her story, but I also feel sad to have made her think about it all over again. I return to the rest of the group. The younger boys are still sitting at the table quietly, some with their heads resting in their arms. The older boys have moved to the balcony. They speak animatedly, looking beyond the iron gates of the window to something happening outside in the street.