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After His Family Fled Persecution, Rohingya Refugee Dreams Of His Homeland


Now let's meet a person who is a citizen of no country. He is Rohingya. That's a Muslim group from mostly Buddhist Myanmar. Myanmar has persecuted Rohingya for decades. Many of them fled to neighboring Bangladesh which offers them refuge but not much hope. And that's what Michael Sullivan begins our story of one refugee who's never even seen home but wants to.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Myanmar is just a few miles away from the camp where Nur Muhammad was born. It might as well be a thousand. His family - among the first wave of Rohingya to flee persecution by Myanmar's military a long time ago.

NUR MUHAMMAD: They leave in 1991. And I borned (ph) in 1992.

SULLIVAN: Born in a hut in a camp, a stateless person and a refugee.

MUHAMMAD: I have a country. But my country denied me as a Rohingya.

SULLIVAN: The country he lives in now as a guest denies him too, though he is one of the more fortunate. He lives in one of two government-registered camps here. And that's important. Having a card issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, recognized by the government, offers a measure of safety denied to hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya who are here illegally in makeshift camps.

MUHAMMAD: There are many peoples, they can't move area because they haven't any document. 'Cause if the police think that he's illegal, then he gets arrested, sent to prison.

SULLIVAN: Nur Muhammad - not his real name, he's asked that we change it to protect his identity - has lived here all his life. And because he has, he can pass as Bangladeshi, enabling him to finish high school. He even has some Bangladeshi friends. But telling them he's Rohingya? That's a problem.

MUHAMMAD: I hidden my real identity that I'm Rohingya. Otherwise they will hurt me. They will insult me like this. OK? So I - my mind is so, so, so low.

SULLIVAN: But it wears on a person living like that in the shadows, unable to work. You can see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. There's no future here, he says.

MUHAMMAD: Not at all because I am not a citizens of Bangladesh.

SULLIVAN: And it's killing him, he says. His brain is dying. And his hair, he says, is already turning white. He wants to leave the way many young Rohingya have left Myanmar or Bangladesh - by boat.

MUHAMMAD: One of my friends stay in Thailand. He tell me, come here. I tell him just how I can? I need money. I need a passport.

SULLIVAN: He's thought of leaving before, he says, but...

MUHAMMAD: My parents also didn't allow me. I tried but they didn't allow me. So if you leave us, who look after us? Please, don't leave us.

SULLIVAN: It's an often dangerous trip, one his 14-year-old brother tried a few years back. They haven't heard from him since and fear the worst. But it's about all Nur Muhammad has left, that and a dream about Myanmar, the home he's never been to.

MUHAMMAD: I wish for one night at that country.

SULLIVAN: Your heart wants to do that.


SULLIVAN: But does your head think that's possible?

MUHAMMAD: Impossible is no word. Nothing impossible in this world. Everything is possible, you know, if you tried.

SULLIVAN: Nur Muhammad went back to his parents a few weeks ago to ask again. Go, they said, you've done enough for us. If you stay, it will be the end of you. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9 LAZY 9'S "TUMBLEWEED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.