Like the 600 other migrants rescued by Indonesian fishermen during Southeast Asia’s refugee crisis two years ago, Mohamudul Hasson Rashid had almost nothing of value on him physically.
But unlike the rest of the asylum seekers ferried to the shores of Aceh, he was armed with one vital skill: Hasson can speak English.
And the ability proved life-saving for him and the hundreds of sick migrants reeling from the most traumatic trip of their lives.
The 16-year-old Rohingya teen was in a local hospital when he saw his fellow passengers and Indonesian doctors could not communicate with one another. As he had taken some English classes at the Bangladeshi refugee camp he had just fled from, he spoke out and said he wanted to help with translations.
And so he did. For the next eight months, Hasson became the resident translator at the Langsa Hospital for its staff and patients.
The 18-year-old is now a healthcare coordinator with the Geutanyoe Foundation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, helping out in pregnancy and accident cases.
Hasson has his grandfather to thank for what set him apart from the other “boat people” he had traveled with. From the initial crew, many had died at sea while those who survived are still stuck in refugee camps waiting to be resettled.
“Son, if you learn English, it will be very good,” his grandfather had insisted to Hasson’s father in the past. It was this enlightened view that made all the difference for Hasson, who went on to learn the language which not just helped many during the crisis, but also assisted his application for a job with the foundation.
But though Hasson is grateful for what he has today, there remains a sense of resignation when he was asked his ambitions and plans for the future.
He knows he is not like other 18-year-olds. Being stateless, there is only so much a refugee like Hasson can ask for in Malaysia, a country which doesn’t allow refugees to work or go to school, let alone attend medical college.
The policy essentially cuts off any hope for the refugee youth to realise his dream of becoming a doctor, which painfully, was the very reason why he had boarded smugglers’ boats and starved for three months to come to Malaysia.
But it need not be this way.
Refugee youths such as Hasson hold tremendous potential that governments can tap. They can, among others, help their communities, according to Lilliane Fan, the international director of the organisation Hasson works for.
“If you help and invest in one refugee, there is a tremendous amount the person can do,” Fan said at a talk in Kuala Lumpur last month, referring to how even a little bit of education had gone such a long way for Hasson.
Fan’s call for countries to focus on “… treating people, understanding where they come from, building relationships, friendship, giving them the tool to help their communities” may come across as NGO verbiage to cynics.
But maybe going back to these basics and taking Hasson’s story as a lesson is what we need in the “post-human rights world” we live in today, where the ideals of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1961 Refugee Convention are all but ousted by countries’ deteriorating treatment of refugees.
After all, as Fan said, “It’s our responsibility.”