Recent violence in Myanmar displaces thousands of Muslim minorities

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Sharifah Binti (left) fled to Malaysia when she was six years old to escape ethnic violence in Myanmar. (Photo by Jennifer Pak.)

A recent wave of violence in Myanmar's remote Rakhine State has left dozens of Muslim minorities dead and as many as 90,000 more displaced, according to the United Nations and Burmese news reports

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The Rohingya Muslims have faced persecution and discrimination for generations in Myanmar. Burmese law still considers them stateless, despite new democratic reform efforts taking place inside the highest levels of Myanmar's government.

About 800,000 Rohingya live in Rakhine, where long-running tensions between them and the region's Buddhist majority often turn deadly. The most recent clashes erupted earlier this month after word spread of three Rohingya men allegedly raping and murdering a young Buddhist woman. Government officials estimate that more than 2,000 houses were burned in the ensuing violence.

Burmese President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the area June 10. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Rohingya have crowded into temporary shelters in nearby towns. Others have fled the country, escaping into nearby Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. But doing so carries its own risk.

Malaysia, for example, doesn’t recognize Rohingyas as official refugees. Their designation as stateless people stays with them as they cross the border. Though free from the violence in Rakhine, their lives often remain in perpetual limbo.

Take Sharifah Binti. Her father fled from Myanmar to Malaysia in 1994. The rest of her family followed him a few years later, escaping the country in boats and trucks. When six-year-old Binti arrived in Malaysia, her father failed to recognize her.

"When he left me I was fat; I was white; I was beautiful," she said. "Right now, I look like a boy."

Binti said her family was happy to be reunited in Malaysia. But adjusting to life in the new country wasn't easy. Binti said that when she started school her classmates were cruel and refused to be her friend.

"I cry, I say no one wants to play with me," Binti said. "When someone tried to talk to me, others would say, 'Hey don’t talk to her. She's [a] refugee. She's black skin. She comes to Malaysia to take whatever we have.'"

Though Rohingyas make up the second largest refugee group in Malaysia, the country still considers them illegal immigrants. Without official refugee status, they live in constant fear of detention and deportation. Binti said her family struggled just to get by.

But life has improved for Binti since she switched to a school for refugees. Her grades have improved and she now has friends. She wears skinny jeans and colorful hijabs. And like many Malaysian teenagers, she ends her sentences with the word "lah."

"I pray to my god that I can stay in Malaysia for forever," Binti said.

But Binti knows that until Malaysia officially recognizes Rohingyas as refugees, she won't be able to call it home.