Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is in France on the last leg of her European tour. She's been feted across the continent. But now her trip is being overshadowed by violence back home. It involves a minority group known as the Rohingya — Muslims who have lived in western Myanmar for generations. They've long faced persecution and discrimination. Tensions between Burmese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims recently flared into deadly riots, forcing tens of thousands of Rohingya to try to flee to neighboring countries. In the past, some Rohingya have tried to escape to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country. But Malaysia doesn't recognize the Rohingya as official refugees so their lives there are precarious. Sharifah Binti Hussein was born in Myanmar, but as a member of the Rohingya minority, she doesn't have a Burmese birth certificate. Her father escaped to Malaysia in 1994 – he said he was harassed by Myanmar's Buddhist military government. The rest of the family managed to follow a few years later, coming by boat and trucks. Sharifah was six when she arrived in Malaysia, and her father didn't know her at first. "When he left me I was fat, I was white, I was beautiful," Sharifah said. "Right now, I look like a boy; I was black, I was thin. My father didn't recognize me." The family was happy to be reunited in Malaysia, but adjusting to life here wasn't easy. Sharifah said when she started school, the other children were cruel — no one wanted to be her friend. "I cry, I say no one wants to play with me," Sharifah said. "When someone tried to talk to me, others would say, hey don't talk to her, she's refugee, she's black skin, she comes to Malaysia to take whatever we have." Rohingya Muslims make up the second largest refugee group in Malaysia, but the country considers them illegal immigrants. Without official refugee status, they live in fear of detention. Sharifa's family struggles to get by. Still, life has improved for Sharifah. She's switched to a school for refugees, and she now has friends and is earning top grades. She wears skinny jeans and colorful hijabs, and ends her sentences with the word "lah" like many Malaysian teenagers. "I pray to my god that I can stay in Malaysia for forever," Sharifah said. "I don't want to go to other country. Because we are refugees, we are Muslims, other countries is not exactly Muslim place." But Sharifah knows that until Malaysia officially reconizes refugees, she can't really be at home here.
  • Sharifah at her home with her father and sister. (Photo: Jennifer Pak)

  • Sharifah (left) with a friend. (Photo: Jennifer Pak)

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