A Sumatran fishing town’s message for Rohingya refugees: Welcome

The Rohingya’s plight has generated few lasting solutions. In a world where sanctuary for refugees is growing scarcer, it’s notable when host communities continue to welcome them in.

The Rohingya refugees are fed three meals a day at the temporary shelter in Bireuen, Indonesia. Credit Michael Holtz/Christian Science Monitor

By Michael Holtz

The plan was to go to Malaysia. That’s where 15-year-old Nur Hakim had hoped to reunite with his older brother, who fled Myanmar years ago and has since found work in construction.

Nur might have made it there if it weren’t for the two Thai Navy ships that intercepted the wooden boat he shared with 78 fellow Rohingya refugees. Instead, the Navy escorted the boat toward the Indonesian island of Sumatra. On April 20, after nine days at sea, it was guided ashore by fishermen and docked at Bireuen, a small fishing town in Aceh province.

The town was quick to welcome the refugees. Those who needed medical care were taken to a nearby hospital, and a government training center was turned into a temporary shelter. Volunteers soon arrived to cook meals, give haircuts, and teach Indonesian. A local imam stopped by during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to offer his prayers.

At a time when the West is growing increasingly hostile to refugees, Bireuen residents have taken the opposite tack. Local officials and aid workers — with support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations refugee agency — have pledged to look after the new arrivals for as long as necessary.

“We know what they went through in Myanmar,” says Mr. Saburuddin, a worker with the Indonesian Red Cross Society, who like many Indonesians, uses only one name. “If not us, who else will take care of them?”

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