MASLINA Abu Hassan counts herself lucky.
“Sometimes, I still can’t believe we are legally married,” she says in reference to her husband Zafar Ahmaed, whom she met eight years ago.
Zafar is a Rohingya refugee who fled Myanmar to come Malaysia to escape ethnic persecution in his country. Since resettling here more than 22 years ago, he actively advocates the plight of the Burmese asylum seekers and refugees.
That was when Zafar met Maslina, who was then working with a human rights organisation tackling similar issues.
“In 2004, there was a mass crack down on migrant workers and refugees. He came to my office. That was how we met.” An 'exceptional' marriage
Maslina was initially reluctant to be with Zafar. Not only because her family frowned upon their relationship in the beginning. Under the Immigration Act 1959, refugees are not allowed to marry locals.
“We went through a lot. I had to travel frequently from where I worked in Kuala Lumpur to the state religious department in my hometown in Perak. I submitted many documents including support letters from family members, neighbours, community leaders and even from the UNHCR to explain Zahar’s situation.“
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugees Convention. As such, there are no legal mechanisms in place to give any status to refugees. With no rights to work legally, refugees are highly vulnerable to exploitation.
Zafar and the estimated 35,000 Rohingyas in Malaysia are trapped in a precarious situation, they are stateless and without legal documentation like passports. The closest thing they have to a legal IC is their UNHCR card that identifies them as refugees.
“The ustaz at the religious department told us to submit the forms. They didn’t say yes. But only that they will let us know later,” she said “So, we did and waited.”
In a case Maslina described as ‘exceptional’, the religious department gave their approval and they immediately had their marriage solemnised and registered at the National Registration Department. Being the head of the family
The first hurdle was won. But the obstacle to legalizing their relationship was just one of the many challenges Maslina has to overcome in marrying a refugee.
“The main challenge for me is that I have to be the head of the family,” said the mother of three young children.
“We have a grocery shop to support the family. But because he doesn’t have any documents, he can’t work. He can’t just simply go out on a motorbike. He tries to help with the shop but was caught many times. He also can’t attend any events at school for the children. ”
Maslina hopes that her husband, Zafar will one day become a legal and free man.
Zafar has been arrested by the local authorities 14 times since he arrived in Malaysia. The most recent was in January 2014.
Immigration officers raided their shop located at a low cost apartment in Cheras where they live with other refugees and migrants from Myanmar, Indonesia, Bangladesh– a hot spot for authorities.
“When he was locked up, I had to run here and there while looking after my kids. As a mother, I am struggling. Even though I can handle it – sometimes the stress is just too much. That is why it is very important to get PR status for him. We have tried so many times but did not get any positive response.” Getting a PR status for Zafar
For Zafar, getting a permanent residence status is almost an unattainable dream but one he is persistently pursuing still.
“To survive here is difficult. We need to work to feed our families. Some employers take advantage and refuse to pay our salary but can we complain to anyone? Can we complain to the police?”
Zafar heads the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia (MERHROM) and is looked upon as a community leader among the Myanmar refugees in Malaysia.
“We get caught and beaten. Some of us don’t even dare to leave the house anymore. I know of many Rohingyas who died from broken hearts,” he said “Life is hard in my country, we get killed - but it is not much better here too.”
However, Zafar knows he is among the fortunate ones who can still make a living, where his children have access to government healthcare and education, even as he relentlessly activates against atrocities and abuses his people suffer back home in Arakan and in Malaysia.
“You see that I’m happy now but I cry whenever a conflict erupts in my hometown. I go online 24 hours to check on what’s happening. I speak at conferences. I submit memorandums. But our people are still being killed,” he said.
And this attribute – his sincerity in helping others – was what drew Maslina to her husband in the first place.
“Some Rohingya claim to help their people but end up taking advantage of them. Zafar is different. He is honest. He even uses his own money to help them. At times, he wouldn’t sleep for days thinking about the problems that his people face.”
But Maslina's hope for her husband, the father of her children, is simply to be a legal and free man.