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Vancouver residents say Rohingya crisis needs international, urgent action

Rohingya Muslim girl Afeefa Bebi, who recently crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, holds her few-hours-old brother as doctors check her mother Yasmeen Ara at a community hospital in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. The family crossed into Bangladesh on Sept. 3.
Rohingya Muslim girl Afeefa Bebi, who recently crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, holds her few-hours-old brother as doctors check her mother Yasmeen Ara at a community hospital in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. The family crossed into Bangladesh on Sept. 3. AP Photo/Dar Yasin

Two Vancouver residents have been working tirelessly to bring attention to the unfolding crisis of the Rohingya people in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

But they say so much more needs to be done to help this group of people and bring awareness to their plight and struggles.

In early November, Sabrina Meherally and Tasleem Dhanji organized an event called Stand Up For Rohingya. On the zero dollar budget, the duo managed to bring together musical performers and speeches, including one by Yasmin Ullah, a Rohingya refugee, to raise $24,000.

After donations continued to pour in, that total rose to $53,000 and was matched by the federal government, making it $106,000 total.

Sabrina Meherally, (L), Tasleem Dhanji, (R) and Yasmin Ullah in the middle.

All funds raised were donated to Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), who have been working with the Rohingya people to provide medical aid and supplies.

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“When we first learned about the Rohingya tragedy, there was extensive focus in the media on stories about Donald Trump, Hurricane Harvey and then shortly after Hurricane Irma. And we were shocked that while there was so much coverage in the media surrounding these natural disasters, genocide was occurring at a rapid rate of the Rohingya people and we saw this as a silent tragedy that needed a voice and much-needed help,” Dhanji told Global News.

READ MORE: 340,000 Rohingya children are starving in refugee camps; does anyone care?

More than 580,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when Burmese security forces began a scorched-earth campaign against Rohingya villages. Burma’s government has said it was responding to attacks by Muslim insurgents. The brutal attacks against Rohingya that followed have been described by the United Nations as “textbook ethnic cleansing.”

Refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar are seeing “hell on Earth” in overcrowded, muddy and disease-infested refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, according to UNICEF.

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Rohngya refugees including children and women wait outside a fence of a health clinic at the Kutupalong, Coxabazar in Bangladesh 19 November 2017. International politicians are currently on a fact finding tour to gather information about the Rohingya crisis, while Bangladesh hopes for international help and support for the refugees. EPA/ABIR ABDULLAH
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Rohingya refugees are pictured in Kutupalong refugees camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
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Rohingya refugees queue in the rain to receive food at Kotupalang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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A Rohingya refugee man, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days before, reacts as he walks after receiving permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue along with other refugees. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
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A Rohingya refugee woman who crossed the border from Myanmar a day before, carries her daughter and searches for help as they wait to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

For Meherally and Dhanji, they were shocked to find out so many people they knew had no knowledge of what was happening to the Rohingya people.

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“[Dhanji] and I are both from the Muslim community but that doesn’t play as much into it as the factor that we were seeing the tragedy unfold without any recognition behind it,” said Meherally.

“We recognize as well that this is a minority population and when you research the Rohingya people we found that they are the most persecuted minority in the entire world. And that was shocking for us to hear because this was the first time that we were hearing about the Rohingya.”

And that’s why they want B.C.’s help to bring attention to this crisis.

“If you look historically at the Rohingya Muslims, they have been living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for centuries. They’ve been refused citizenship for decades, their movements have been restricted, they’ve been denied access to education, health care and women have been stripped completely of their reproductive rights,” added Dhanji.

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“They literally are invisible to the world, to the global community, to the world at large.”

Last week, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh to repatriate Rohingya refugees, some housed in the world’s largest refugee camp on the Bangladesh side of the border.

READ MORE: Pope’s visit welcome but Rohingya refugees have to return to Myanmar: Bangladeshi cardinal

“I am hopeful the Rohingya can be returned to Myanmar,” D’Rozario, the Archbishop of Dhaka, told AFP in an interview ahead of Pope Francis’s visit this week.

Dhanji said they were appalled to learn of this decision to repatriate the refugees.

“The key point here is that there is no acknowledgement from the Myanmar government that these atrocities even occurred ” she said. If there’s no [acknowledgement] of the horrors taking place at the hands of the Myanmar militia how can you force them to go back? The Rohingya are being indiscriminately persecuted and the focus needs to be on protecting the basic human rights of these people who are suffering in silence.”

The Vancouver residents have now started a petition calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian government to help secure the basic human rights of the Rohingya people.

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“It’s the behaviours that are modelled through politics that also influence the way in which society takes action and sees the world,” said Meherally. “So if we see the UN and governments not taking action on something like this, it suggests that this is acceptable or that it isn’t as big of a deal. And that’s where we really want to encourage our government to have a more intentional intervention when it comes to the genocide in Myanmar and the refugees in Bangladesh”

“We know that our community stands for so much good, for ethics of charity, service, kindness and pluralism. However, the way that we’ve seen our community dragged through the mud, to come across as representing terrorism, and horrible things in the world, it’s painted the picture that this community doesn’t deserve the spotlight.”

READ MORE: U.S. declares Rohingya crisis is ‘ethnic cleansing,’ after lengthy review

Rohingya Muslim women, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, stretch their arms out to collect sanitary products distributed by aid agencies near Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017.
Rohingya Muslim women, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, stretch their arms out to collect sanitary products distributed by aid agencies near Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017.

“It needs to be noted that genocides happen when there is no political will to protect this minority group. And I think it’s up to each one of us that demands our government observes the responsibility to protect,” said Dhanji.

“Knowledge and information are all powerful tools in the struggle for human rights, especially when secrecy, silence and denial of atrocities continue to violate the rights of Rohingya.”

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To donate to MSF to help the Rohingya people, click on their website here.

To follow Dhanji and Meherally’s work and get involved, like their Facebook page Stand Up For Rohingya.

— With files from Katie Dangerfield, Global News and AFP

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