Mohammad Karim struggled to make do in the farming town of Kyautaw in the Rakhine state of western Myanmar. Because they are Rohingyas, an oppressed class of Muslim Aryans surrounded by majority Buddhist Burmese, his family’s world was extremely circumscribed.
"We were not allowed to go from one town to another," Karim says. "Or to get an education. We had no idea, before the internet, what the rest of the world was like."
He dreamed of leaving this narrow agricultural world, where he worked a couple of acres of rice, vegetables and livestock. The Rohingyas face one of the world’s most notorious and ongoing waves of ethnic cleansing, as the forces of the national government drove the Rohingyas into Bangladesh and other places of refuge.
The military regularly came to the homes of Rohingya families to take the adults or their children 12 and older for free labor for up to a month at a time. Karim was taken when he was 12 and has a scar over his eye from a rock thrown at him by a soldier who was annoyed that he had gotten tired too soon.
Later, his family’s home was burned to the ground by government forces.
Karim, 34, paid to be smuggled into Thailand, where he worked as a baker and sold bread on a cart in the street, always on the lookout for Thai authorities who would consider him an illegal immigrant. After that, he settled for a while in Malaysia and paid to get his future wife, Minatt, 26, out of Myanmar. Their first two children, Jannat, 7, and Hashim, 6, were born in Malaysia.
"If we had been caught, we would have been killed or jailed," Karim says. "Thousands of our people are in jail."
The family came to this country in 2015 as part of a United Nations resettlement program, first to San Antonio, then to Austin, where their third child, Mariyam, 2, was born. A Rohingha friend had encouraged the Karims to try Austin, but then he moved to Canada.
Mohammad Karim holds down a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant on North Lamar Boulevard. The older children are in school, and Mariyam thrives in nursery school classes provided during Minatt’s English as a second language courses.
The family of five has found some needed fellowship at the North Austin Muslim Community Center, but they have yet to meet any other Rohingya families who speak their native tongue here. Luckily, they had picked up some Urdu and Burmese along the way, which helps.
The adults spoke to the American-Statesman mostly through a translator.
The Karims are profoundly grateful for their new lives in the U.S., but they live in a bare North Central Austin apartment with very little furniture. Mohammad would like to become a certified mechanic or welder, a field in which he previously worked, while Minatt needs driving lessons and a second family car. She would also like a sewing machine so she can work as a seamstress.
While the younger Karims seem well-adjusted to Austin, they will likely never see their Muslim relatives back in Kyautaw.
"If anyone tried to get out through the jungle, the government would just shoot them and kill them," Mohammad Karim says. "We were lucky enough to get out. There was no humanity there. We were treated like animals."
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