By Debra J. White –
Every ticket was sold, every seat was taken, and everyone cheered the two comedians, Preacher Moss and Baba Ali. On March 10, Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD), a global humanitarian relief organization, hosted a fundraiser for a persecuted Muslim minority, the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
At 6 p.m. guests started to trickle in and by 7:30 p.m. at least 300 people packed the Sahara Banquet Hall in Mesa. By the time the evening was over, more than $70,000 had been raised to help the Rohingyas at refugee camps in Southeast Asia.
To kick off the event, local HHRD manager Gul Siddiqi welcomed the audience and thanked everyone for attending. Siddiqi outlined the evening’s agenda which included a Qur’an recitation, a talk by Howard University Prof. Altaf Hussain, a live update by an HHRD staff member in Yangoon, a meal by local chef Tahoora and stand-up comedy. Siddiqi then introduced a special guest, Rohingya refugee Jamila Abdul Fayas, who discussed her personal experiences in Myanmar.
Fayas outlined the almost daily violence that Muslims endure under Buddhist majority rule. In addition to torched villages, there are beatings, mass arrests, rapes, and constant fear. Worried for her safety, Fayas fled across the border to neighboring Bangladesh. Eventually she was allowed to immigrate to the USA. She worries about the extended family she left behind.
That’s exactly why Siddiqi and her team of volunteers organized the fundraiser. Siddiqi wanted to draw local attention to the desperate plight of the Rohingyas, who are among the most forgotten and most persecuted people in the world. In addition, the bloody civil war in Syria has drawn so much of the world’s attention that civil unrest in other countries is sometimes overshadowed. “Tonight’s event couldn’t have been possible without the help of my volunteers. A big thank-you to them all,” Siddiqi also said.
After the talk by Fayas, guests mingled and talked over a dinner of mixed green salad, mutton rice, pita bread, chole and chicken kadhai. A phirni was served for dessert along with coffee, tea and bottled water. There were also sweets made by a Syrian refugee.
Once guests finished dinner, Hussain took the stage and displayed his fundraising skills. Anisa Abdul Quadir, an Arizona State University sustainability major, broke down the donations into numbers such as $2,500 would provide shelter to a family for a year, $450 would build a hand pump for drinking water or $500 would provide food to a family for six months.
Hussain detailed the deteriorating situation in Myanmar before turning over the microphone to the comedians, who entertained the audience with jokes and impersonations.
Many of the 300 guests said they know and respect the work of HHRD. Nosheen Kanwer of Chandler attended to “support the cause.” So did Marci Hadley-Mairel of Mesa. Along with supporting her friend Siddiqi, Hadley-Mairel wanted to enjoy the comedy.
Nazli Currim of Gilbert came to the event because she knows and respects Siddiqi’s work. “I also want to support the hard work HHRD is doing on behalf of refugees all over the world, especially the Rohingya. It’s the least I can do is to buy a ticket and be here,” she said.
Who are the Rohingyas?
The Rohingyas, the Muslim minority, first arrived in Myanmar in the fifteenth century and eventually settled in the Rahkine state in the northwest part of the country.
Myanmar, however, takes a different stance and says the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants who arrived after independence from British rule in 1948. Under a 1982 law, the Rohingyas were stripped of their citizenship rights, preventing them from voting or owning property, similar to the former apartheid system in South Africa.
Fearing for their lives, thousands left everything behind and fled to neighboring countries including Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Some live in the USA. With so much unrest, the population has diminished, but about 1 million Rohingyas still live in Myanmar.
Many who remain linger in squalid refugee camps where there is little health care, food or schooling for the children. Their movements are restricted. Tensions escalated between the Muslim minority and the Buddhist majority especially when a Buddhist monk named Ashin Wirathu preached violence and hatred against the Rohingya. He drew a large national following. Only recently did a Buddhist council ban him from preaching.
The damage, though, was already done. The extreme violence began in October when a group of about 300 crudely armed Rohingyas attacked a military outpost and killed several soldiers. The reaction was swift and severe. Thousands of men were arrested, tortured and killed. Women and girls were raped then killed. Even babies and pregnant women were slaughtered. Entire villages were burned to the ground.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the current foreign minister and state counselor of Myanmar, who spent 21 years under house arrest for challenging the former military government, has been surprisingly hesitant to speak out against the atrocities.
More than a dozen Nobel laureates including Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Shirin Ebadi of Iran signed a letter asking Suu Kyi to help end the bloodshed but so far she has largely remained silent and rebuffed most reporters’ requests for interviews.
The Rakhine state is closed to foreign journalists and aid workers, and the Myanmar government denies ethnic cleansing is taking place. Meanwhile, confirmed accounts from displaced refugees and reporters who snuck into Rakhine say the carnage against the Rohingyas continues. Aerial footage shows the destruction.
Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have all called upon Suu Kyi to take decisive action to control the abusive military and end the violence against the Rohingyas.
Sources: Newsweek (1/12/17); Nationmultimedia.com; New York Times (1/16/17); BBC (1/10/17); Guardian (12/30/16)