By Charmaine Lee, Communications Co-Director of STAND Canada    

Yasmin Ullah

Yasmin Ullah is a Rohingya woman and activist. She was born in the township of Buthidaung in Rakhine state before fleeing to Thailand in 1995 along with her parents. She remained a stateless refugee in Thailand until 2011 – when she migrated to Canada.

Yasmin currently serves as the President of Rohingya Human Rights Network, a non-profit group led by activists across Canada that advocates and raises public awareness of the gross human rights violations against the Rohingya community. Yasmin hopes to bring attention to the socioeconomic incentives of genocide, amplify the voices of Rohingya women, highlight the intergenerational trauma that persists within the population, and mobilise the international community to actively condemn and combat the ongoing genocide.

In 2018, Yasmin gave testimonies and statements before the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights in Examination of Canada’s International and National Human Rights Obligations and later before The House of Commons’ Subcommittee on International Human Rights on the Current Human Rights Situation of The Rohingya in Myanmar. She currently resides in Vancouver, and is completing her undergraduate degree in political science at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Tell me a bit about yourself. How long have you been in Canada, what is your status, your current preoccupation?

My name is Yasmin Ullah and now I live in Vancouver. It was 2011 when I arrived in Canada. The date was June 24th. I remember it very specifically as it was sunny outside even though it was 7pm.

I came here as a sponsored refugee, not by the government but by a private sponsor. I came with my dad and my brother. We were sponsored by a Church group in Vancouver. The whole process took 6-7 years before we could come.

At the time, we were trying to not be deported by the Thai Government, but we still had to go through a detention centre because we didn’t have a passport. But eventually, we still had to go through a detention centre because we were passport-less. In order for us to board the plane, we needed an exit permit from the Thai government. One of the lawyers we met really helped us find ways to be able to come to Canada because it was really, really difficult. At the time, the Thai government was not resettling any refugees. We couldn’t invoke the Refugee Convention either because we were, at that time, not living in refugee camps. So after we gave up our fake IDs – because you can’t live without an ID – we had to go to a detention centre as illegal aliens. At the time, I had just got into a really prestigious university in Bangkok but I had to give it up. We were in the centre for 4 days and the lawyer knew someone inside. So she asked him to sign the deportation letter and instead of deporting us to our country of origin, they deported us to Canada, because we still had our papers and the plane tickets were bought. But we still spent 4 days in a detention centre and it was toughest on my brother, who has severe autism.

Now, I am a Canadian citizen.

When did you start getting involved in activism?

I started to become involved in August 2017. It really hit home and I told myself that no amount of tears would save my people. I was doing it to save my family. Being outside and being in a comfort zone, I realise that I don’t try to help the community or find ways to save the history and culture, I would never be able to see it again. I would not be able to go home and speak to the relatives I’ve never seen, or go back to my hometown. And I grew up thinking I need to deny a part of me – being in Thailand, I couldn’t admit that I’m not a Thai. People could tell. They’d look at me and ask me whether I’m a mix.

But I grew up in Thailand, so I didn’t have an accent or a hard time at school. But the thing is I had to keep the most important part of me, the crux of me, hidden all this time. And in the Thai culture, if you’re a shade darker, you’re not favourable. The hatred is infused – if you are Burmese or from elsewhere that’s not light or poor, you’re denied from the acceptance and humanity that people should have towards each other. So I kept having to deny my own language – I don’t speak it – even if an opportunity presents itself. I wasn’t able to speak it partly because my brother was studying in a Thai school. He was born there but he didn’t have a Thai certificate, an ID. He was still a stateless person.

He was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4 so we were able to school him for a little bit. And at the time he was able to go to school, we were not advised to speak Rohingya so that he would not get confused. And I felt self-hatred because I would ask myself “Why can’t I become Thai? What do I have to do to be accepted?” At that time, my mother had been caught with a fake ID. We were trying to become a part of Thai society. The police mafia gang came after her and extorted money from her. She was a woman and she couldn’t do much except work twice as hard to take care of both of us. In the end, she had to flee to another country. We moved a lot as children. She left to Norway and so she sought asylum there. I was 15 when she left. 4 years later, we were able to come to Canada.

So, having to deny my identity and culture whilst growing up really formed my activism roots, because now I have a chance to speak up about the protection of the history and culture of my people.

 

Tell me more about your work at the Rohingya Human Rights Network in Canada. Do you feel like you have received enough support in voicing out about the Rohingya genocide?

I was fortunate enough to be able to be surrounded by people who wanted to give me a platform to speak. I’m really grateful for that. The first opportunity I had was through various radio stations. They contacted me because I was doing fundraising on LaunchGood. Being a Rohingya, a woman of colour, it was a huge hit on the news. I didn’t know what I was saying, but I said what I knew and it became more apparent that there was a lot to say.

I already knew a lot of Muslims within the community and I never had any positions or whatever, but they sort of know who I am. I had my first action forum at the library. I then started doing various things and was able to get some help from activists in Vancouver. And as I began to speak more, I got in contact with a Rohingya brother from Ottawa. He told me that he saw potential in me and asked me to become President. I wasn’t sure whether I could do it but I had gone to the parliament in 2017 and spent thousands of dollars to see politicians, including Bob Rae, the Special Envoy to Myanmar. I spoke to people there and told them that I’m Yasmin, I’m Rohingya. I’m from Vancouver. I met Bob Rae and a few other MPs, including Anita Vandenbeld, the MP of Ottawa West — Nepean, who was very generous.

But I’ve testified twice in 2018. First at the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights with Professor John Packer from the University of Ottawa and the second time at the House of Commons’ Subcommittee Meeting on International Human Rights on the Current Human Rights Situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar, with three other Rohingya. Now, we’re working closely with Senator McPhedran, and several MPs, but since elections are coming up, I don’t know much we can push it. We’re also working with the Councillors and we’re trying to see whether we can push provincial governments to do something. I have a good working relationship with my own MLA, who has been a really good supporter of ours in terms of social justice. We’ll see where this goes.

What are your thoughts on the role of social media in Myanmar in the conflict? Is it a tool for people to voice out or otherwise?

The government still muzzles a lot of creative outspoken ideas. There’s not much potential for people to discuss ideas online as government surveillance is present. In order for change to occur, safe spaces where people can engage in critical thinking need to be created so that people can come together to identify the very source of the problem. If peace is to be built, the citizens will have to critically think — who is the enemy of the people? Is there an enemy of the people? Individuals need to interact on a personal level, an online app cannot substitute that. There’s still a long way to go in the building of trust-based relationships between citizens that will bring about peace.

 

What are your future aspirations? What do you think the future looks like for the Rohingya community?

The future is the mothers who took their kids, after being exposed to sexual assault, who took their kids in both hands and crossed the river to keep their families alive. They’ve been at the brink of death and have gone through the worst things unimaginable. My mission is to try my best to do what people have done for me in Canada, what people have done for me in the Rohingya Human Rights Network, and the activist community in Vancouver that has given me to speak up, to build other women up. To tell them that they have their own unique voice. We need a platform to promote Rohingya women in any capacity possible to give them a voice.

Women bear the burden of genocide. We need a balanced perspective but more than half of the population are women and we don’t see enough women at the table. And the youth – men or women regardless – they will have to live with the future we decide on today.

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