Monday, 1 June 2015

The story of Safira and Ali: Two unaccompanied children holding each other tight

By Kinanti Pinta Karana 

Safira, 8, at a temporary shelter for Myanmar Rohingya refugees in Kuala Cangkoy, North Aceh. She is one of more than 345 unaccompanied children in the refugee shelter who were part of a group of refugees that arrived in North Aceh on 10 May, 2015. (©UNICEFIndonesia/2015/Kinanti Pinta Karana). 

Kuala Cangkoy, Aceh province, INDONESIA - A field of dry grass greets me as I arrive at the fish port in Kuala Cangkoy, where 576 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar found temporary shelter after being rescued from the boat that also carried a group of Bangladeshi migrants off the Aceh waters on May 10.

Next to the tents and some medium-sized buildings, a number of cows roam the field, some gauge the trash pile looking for food.

On my way to a hall that has been converted into a sleeping quarter for male refugees I have to be careful, trying not to step on cow dung. The hall is empty because the male occupants are preparing for Friday prayer.

And then I hear a child’s laughter. I turn around and see a little girl putting biscuits on the face of a boy who is sleeping next to her.

Her name is Safira (names changed). She is eight years old and a world away from the life she deserves. The little boy is her brother Ali. He is 10.


A little boy playing in a tent at a temporary shelter for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Kuala Cangkoy, North Aceh, Indonesia. The Indonesian government has agreed to provide shelter for refugees and migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh. (©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Kinanti Pinta Karana)

Safira and Ali came from Rakhine, a poor and troubled state in Myanmar affected by  inter-communal violence. The same violence that killed their mother three years ago. Her demise marked a new chapter in their life because she was the only parent left for Safira and Ali. They were then raised by a relative - because their father lives in Malaysia.

In a desperate attempt to reunite with his children, the father arranged for Safira and Ali to be put on a boat to Malaysia.

It turned out to be a three-month floating hell experience for the siblings.

“My brother took care of me on the boat and he became tired. You see, he is now sleeping because he is still tired,” Safira says, biting her biscuit and offering me some.

To return her kindness, I tear a piece of paper from my notebook to make her a paper plane.

“Can you draw me a doll?” she asks, pointing to the pen clipped to my notebook.

“I had a doll at home, her name is Fua,” she tells me later as her fingers trace the abstract drawing that is my failed attempt of artwork.

And then she looks up at me and smiles.

“My father will buy me a new doll when I meet him in Malaysia,” she says.

Sadly, for Safira the question is not when she meets her father but if.

For the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR which leads on the response to the Asian boat people crisis like for UNICEF family tracing is a priority when it comes to supporting separated or unaccompanied children like Safira and Ali. These children are at a particular risk of becoming victims of trafficking, violence and exploitation.

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in a temporary shelter in Kuala Cangkoy, North Aceh. They receive help from the Indonesian government and relevant agencies including the UNHCR, IOM and UNICEF. (©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Kinanti Pinta Karana)

Safira and Ali are among the 345 unaccompanied and separated children who in recent weeks reached the shores of Aceh and North Sumatra provinces in Indonesia. According to the latest UNHCR data, a total of 1791 refugees and migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh are being sheltered in Aceh and North Sumatra.

All the children from Myanmar and Bangladesh who have fled their homes, either alone or with their families, are exposed to the risk of abuse, exploitation and ill-health. They have  a right to urgent help and protection.  UNICEF stresses that under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which all South East Asian countries have ratified, any action that may impact on children must be guided by the best interests of those children, no matter who they are and where they come from. The CRC requires governments to ensure all children are cared for in a safe place, with access to education, health, social and legal services, irrespective of their refugee or migrant status.

UNICEF distributed recreational kits to help the unaccompanied and separated children who found refuge in Aceh cope with their often traumatic experiences over the past weeks and months.

It’s nearly time for lunch at the campsite and I don’t want to keep Safira from her meal. As I get ready to leave, the little girl looks at me and asks, “Can you make an airplane? Ali likes airplanes, he wants to fly one.”

As I fold the paper, I comfort myself thinking that for a boy who bravely took care of his little sister during a perilous sea journey, no dream is impossible.

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