Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Rohingya Woman in Bangladesh Helps Others Flee Myanmar

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Rohingya Woman in Bangladesh Helps Others Flee Myanmar

Article excerpt

KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh * Zahida Begum doesn't remember her home village, a tiny speck amid the mountains and forests of Myanmar. She was only 18 months old when her mother smuggled her across the Naf River on a fishing boat, carrying her into Bangladesh, among hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya fleeing persecution in their home country.

Begum has been a refugee since. She grew up in Bangladesh's Rohingya refugee camps and now earns a living working for a string of international aid groups. On quiet days, she's the kind of person who wanders around looking for someone to help.

So when frantic relatives called her in late September to tell her that Myanmar soldiers were burning Rohingya villages and tens of thousands of Rohingya were fleeing, the 28-year-old jumped into action.

She made calls to a half-dozen countries. She raised thousands of dollars. She called in favors and arranged for boats and smugglers.

And one day later, some 400 people including some of Begum's relatives and other people from nearby villages were safe.

"Had Zahida not sent those boats, we would have died in Myanmar," said Abdul Matlab, 35, one of the people rescued that night.

Matlab now lives in Bangladesh with his extended family in a small shelter of bamboo and plastic tarp where they sleep huddled together on the floor.

He said from his village alone, Begum saved 70 people. But about 400 others from the village were killed by Myanmar government forces, he said.

'CLEARANCE OPERATIONS'

Begum, a smiling, self-confident woman in a long black cloak and headscarf, grew up listening to stories about the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state, just across the Naf River.

Myanmar's Rohingya have been called one of the world's most persecuted minorities, a community of Muslims in a largely Buddhist country whose government refuses to recognize them as a lawful ethnic minority. Though some Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for centuries, they are widely disparaged as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Not long before she heard from her frantic relatives in Myanmar, Begum had heard about the start of "clearance operations" by the country's security forces that eventually led to 618,000 Rohingya fleeing their homes and crossing the border into Bangladesh. …

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