Illegal immigrant: such an ugly term…

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-Ma’am! Ma’am! You are forgetting your plastic bag with vomit!

The sentence is so, so strange, that I end up swallowing it with a shot of empathy for someone else’s misfortune and, instead, all that remains is silence – all that is heard in this (at least for me) unprecedented scene. Because silence is all that you can hear, as if from the bus seat I would be watching a silent movie.

The poor girl, no doubt, has had arguably the worst journey of her life: with a month-old baby in her arms, she has been vomiting everything that four hours of endless curves have been able to take out of her guts. And since there is no toilet on this bus, she has hung a harmoniously yellow plastic bag, holding all the vomit that she has accumulated during these hours of suffering in motion, from a hook, conveniently placed on the back seat.

In any case, besides me, sitting across the aisle, no one else has noticed it: she has been vomiting in silence because, as I said before, this is a silent film in which nobody says anything. It is not even possible to hear the typical onomatopoeic sound when you vomit.

Next to her there’s a guy who I assume must be her husband, because she hasn’t spoken to me, nor have I talked to her throughout the journey (silence, always silence) with the urgency that I have to get to Cameron Highlands, a region perched on one of the upper parts of Malaysia and which is decorated by green tea plantations. So, indeed, I don’t even know the ties between this couple of human beings who, like me, will be arriving at their destination an hour late. On the road, there was a landslide and a car trapped in the sludge, which had to be towed by at least thirty men. It shook us with the tangible fear that the mountain would somehow decide to get skinner and, with another punishing mudslide, throw us to death.

Cameron Highlands

Me, among the tea plantations of Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Do you see why I was in such a hurry to get there?

An extra delay, however, still awaits us: just before reaching the town, the bus is stopped by two policemen at a checkpoint and, from the front to the back, they start asking for the documents of all passengers. In silence. Because this is a silent film in which nobody says anything. Don’t forget that.

With annoyance, I take my passport out of my purse (because I love to explain where Costa Rica is around these far away latitudes) and I wait for them to get to my seat. Typical: usually, I’m always the one who makes everyone get late on buses, because unless they are football fans who closely followed the last World Cup, my country is not known by anyone around these Asian regions.

But for once, I will not be the one who delays the journey. This couple of almost children, who take care of another child (who has not even cried during the whole day, as if he also knew that silence is the norm in this film) are the ones who will.

The policemen (which I assume are right-handed, because they naturally look first to the right, where the couple is sitting) wait in silence for the man’s documents. They ignore me. I guess it must be because I look very much like a tourist or, because I have sat down to the left of the aisle, I have somehow become a silent spectator and not a problem.

Next to me, meanwhile, the scene keeps going, always in silence. Only silence, because the man only lowers his gaze, lost in the bus floor, as if he would be waiting for the land that had just opened itself so easily to drop kilos of mud would open itself again and swallow us all, to save him from what is about to happen.

Because he has no papers. He is an illegal immigrant.

I-lle-gal-im-mi-grant. Such ugly words: i-lle-gal-im-mi-grant. I’ve never liked them.

 

 

-“Are you ok with this?” he asks me.

Yeah, I’m fine with this… Beyond asking myself how I ended up in Malaysia, outside a restaurant that clearly looks abandoned, hugging a ten-kilos-bag full of rice.

What did I do to end up in this situation? Ah, yes: one day I decided it was time to ride a camel for the first time and go to a desert in India and, in the way, I ended up talking to another backpacker who was also riding camel. Then, a year later, one day I decided it was time to go to Southeast Asia and I ended up following the same backpacker around half of Malaysia, for something which I don’t know if it’s love, but it looks like it. And, since this backpacker is also a photojournalist and I’m a journalist, we are now facing an abandoned restaurant, knocking at a metal curtain, both of us accompanied by a priest, who has led us here to visit a hideout for Burmese refugees.

Refugee. Re-fu-gee. I don’t like that word either, but at least it sounds a little better than i-lle-gal- im-mi-grant.

Anyway, we knock at the metal curtain, but no one opens. This scene is almost as absurd as that one with the phrase Ma’am, ma’am! You are forgetting your plastic bag with vomit. It seems like no one has been around here in a long time.

It’s until the priest phones somebody that, finally, two feet from the curtain rises for us to go in (including myself with my bag of rice) to a micro cosmos which I never thought I would ever go to.

It is here, in a room that is nothing more than a tiny cellar with one bathroom, where 25 humans are packed, including a baby as young as the one who didn’t even cry during that silent movie two days ago.

They have come from Myanmar to Malaysia. As Mexicans have gone from Mexico to the United States, and as Ghanaians have gone from Ghana to Spain, and as Nicaraguans have gone from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, and as people have moved from place to place in search of a better life since the world began and it has been populated until it became what it is today: a planet with borders, invisible lines that people say are real. In my case, I have never seen them.

But those who say those lines exist will understand how these 25 persons have become stranded here. Because they can’t move anymore, despite having crossed Thailand on foot or crammed into a car with up to 15 people to get here without getting caught (it seems that when you become an i-lle-gal-im-mi-grant you automatically also acquire the quality of getting packed and getting crammed). Outside, the Malaysian government doesn’t want them because they are illegal immigrants and, apparently, they are the ones to blame for all the landslides in this area of ​​Cameron Highlands, where they have begun deforestation and grown crops out of control, amidst the so beautiful, so characteristic and so legal tea plantations. Or at least that’s what they say. According to me, frankly, they are wrong: to me, these Burmese look as innocent as those who work for a foreman who is the one that makes the decisions for them and who, certainly, is not in this room.

The only document that these people have is a UN card certifying them as re-fu-gees, but that word doesn’t exist in the Malaysian legal dictionary and this is how they have ended in immigration limbo, in this cellar that once was a restaurant.

It’s December 1st and here they celebrate Sweet December, a tradition that consists in giving candy left and right, as if only with your palate you could sweeten all the bitter moments that life gives you the rest of the year. Therefore, besides the bag of rice, the priest gives me a bag of candy, which I start to distribute among faces that, to me, don’t belong to Burmese, or to illegal immigrants, or to refugees. They belong to human beings.

There is one that catches my attention. It’s a woman face, the mother of this baby that barely occupies space between the two dozen people packed into this parallel universe. It’s scored by dozens and dozens of tattooed green lines, very thin lines. I think it must be a tradition in Myanmar – in this time, I have not visited yet. In a couple of months, once I get there, I will realize that the makeup over there is called thanaka and it’s just some kind of chalk, which erases by itself at the end of the day. Today, however, I will learn why this woman doesn’t wear thanaka and, instead, will have on her face a lifetime mark, when he (whom I follow around half of Malaysia for something that I don’t know if it’s love, but it looks like it), translates for me what he has briefly talked to her about: during the armed conflicts in Myanmar, many women have chosen to tattoo their faces to not look attractive and avoid being raped.

Burmese refugee

A face to never forget. Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

Knowing this, I feel so stupid saying “sweet December” as I would have felt saying: “Ma’am! Ma’am! You are forgetting your plastic bag with vomit!” Do I resolve something by giving candy to a woman who has a baby in her arms and the mark of the war on her face?

Perhaps silence is better. The silence that remains when we leave and the iron curtain closes behind us. Silence, so they can’t be found. Silence, so the legal monotony of a country that insists on being exclusively Malaysia for Malaysians can’t be broken, like all other countries insist on being exclusive for their own people.

Ex-clu-si-ve. Another ugly word. The dictionary certainly has so many ugly words…

 

 

We sat down to drink white coffee (a delicious coffee with condensed milk, which becomes my caffeine addiction during my stay in Malaysia) always on the same side of the street in Cameron Highlands. On the side of the Indian and Chinese shops. The other, which has better tax and business conditions, is only and ex-clu-si-ve-ly reserved for Malay/Muslim shops.

Malaysia is a country of contradictions, like every country, because there is nothing more human than contradiction itself. They don’t request any visa to virtually anyone who goes there, which is a blessing for me, as I love spending days visiting embassies every time I want to move from country to country in Southeast Asia. But apparently, once you are part of Malay society, you are part of their discrimination too. Despite having a dense population of Chinese and Indians, if you’re not Muslim you are not Malay. And, therefore, you don’t have the same access to loans, scholarships, state aid or, as it happens here in Cameron Highlands, to the best side of the street. In order to achieve that, at least, you have to convert to Islam. That’s seems to be the way the dynamics work in a country that is Muslim enough to have a moon and a star on its flag.

Obviously, if you’re Burmese, you don’t have access to anything but a creative hiding spot, like this restaurant I visited with him, whom I follow around half of Malaysia for something that I don’t know if it’s love, but it looks like it.

Burmese refugees

Where is Costa Rica? And these refugee children from Myanmar began to look on the map. I don’t blame them: until recently I didn’t know where Myanmar was either. Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

It’s strange. When, in human history, did looking for better opportunities in life become a reason to go to jail? At what time in mankind’s history did things go so wrong that working honestly, eating bread by the sweat of your face as has been commanded since the genesis (and I don’t mean the biblical genesis, but the genesis of humans themselves) become a crime? Why  do I have to apply for visas? Why  does a street divide shops between those who deserve better treatment and those who don’t?

And above all, why do we have these words: i-lle-gal-im-mi-grants, re-fu-gees, ex-clu-si-ve?

 

 

Silence. Silence as he continues looking at the bus floor which, since it’s just a floor, has nothing to say.

The policemen are still next to him, waiting for documents that do not exist. They don’t exist because he is an illegal immigrant. Although, elsewhere in the world, being Burmese is not a crime, it is here unless you have a stamp in your passport, some ink printed in a specific way, as I do. But nobody asks me anything. So, it means that, for some ink’s sake, this guy is about to go to jail.

And so, what follows in this scene is one policeman taking him by his arm. He tries to resist. There’s no need to talk, he just makes a sudden movement to get released. Strong, but useless. Useless because there is no way he can run all the way to the bus door and there is no way he can get lost in some territories that other people had marked as others’, there is no way he can even escape until he can be able to knock at the metal curtain in that restaurant lost in Cameron Highlands to not see the daylight in a sky that some people say doesn’t belong to him.

To make sure that’s the way it will be, the other cop blocks his way, like an absurd human sandwich. The three (or two against one) eventually leave the bus. In silence. Nobody says anything. Not even the girl, who watches her husband disappear from this silent movie’s scene.

She gets out of the bus ten minutes later, at the next stop, with her baby in her arms and all that anguish that she must carry inside her and which words can’t describe, since she is alone in a country that is not her own, without any idea of ​​where her husband must be. And in the rush, she forgets her plastic bag with vomit.

Thus, breaking such a homogeneous and absolute silence with such an absurd sentence like “Ma’am! Ma’am! You are forgetting your plastic bag with vomit!” seems stupid, to say the least. So I remain in silence, as in silence all of us are in this silent film.

Maybe that’s the problem. Nobody ever says anything. Absolutely nothing. It’s disgusting. Much more disgusting than a forgotten plastic bag full of vomit on a bus.

Caught in the strait between two countries that don’t want them. That’s the reality of the refugees.

Caught in the strait between two countries that don’t want them. That’s the reality of the refugees.

By the way, do you like the pictures of this post? Obviously I didn’t take them. 😉 If you liked them, you can follow this super photographer, his name is Kiran Kreer and here is his website: iMKIRAN. Besides taking amazing pictures, he has his own project to give solar light bulbs to communities without access to electricity. So if you want to do your today’s good deed, go and donate at least one, people! Share this post and light. 😉

PLEASE NOTE: English is not my mother tongue! These ones are rough translations from
the original Spanish version Sobre el caballito.Sorry about the mistakes!
😉

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