My Encounter With A Refugee In Malaysia

Despite losing his entire family and being lost in a new country, his will to survive was not broken.

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I have written previously on the current global crisis with refugees. I shared some alarming numbers of the refugees suffering worldwide, the numbers of migrants, etc. Yes, those numbers should be alarming, except that I realize that often these numbers are cold and don’t capture the essence of the humanity behind them. Joseph Stalin is believed to have said:

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

A recent personal encounter with a refugee drove home the desperation and helplessness faced by them that is not captured by the numbers.

I was commuting one night a few months back on the LRT train in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia back to home. The train was mostly empty. I happened to catch the eye of one man who was sitting across where I was. He was a tall, dark man, in a bedraggled state. He came across to me and tried to start a conversation. Perhaps it was my bearded appearance that drew him to me? My instincts from the New York subway leave me a bit weary about such random meetings with strangers.

Hesitant though I was, he managed to explain his situation. He was a Syrian refugee who had fled from Aleppo a few months earlier as the government continued the bombing. He had lost his wife and his children were taken from him. Now he at 59 years old, was suffering from diabetes and was trying to find refuge in this strange country. He didn’t have a permanent shelter, and had resorted to sleeping in masjids until he was told he should leave.

As we talked, I discovered he was a former philosophy teacher. My memory of the encounter ended with us discussing Descartes, Kant and Western philosophy, not how I would have expected a meeting with a Syrian refugee would turn out.

Fast forward a few months, and I was recounting this episode with some of my friends over dinner. One of them admonished me for not having the presence of mind to take this poor individual’s number and seek help from our circles. I immediately felt a sense of regret for not doing so. A few weeks past this, while scrolling my numbers, I happened upon his name. Apparently I had saved his number, yet had no recollection of it.

I decided to text him to see how is he was faring. Unsurprisingly, he replied that he was sick and in need of help. I asked if we could meet later that night at Masjid Jamek. When we met, he did indeed seem in a worse state, his diabetes had caused his leg to swollen, and in urgent need of insulin and antibiotics.

He had approached the local UNHCR office only to be told that his case would wait until February, given the large numbers of refugees in queue. He was living on the kindness of strangers he would meet, their donations, but he longed to find some sort of occupation, even a meager one, so he could stand on his own feet.

We last met a week after that. I had consulted with my friend who was working in her own refugee agency, and she asked me to get his file details in order to connect him to those who can help him find medical help and a possible teaching job. This time when we met, he informed me that he managed to find someone who could sponsor a ticket for him to go to Turkey.

He hoped to get some type of work there, and then move on from there eventually to Europe. He was frustrated with the alien conditions of Malaysia and lack of institutional support for refugees, and had heard better stories of their treatment in Turkey. Given that he knew French, German, Turkish and Italian languages, courtesy of his academic background, he was more confident he could pursue his fortune outside.

I was a bit skeptical of his plan, but he was desperate in his determination. I asked him if I could retell his story (without mentioning names or showing actual photos) to try and put some spotlight on the real plight of refugee such as him. He consented. We had a last little repartee about the state of philosophical studies in Malaysia, before departing.

Looking back over my encounters with him, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the perseverance of human beings in such adversity. Despite losing his entire family and being lost in a new country, his will to survive was not broken. It also showed me that the refugee situation is filled with tales of such tragedy. The human heart perhaps cannot fully take in the sorrow of the millions left adrift. I admit, even experiencing a tiny sliver as I did, just left me numb.


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