It's been two years since Mohammad Noyeem fled violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State, boarding a smuggler's boat for a perilous journey to the safety of Malaysia that ended up drifting into waters off Indonesia's northern coast instead. The boat was overcrowded, abandoned, and sinking when local fishermen found it drifting off the coast of Sumatra.
He still remembers the parting words of his father. Noyeem told him that he planned to leave Rakhine State for Malaysia, a country where he hoped he could one day continue his studies and eventually become a doctor. His father had one question: "Won't you miss me?"
"I told him that of course I would miss him," Noyeem told me. "Then we both started crying."
Noyeem is a Rohingya Muslim, a member of one of the world's most-persecuted peoples. Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, but the government insists that they are all illegal immigrants who crossed over from Bangladesh and settled in neighboring states on the other side of the border back during the British colonial era.
Today, the Rohingya are largely stateless and confined to heavily policed camps in Rakhine State. A recent wave of violence has sent more than 500,000 pouring back over the border as the Myanmar army set off on a brutal campaign against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa)—a militant group whose founders said was formed to protect Rohingya from state-sponsored violence.
Arsa militants allegedly attacked a military outpost, triggering a wave of violence so bad that the head of the United Nations humanitarian office said it carried all "the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing."
But when Noyeem boarded the smugglers' boat in the midst of his own crisis. In 2012, ethnic clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists broke out across the state. More than a dozen Rohingya were killed as Buddhist mobs set fire to mosques and villages. Eventually, the army stepped in, declaring a state of emergency, and instituting stricter security measures that limited the movement of Rohingya Muslims.
When Noyeem finally decided to flee, the army had already shut down access to his school and the exodus of asylum seekers was well underway. He set out to start a new life in Malaysia, where large populations of Rohingya asylum seekers have settled in urban centers like Kuala Lumpur. There are an estimated 90,000 Rohingya currently living in Malaysia—a Muslim-majority country that turns a blind-eye to asylum seekers working illegally as laborers or restaurant staff.
But Noyeem's life took an unexpected turn. He never made it to Malaysia. When the boat started to sink beneath the waves, Noyeem leapt into the waters of the Strait of Malacca. He swam for five hours before he was saved. Noyeem was still one of the lucky ones.
"Many of them couldn't swim" Noyeem said. "I saw them dying all around me. Women were trying to hold onto their babies and children. Old people were too weak from the journey."
Noyeem had no idea where he was when the fishermen arrived. He couldn't speak English, Bahasa Indonesia, or Bahasa Melayu, so instead he shouted out the only words he was sure they would understand: "Rohingya," and "Muslim." The men pulled him aboard and took him to Pangkalan Susu, a small fishing community on the coast of North Sumatra.
"I hadn't eaten for a week on the boat as the food had run out," he recalled. "When the Indonesian people saw me they started crying."
Noyeem is now one of the 129 Rohingya asylum seekers living at the Hotel Beraspati, in Medan, North Sumatra. The former love hotel was converted to an asylum shelter almost three years ago. It's a wholly unremarkable place. Squat one-story rooms surround a courtyard hidden behind a cement privacy wall. The whole place is guarded by a single security office located near the front of the complex.
But the hotel's grounds feel, at times, more like a town than a refugee camp. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) delivers food every three days and the University of North Sumatra offers English lessons and other classes.
Sometimes Noyeem is able to slip away for an afternoon and disappear into the city. He told me about the time he snuck out with some friends and found a local swimming pool where he was able to see "many nice things." I asked if he meant young women and he blushed before breaking out into uncontrollable giggles.
Others fell in love. Mohammad Habi, 23, and his wife Surakatuh, 29, met when a human trafficker jammed them both on the same boat—alongside about 1,000 others—off the southern coast of Thailand. The smugglers then fled the scene, leaving the boat to float aimlessly for a day without food or water until they were rescued and brought to Indonesia.
I asked them how they fell in love in such difficult circumstances. The couple laughed shyly before Habi explained that "we just want a normal life. We want to be a family."
But while the Rohingya asylum seekers were able to piece together some semblance of a normal life in Medan, the situation back home has only worsened. Habi's brother was targeted by the military. "The Burmese military came to arrest him and he ran away," Habi told me. "They chased him so he ran down to the beach and threw himself into the sea to escape." He suffered a panic attack and drowned, Habi said.
His wife Surakatuh said she fears for her family's safety. "They say they don't have any food," she told me. "They have no money to leave Myanmar and they are so scared. They just keep crying and begging me to help them."
As Noyeem and I wandered around the hotel's grounds, a man followed close behind, watching me from a short distance. When I was about to leave he approached and asked if he could show me something. He took out his phone and started to flick through some of the images pouring in from Rakhine State.
The photographs were a slideshow of horror, the kinds of images that are often left out of the news coverage of the crisis unfolding in Rakhine State. There were images of men bound by their neck and hands and forced to kneel in the dirt. Others showed mass graves. In one, the bloated body of a toddler lay on his side in a ditch. Even Rohingya cattle weren't spared the violence. In one image, a cow was kneeling, still alive, with an axe sticking out of its back. "These photos don't lie sister," the man, who told me his name was Mohammad, said.
Psychological counselors try to warn the asylum seekers about the dangers of looking at images of violence from back home. "If the Rohingya refugees look at graphic pictures from Myanmar or hear about the latest news, there is a great risk that it could trigger flashbacks and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," explained Dr. Irna Minauli, a clinical psychologist from Medan who works with the Rohingya community.
Noyeem is only 17 years old, but in the two years he's spent in Medan, he learned to confidently speak English and has become the community's de-facto spokesperson. As we spoke about the situation back home he launched into a damning assessment of Aung San Suu Kyi's government, accusing the Nobel Peace Prize winner of ignoring a "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing." Does he hold any hope that Suu Kyi will work to make things better for the Rohingya people?
"She doesn't want to save the Rohingya," Noyeem said.