Aminah and her sister, Amelina.


Just a little info about me: my name is Aminah Arshad. I am a former refugee from Aceh, Indonesia. Currently living and studying in the U.S.A. My parents and I came to Malaysia around the year of 1991. I was about three years old when my parents and along with the rest of the boat passengers were detained at the immigration detention center in Perak, Malaysia. We were imprisoned for four years because we came to Malaysia without proper documentation. At the detention center, the people were separated into two groups. Males will be placed in prison cells, and women and children were to live in the “long house.”

After a few months of living that way the women came together and did a protest so that them and the children would be allowed to live together with their husband. Life in the camp wasn’t too bad. We could work, garden, cook, and order things from outside the camp through the visitors who came to visit. We had a community. We were allowed to do anything normal people would do in their daily living, except we couldn’t have our freedom to roam around outside of the camp. Our life was simple and we improvise with the little things that we had to make a living.

If my father wasn’t being targeted by the Indonesian army, we wouldn’t be entering Malaysia using the boat like we did in the middle of a monsoon. It was a dangerous journey. Of course, I wouldn’t remember the whole journey, but I remember bits and pieces of it like some snapshots. Growing up, I hear this story often from time to time. My parents like to speak about their unfortunate experience to people. Not to everyone, but the ones who were interested to hear the hardship and the struggles they went through to that get them where they are.

I don’t know how many people were in our camp, but there were many. The single men were placed together in one house and the ones with families in another. I met people from the different walks of life. At three years old, I didn’t understand my parents’ struggle. I just went along with life and lived normally without any worry. I knew we were being locked up and were waiting to be free, but I didn’t feel the stress that my parents would have felt.

In 1995, when we got out of the prison. We went straight to the UN and were granted a permit that allowed us to stay in the country, but weren’t allowed to seek education or employment. My parents were lucky to have found a family who were kind enough to offered them jobs at their hotel. We moved to Kuantan, Pahang. Both my parents were offered a job at this hotel. It was amazing how all the hotel owners and other employees were so kind to us. I made some friends with the Malaysian employees’ children and a few kids from my hometown.   

We moved out from the hotel eventually. As I grew older, I understand more and that’s when I felt the pressure of holding the refugee status. Then I couldn’t wait to resettle in another country. I felt unwelcome and that I did not belong there. There were some nice people, friends, and neighbors who befriended us and cared for us, but there wasn’t much that we can do as we were considered illegal immigrants. Although the UN granted us a permit to stay in Malaysia, we weren’t allowed to work or go to school there. Because of that my father was always away someplace else to do construction job. He would be away from one to three months at a time.

Most of the time I was always alone at home babysitting my younger sister and the neighbor’s kids. Mom doesn’t like to just stay idle, so she’ll go around the neighborhood looking for job until she finds something. She usually works at a grocery store. When we moved to Paka, Terengganu, I’ve wanted to play with the neighbor’s kids, but they were in school and I wasn’t. When I do make some friends, it’s difficult to meet. Some due to the distance, most of the time it’s the scheduling conflict. They would be in school when I am available, and when they’re available, my mom would be home and she’d want me to stay and help with the household chores or test me on surahs that she assigned from the Quran.

I didn’t have any self-esteem when I was around new people, especially children my age or older. It would make my day when I go someplace new and had a friendly stranger talking to me. This one time, I made a friend on a bus and we exchanged address. She wrote to me once and I was super excited to receive a letter. But then I didn’t know how to write back. I didn’t know what I would say and wouldn’t know how to mail anything out. I would write and rewrite and then give up on writing letters to people. Everything just seemed impossible in Malaysia. I was so dumb.

I was so dumb that I didn’t know how to carry myself in public. I was mostly shy and didn’t know how to act if a stranger was watching me while I do something. I was very weird about people. I hesitate to do anything in public if there were strangers within 10 feet away from me. Fast forward, I’ve grown so much over the years. I’m grateful to the person I have become now and to the experience I went through and the people around me that shaped me the way I am. I am no longer scared of people. In fact, I love meeting people and hangout with them.

I may not be grateful of the life I had when I was younger, but I appreciate every moment of it now. Over the years, I have found a way to stay content with the life I have and to appreciate everyone and everything around me. I stopped wishing for the life I don’t have. Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean I stop wanting a better life or a better career. I simply choose to stay happy while I am working towards my goal.

My advice to my other fellow refugees is to use all the resources you have in your surroundings. Seek help and advice from the people around you. Don’t be like me and get cooped up in your own little bubble. Get out and interact with people. You just never know who you’ll meet and where life would take you. One thing for sure is that I don’t regret any decisions I made whether it was good or bad decisions. Everything is an experience and a learning process to me. No matter how bad your experience might be, trust that everything will work out in the end. Life somehow just have a way to make everything right and balance again. Until next time.


Aminah Arshad
Aminah Arshad is a marketing major at Pennsylvania State University. Through her journey of self-discovery, she is determined in finding a career that involves helping and contributing back to the community. Currently, she volunteers, networks, and works part time while continuing her studies.

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