Posted by Rafiq A. Tschannen
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur
Sharifah binti Hussein is a bubbly 17-year-old who loves school.
Her classroom at the Harvest Centre in Kuala Lumpur is stuffy, even with the windows open and ceiling fans on full blast. Eighteen of her classmates are huddled around clusters of desks.
This may look like a regular class, but all the children are refugees, mainly from Burma. They are not allowed to attend government schools, access health care or even work when they graduate.
Their grim prospects make today’s class lesson seem futile – learning Malay, the national language of Malaysia. Yet Sharifah counts this as her favourite subject.
“If I can, I would like to stay in this country forever, so it’s important for me to learn Malay,” she says in broken English.
Sharifah’s love for Malaysia comes in part from a tough childhood in Burma. Although she was born there, she has never been issued a birth certificate.
She is part of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority. International rights groups describe their plight as one of the world’s most enduring refugee crises.
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Background: Burma unrest
What sparked the latest violence?
The rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in Rakhine in May set off a chain of deadly sectarian clashes.
Why has a state of emergency been declared and what does it mean?
A state of emergency allows the introduction of martial law, which means the military can take over administrative control of the region.
Who are the Rohingyas?
The United Nations describes Rohingya as a persecuted religious and linguistic minority from western Burma. The Burmese government, on the other hand, says they are relatively recent migrants from the Indian sub-continent.
Is there a risk this might escalate further?
Analysts say that communal tensions with a religious and sectarian tinge have the potential to spark wider unrest, which will worry the government.
Q&A: Rakhine unrest
The Burmese government says the Rohingyas are relatively recent migrants from what is now known as Bangladesh.
Recent unrest in Burma’s Rakhine state has focused attention on the Rohingyas’ situation.
Sharifah’s father says he was harassed by the Buddhist military government and fled to Malaysia in 1994. The rest of the family tried to join him a few years later. It took two attempts before they could flee.
Sharifah herself travelled alone for a month.
“We would sleep in abandoned buildings,” she says. “It was very scary at night. One night, we stayed in the city, one night in the jungle.”
When she arrived in Malaysia her father could not even recognise her.
“When he left me, I was fat. I had lighter skin. I was beautiful. He said I was cute,” she says. “But now I looked like a boy because my hair was short. I was dark-skinned. I was thin and my father didn’t recognise me.”
Reunited with her family, Sharifah said she felt free for the first time.