Rohingya boys flee Myanmar’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ and find a new family in Salt Lake City

Refugee Foster Care Program offers a new life to Burmese who escape the violent crisis in Southeast Asia.<br>

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rohim, 14, a Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar, also known as Burma, gets a kiss on the cheek from his foster sister Maddie, 5, near the family Christmas tree in Salt Lake. Rohim joined his foster family in July 2016 through a program offered by Catholic Community Services.

Mike and Stephanie Santarosa can’t imagine life without Rohim, their 14-year-old Rohingya Muslim foster son from Myanmar — also known as Burma.

He lights up their already lively Salt Lake City home with his smile and wit.

“I feel like the guy in ‘Lion’ [the movie about a lost Indian boy searching for his family],” he said with a smile. “Trying to find my place.”

The Santarosas, who both work in administration at Westminster College, have two American-born adopted daughters, Maddie, 5, and Josie, 7. And they just took in a second Burmese boy, Faisal, 18.

Like Rohim, Faisal and his family are Rohingya who have been persecuted in the Buddhist majority country in Southeast Asia.

More than 800,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. A military crackdown that began in August has led to a humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.

Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson labeled as “ethnic cleansing” Myanmar’s military action against them.

Faisal’s family members trekked to Bangladesh to escape the violence, he said through interpretation from Rohim. They now live in harsh conditions in a sprawling camp. Faisal went to Thailand to earn money to support them, but was arrested by Thai authorities and sent to a detention facility.

Fortunately, through the United Nations, he was connected with Catholic Community Services (CCS) and brought to Utah on Sept. 27 by the agency’s Refugee Foster Care Program.

Despite Faisal’s calm demeanor, he smiles and relief washes over his face when asked if he’s glad to be here. He’s coming to grips with his new environment, including the cold weather. He has seen only a few snowflakes, and Rohim kids him, saying Faisal will have to shovel deep snow.

“They have enriched our lives,” Stephanie said. “I can’t imagine not having Rohim in our family. We’re still getting to know Faisal and incorporating him into our family.”

When Rohim joined the Santarosas in July 2016, he insisted that he would do all the dishes from then on.

“I’m not allowed to do dishes,” Stephanie said with a chuckle.

Rohim gets up early and arrives at East High School long before classes begin, Mike explained. He takes two English language classes — his English is quite good — but otherwise has a pretty standard curriculum.

Living in Burma is difficult for the Rohingya, Rohim explained. They are not recognized as citizens. It’s difficult for them to get an education or to find jobs. And their movements are restricted.

According to Human Rights Watch, Rohingya are denied land ownership, and the parcels on which they live can be taken away at any time.

“It’s not good,” Rohim said with a wave of his hand.

And now it is even worse. “Burning houses and shooting and killing Muslims and their animals. It is a very bad thing,” he said.

Rohim escaped Burma on a boat with a cousin. They landed in Thailand and, like Faisal, was put in a detention facility. He was separated from his cousin before coming to this country through the CCS program.

“I have a 10-year-old brother,” he said. “I would like to bring him here, but it’s impossible.”

Refugee children are not adopted through the CCS program, rather they are placed in foster homes because the ultimate goal is family reunification.

“My dream,” Rohim said, “is to some day go back to Burma.”

Rohim has a bus pass and gets around Salt Lake County quite well, Mike explained. He knows every Asian market in the area.

And that is good news for Faisal, who loves to cook. The Santarosas often come home to foreign and spicy aromas wafting through the house. Faisal cooks masala and curry. And they eat a lot of fish and rice.

Both Burma boys prefer halal meat — chicken and beef — that is slaughtered with a blessing in the ritual of Zibah, in which a healthy animal is killed by cutting its throat. Pork is forbidden.

On a recent shopping trip, the boys bought live crabs for dinner, Stephanie explained. When she and Mike arrived home, they found Rohim and Faisal had tied strings from the legs of the angry crustaceans to a cupboard handle to keep them from escaping.

Faisal is quite devout and reads Arabic, Stephanie said. The first thing he asked for upon arriving in Utah was a Quran.

And, Mike explained, he really wants to work.

“Faisal said on the second day, I want to get a job,” Mike said. “He is just beside himself that he isn’t working yet.”

But first, he must learn English. Faisal is enrolled in ESL [English as a Second Language] classes at East High and takes U.S. history and biology classes designed for English learners. Faisal is also enrolled in word processing and art classes.

The Santarosas’ house is filled with warm energy. But not without sibling shenanigans. Seven-year-old Josie said Faisal is nice, but Rohim teases her.

Would she like more foster brothers? “Two is enough,” Josie said.

Readers interested in the CCS Refugee Foster Care Program can find more information at www.ccsutah.org.