During Lent: Fasting with a Purpose

Lisa Hayes | March 13, 2015

Myanmar teen who lives in a CWS refugee shelter in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Lisa Hayes / CWS

Myanmar teen who lives in a CWS refugee shelter in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Lisa Hayes / CWS

As a Christian, I observe the season of Lent with prayer, fasting and almsgiving. On days when I fast, I think back to a boy I met in one of the CWS unaccompanied minors’ shelters in Indonesia. He is a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar (for security reasons, I can’t use his real name).

The Rohingyas are an ethnic minority population in Myanmar. They are Muslim, separate from the Buddhist (Rakhine) majority in their state. On-going persecution for this group of people means that this teen and his peers aren’t able to go to school, a hospital, hold a formal job, own land or have hope in a future.

How did it get to that point? There is a long history of these displaced people, starting back when Myanmar was invaded by the British. The Brits had brought people over from Bangladesh to work. Generations later, the Rohingya consider themselves to be from Myanmar, yet local authorities won’t allow them to be citizens. They are considered stateless. They have no rights and it is completely legal for any group to drive them out. Over the past few years, the violence has gotten worse.

This 15-year-old was returning home one day and found a group of Rakhine Buddhists with guns who were initiating a fight in the main street of his neighborhood.

He described the fight with sides divided, on both sides of the street. The Buddhists were near his house, while he, not yet home at the time, was on the Muslim side. “I got scared because Buddhists were carrying guns and knives and Muslims didn’t have anything. In other cities, if Muslims would have something, the police would take it from them, so they can’t protect themselves,” he said. One person died near him. At that, he was frightened and sought shelter. “I could be next… I was scared and ran away,” he recalled.

Myanmar teen who lives in a CWS refugee shelter in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Lisa Hayes / CWS

Myanmar teen who lives in a CWS refugee shelter in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Lisa Hayes / CWS

The fighting continued. The boy couldn’t go home and didn’t eat for seven days straight. Many Muslims died, including neighbors he knew. Finally, the government’s military arrived. Since they see the Muslims as criminals, they arrested the group and sent them out of the country, to India. The teen never got a chance to say goodbye to his family.

He left with 100 other community members to India, where the Indian government fed them. They only gave him food, but “that was good enough for me.” The group was then forced to leave and sent to Thailand. From there, they went to Malaysia and then finally to Indonesia. He was happy to get out of Myanmar, but also misses the family he left behind.

Now he lives in a CWS shelter where he rooms with other male teens, under 18. All of his basic needs are provided for as well as health care, sporting activities, and English classes. To date, he has waited three years for the chance to be resettled to another country.

I think back to this teen’s story on days when I’m fasting. How he and others didn’t eat for seven days. I can’t go very long without even one meal! I find it hard to observe this fasting, but others don’t have a choice. I can’t imagine the pain in his stomach… Not to mention what he witnessed and the fear he had. He probably felt close to death.

So my reflection during this Lenten season is: fast with a purpose. Pray for peace in these conflict-ridden areas. I am praying and fasting as best I can for peace, for an end to violence everywhere. Just maybe, if we each do what we can, small improvements can be made, little by little for those like this Rohingya teen from Myanmar.