“They tried their best to stop me from what I do . . . But I continued to work on social issues.”

(BANGKOK, December 4, 2020) – Decades of systematic persecution and brutal military crackdowns on the Rohingya community in Myanmar have forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and elsewhere. As refugees, Rohingya continue to struggle with discrimination and mental health challenges. 

“We have seen people cope with trauma, depression, and mental health issues with violence. So, we tried to help them see what they should do when they get angry,” said Sharifah Shakirah, a Rohingya woman human rights defender and co-founder of the Rohingya Women Development Network in Malaysia. 

Sharifah was born in Buthidaung Township in Rakhine State, Myanmar. At five, traffickers brought her to Malaysia, where she lived for more than two decades before being resettled to the United States last year. 

Among the many challenges she faced, Sharifah encountered pressure from her community when she became a women’s rights activist. She said: 

“There were no women who would go out and hold the mic to speak. No woman does activism. People around me were always like, ‘Oh, you are young, and you have to get married.’ It felt really uncomfortable. Slowly, when people started knowing me and that I worked with many people, especially on women’s issues, men got really crazy on me. They really attacked me whenever they saw me. They tried their best to stop me from what I do. And they said that I’m a ‘shame’ to my community, but I continued to work on social issues.” 

Despite facing threats and abuse, Sharifah continues her work to advocate for mental health support for the Rohingya—an issue that is not recognized or widely discussed within the Rohingya community. 

“We don’t have a positive understanding about mental health in our [Rohingya] community. When we talk about mental health, it means you are crazy. So, it is tough, and people laugh at you when you talk about it. I, myself, was not aware of mental health issues. I believe that every Rohingya has some mental health issues. They have gone through a lot of trauma.” 

Together with her friends, Sharifah formed a mental health support group in Malaysia and organized a series of workshops for members of her community.

“In the workshops, we talked to participants individually and asked about how they cope with their anger. Some of the answers were to walk away, sit down, or drink water. These are coping mechanisms that they already use, but they were not aware of it,” she said.

Some participants of the workshop even initiated their own projects to advocate on Rohingya mental health issues: 

“Social issues, including mental health and well-being, are equally important. I don’t want my people to go back to Myanmar with trauma or not knowing how to handle their lives . . . I believe that all activists and human right defenders should contribute some of their time to do this work.” 

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