A Beautiful, Unlikely Friendship

If people have heard about Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Rohingya issue will likely be the first thing that will come to mind, which is controversial between the two countries. People would likely think about the conflict and tension between two the countries.  However, there is a different story, one between a Myanmar girl and a Bangladeshi girl.

I left my country Myanmar and decided to work at Sarus as an intern for seven months. I was worried, nervous, and excited for a new challenge; living alone in another country where I didn’t know anyone in or anything about that country. I worked for the exchange program between Cambodian and Vietnamese university students, and I intended to implement a similar program between other countries in Southeast Asia, or within Myanmar as it has a lot of ethnicities.

One day, my boss invited me to be involved in the interview for choosing two Bangladeshi interns to come to Cambodia as he was thinking to implement an exchange program between Myanmar and Bangladesh. I could barely imagine what it would be like working with them in a team. Bangladesh is a neighbor of Myanmar, but it is a country that I have zero knowledge about except the case of Rohingya. To be honest, it is a country that I had less interest in and no curiosity about.

Two Bangladeshis passed for the internship and I was assigned to pick them up at the Phnom Penh Airport. I was waiting at the arrival gate with excitement to see them. A couple of hours had gone by and I did not see any Bangladeshi girls. I started to worry about them as I thought I might have missed them. There was almost no one coming out from the arrival gate and the only person was me standing and looking for them. Later, an immigration officer came out and he was looking for someone. The immigration officer asked in a loud voice who came to pick up the Bangladeshis, and I replied to him that it was me. He asked me to come with him inside.

My heart was beating loud, knowing that something was wrong. I saw two girls holding their passports in front of the visa counter and talking to the immigration officers. I thought they must be the two that I have waited for a long time. They smiled to me as if I am an angel who will rescue them. The immigration officer said I have to show my passport and visa that I am living in Cambodia and can guarantee them. Unluckily, I did not bring my passport as I thought it would be a straight process to pick up people at the airport. I tried to talk in Khmer to the Cambodian immigration officer expecting that they would release them. However, it was in vein and they asked me to contact one Cambodian in order to guarantee the Bangladeshis. I called one of my Cambodian colleagues for help and they were allowed to go once guaranteed. The first introduction of the Myanmar and Bangladeshi interns was not smooth at all.

I took them around the city of Phnom Penh, hanging out at cafes and restaurants. I held my judgment towards them, as it is bad if you discriminate people based on gender, race, or religion. However, I was not comfortable being with them and helping them become familiar with another country as it took so much energy. I was also curious what they were thinking of me being a Myanmar but I did not dare to ask frankly. To be honest, I never think much about my neighbor and trying to know more about them. Moreover, I also felt it a bit unfair because more people, especially Cambodian friends and colleagues, hung out with them while very less people cared for me when I arrived.

The exchange program between Cambodian and Vietnamese students started and we went to the service project site and serve the community; gardening, cooking, teaching and doing construction together with a team. I was in the same team with a Bangladeshi girl named Bipasha and we could not avoid each other anymore. At first, we were not open to each other but tried to be nice. Gardening together and working in a team with her, I became much more comfortable with her and we got to know each other. We had discussed and exchanged our opinions about the Rohingya issue and had a very deep conversation, respecting each other. She is a knowledgeable, selfless person. When we had completed our tasks, I remember we played music and danced in the cornfields even though we all were tired, and we even danced Harlem Shake together, which is one of my happiest memories in life.

A week later, I was very sick and we were staying at the service project site. It was difficult to go to the clinic and Bipasha was the one who took care of me.  I missed my home so much as I was so sick. She was very kind and took care of me like a mother. She brought me food and medicine, asked me to eat and take the medicine. I would not think in my whole life that a Bangladeshi girl would take care of me while I am sick. We shared our personal stories and laughed together. I have also learned that some Bangladeshis like Burmese products such as slippers. The dishes were also similar such as curry and tea.

Although there are tensions, conflicts, and discrimination between our countries, we could build a friendship regardless of our religion and nationality. We just need to open ourselves to each other and see each person as a human rather than stereotyping based on his or her religion and nationality. We all are just human beings on this planet.

I promised Bipasha that I will visit Bangladesh one day, and I will bring her Burmese slippers and tea.

Written by Hnin Thazin Soe, 2013 Sarus intern from Myanmar