From Malaysia to Utica, Refugee Adapts to Life in U.S.

Although the family spent the majority of their lives in Malaysia, their refugee status lists their country of origin as Myanmar due to the resettlement process, one that is complicated to understand.

With a textbook similar in dimension to the Yellow Pages and chapters covering everything from the pre-Columbian era to present day, reading is a core element of Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH), which would challenge any student, let alone one who is a self-taught English speaker of only two years.

Mohamad Faiz Kamal Ahmad, 20, is nearing the halfway point of his junior year at Thomas R. Proctor High School in Utica, New York. He is challenging himself this semester by taking upper-level courses, like APUSH, to earn future college credit, an opportunity he would never have had in his home country.

Mohamad Faiz Kamal Ahmad, 20, holds a neighbor’s kitten. (Photo by Samuel Northrup)

In cooperation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR), Kamal Ahmad and his family moved from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as refugees and have called the city of Utica home since September 2015. Parents Kamal Ahmad Bashir Ahmad, 51, a Rohingya originally from Myanmar, and Afifah Haji Ashari, 45, from Indonesia, sought economic opportunity as well as an improved education for Kamal Ahmad and his two siblings Mohammad Fariz, 14, and NurShafiqah, 10.

Although the family spent the majority of their lives in Malaysia, their refugee status indicates their country of origin as Myanmar due to the resettlement process, one that is complicated to understand.

Once Bashir Ahmad and Haji Ashari arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the family of five spent far more time in Malaysia than Myanmar. The parents, who met at a restaurant where they worked as cooks, married in 1996 (Haji Ashari did not take a married name for cultural reasons).

Due to their undocumented immigration, both had trouble becoming Malaysian citizens and the same problem persisted when the couple tried to get official identification — like birth certificates — and citizenship for their children. The Malaysian government then designated Kamal Ahmad and his family as refugees, which allowed them to remain in the country.

Each family member is also stateless, with the exception of Haji Ashari’s status as Indonesian, resulting in the designation of Myanmar as their country of origin based on the primary applicant’s birth place when applying for refugee resettlement (in this case Bashir Ahmad’s).

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a stateless individual is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law,” while a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.”

Although Kamal Ahmad’s parents did not leave their home countries over fear for their safety, and the children were born in Malaysia, the family had the opportunity to come to the U.S. through the IOM in 2015 because of their refugee status.

Statelessness was the root cause for Kamal Ahmad’s family to leave Malaysia as the lack of a birth certificate and any identification forced the eldest son to drop out of school before sixth grade.

Years later, the young man without a state would leave his home country to start anew.

Family Dynamics

As the airplane took off en route to the United States, the first thing Kamal Ahmad remembers feeling was the rise off the ground — the first of many new experiences.

The family endured a nearly 24-hour long flight that took them from Malaysia to Hong Kong and then to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.

The map below can be moved by clicking and dragging while view can be zoomed in or out using the “+” and “-” selections at the bottom-left corner. Click each point to read a detailed description of how each area relates to the family’s story.

“It was a whole new atmosphere, a whole new situation where the driver’s seat was on the left and not right,” said Kamal Ahmad, citing an example with a smile. “Everything changed, like using metric units. Every system here is different.”

Upon arrival, the family was picked up by members of the MVRCR and taken to Utica where the resettlement process would begin. This required numerous trips to the refugee center and Kamal Ahmad’s active participation to fill out forms and paperwork in English.

Five different languages are known in the family’s household: Bashir Ahmad’s native Rohingyalish and Burmese, Haji Ashari’s Indonesian, Kamal Ahmad’s native Malay — and now English. Having learned some of the language at school in Malaysia, Kamal Ahmad had the most experience using English.

(From left to right) Mohammad Fariz, Bashir Ahmad, NurShafiqah, Haji Ashari and Mohamad Faiz pose for a family picture. Photo by Samuel Northrup

Both parents are still learning, with Haji Ashari taking English classes through the MVRCR, so Kamal Ahmad translates conversations to them in Malay.

“Their burden is carried away,” said Kamal Ahmad, translating his father speaking on the effect his eldest son has had helping with interpretations.

Now settled into their new home, two years later, the family of five navigates Utica and surrounding areas as a unit, something that was difficult for them to do in Malaysia because of Bashir Ahmad and Haji Ashari working long hours.

Kamal Ahmad’s father works as a custodial engineer at the Turning Stone Resort Casino from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. almost every day, and his mother is a homemaker. The family spends free time together shopping at Burmese markets on South Street and visiting popular destinations like Pixley Falls State Park and Enchanted Forest Water Safari.

With Bashir Ahmad’s connection, the family has become a part of Utica’s Myanmarese community. Since their arrival, they have been invited to various dinners, religious events and weddings.

The interactive graph below shows the number of accepted Myanmarese refugees in the U.S. compared to all other countries from 1990, the year refugees of this nationality began arriving in the U.S., to 2016. Place your cursor over each point to display the year’s exact value.

This growing community was the family’s main support system in the area, helping them to move into their home, filling out paperwork and finding places to shop.

“We treat them as family since we don’t have any relatives here,” he said. “We made them as our family.”

Now that they are settled into the Utica area, Kamal Ahmad and his family have been returning the favor by helping newcomers with transportation and translation.

“The first time we came here, people helped us, so we pay them back by helping newcomers,” said Kamal Ahmad for his parents. “They (his parents) feel sorry for them because they have no relatives here. They have no transportation, no support, so we’re there to help them.”

While the family feels welcomed in Utica, Kamal Ahmad and Haji Ashari want others to know that refugees are “no different than anyone else.”

“We’re not dangerous, we’re not terrorists,” said Kamal Ahmad, translating for his mother. “We are just people who ran away from persecution, from being thrown away by the government that doesn’t accept us being their citizens. We’re humans, too.”

NurShafiqah Kamal Ahmad, far right, and friends enjoy a warm fall night on the trampoline. Photo by Samuel Northrup

Adapting and Excelling

While moving to the U.S. was a process, it was the little changes that Kamal Ahmad first noticed. Arriving in New York in the fall, it was difficult for him not to feel the difference in weather compared to Malaysia’s tropical climate.

“Before [in Malaysia] it was only two seasons, summer or rain seasons,” he explained. “When we got here it was fall, the leaves had all fallen and you could only see branches. It was so beautiful, and we took many pictures.”

The same went for the ensuing season he experienced in Upstate New York, his first winter.

“That was really amazing,” Kamal Ahmad said. “That was like one of the golden moments of my life. I never even touched a flake of snow. It was wild and jaw dropping. The first snowfall, it was during the end of the fall season, so I went outside and played with the snow even though it was just a tiny bit of snow.”

At the same time the winter months began, so too did Kamal Ahmad’s first day of school, something he had not experienced in close to two years.

While in Malaysia, Kamal Ahmad received an education from two different systems after having to stop public schooling due to his lack of identification and a birth certificate. His parents wanted him to receive an education, so he switched to homeschooling.

At the age of 14, he began education through a non-government organization that based its curriculum on the British educational system until the age of 17 when he was forced to leave school again because of his family’s inability to afford a final exam that would allow him to graduate and receive credit for college. Kamal Ahmad then worked at a gas station in Kuala Lumpur, called Petronas, washing cars and learning to become a cashier.

Almost a year later, he began attending Proctor High School, where his first day was a struggle, especially when trying to understand his class schedule and navigating the hallways.

Despite being 17 years old, Kamal Ahmad had to start from the beginning at Proctor by taking freshman classes, something he was self-conscious about.

“I didn’t want it to be weird, a 17 year old in 14- or 15-year-olds’ classes,” he explained. “I didn’t want to say that out loud, I just said it to my teachers. I usually lied to students and my friends, you know like ‘Hey, I’m 15 years old, too.’”

Connecting with peers was the most trying experience for him, something that is difficult for many students, let alone one trying to further grasp the English language.

“It was so hard at first,” Kamal Ahmad said. “The first three or four months I just sat alone in class, I didn’t talk to anybody other than teachers. I just sat alone. In the cafeteria, I just sat alone. That’s the worst thing, just sitting there alone at a table with some other kids that I didn’t talk to, there I saw other people chatting at other tables.”

After realizing American high school students tended to form “homogenous” groups based on interest, race or both, he became frustrated.

Kamal Ahmad explained that students in Malaysia only had one classroom comprised of multiple ethnicities, such as Chinese and Malay, so it was easier for those same classmates to get to know one another.

At Proctor, his fellow students did not approach him on their own, so Kamal Ahmad became determined to find a way to connect with them. Once he began pushing himself to interact with peers, everything fell into place.

“If I don’t talk to people it makes me feel left out,” he explained. “I always want to fit in and engage.”

Samuel Northrup is a senior at Utica College. He can be reached at


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