Seated outside of the Metropolitan Market on a recent afternoon, Mohamad Imran said that he appreciates being a member of the Mercer Island community and is grateful to a multitude of residents who welcomed him into their city with warm hearts and open arms about seven years ago.
The locals have given him strength to pave his successful path in a region far away from his former home of Myanmar, where he escaped his violent surroundings by boat at the age of 12, leaving his family behind on a harrowing journey.
After being held captive for a year in a brutal detention center in Malaysia, he received help from the United Nations to come stay with a foster family on Mercer Island, learn English and graduate from high school. Imran, a Muslim Rohingya, now studies business at Bellevue College and became a United States citizen last August.
This month, the 21-year-old received a Transforming Lives Award from the Washington State Association of College Trustees. Garnering the award is meaningful for him and he credits Islanders — especially teachers and students at Mercer Island High School (MIHS) — for helping place it in his hands through their invaluable guidance and support.
“I was so honored to receive this award as a Bellevue College student. It also represents my school, too, and my Rohingya community,” he said. “I really hope my story will inspire other people to speak out for helping each other (and) bring awareness for the people, because what is the point of living in the world, in this Earth, if we don’t impact positively one another?”
Imran still resides with his foster family on the Island, a bonding that formed through a connection with Refugees Northwest.
“Mohamad has made such an impact on all of the lives he’s touched, from his teachers and classmates at MIHS, to our friends and family. His positive outlook and tireless advocacy for the Rohingya people helps others to see resilience in action,” said his foster mother, who chose to remain anonymous.
At the market, Imran flashes an infectious smile as he soaks up the Island scene, but there are copious heavy thoughts that weigh on his mind.
His family members — parents, two brothers and two sisters — have been housed in a massive refugee camp in Bangladesh since 2017 when they fled Myanmar amid the genocide against the Rohingya people. He misses his family greatly and contacts them by phone or email once or twice a week.
Due to a robust Island letter-writing campaign and assistance from a host of legislators, Imran’s 15-year-old brother was sent to the United States last December to reside with a foster family in Kent.
“It was emotional, and I’m really proud of what I have done for him, to my advocacy,” said the 2021 MIHS graduate of their reunion.
Imran would like to transport his entire family to the United States since their safety is at risk by returning to Myanmar and his mother needs better treatment in fighting her cancer. He sends his family 50% of his earnings from his part-time job on the Island to support his mom’s medical needs.
By speaking out for his people, Imran said he is also in danger and couldn’t return to Malaysia or Myanmar if he wished. About a year ago, Imran noted that a Facebooker threatened to kidnap one of his siblings — because Imran lives in the United States — unless they paid an immense amount of money.
“But I will not keep quiet, I will keep going,” said Imran, who would like to discuss helping the Rohingya people with President Biden. Imran then played a video on his phone where Biden speaks about aiding the Rohingya. “It’s just not for myself. It will be representing over four million Rohingya people worldwide, including my sibling. And over 700 children are dying.”
Imran felt that if he wasn’t smuggled out of Myanmar, he would have perished in the genocide. While he was detained in Malaysia, within the uncleanly center and among the sick and underfed refugees, Imran didn’t think he’d make it out alive.
During one of the darkest times of his life, Imran said it was a miracle that United Nations representatives rescued him and pointed him toward a better life in the United States, and on Mercer Island.
He becomes emotional speaking about the horrors he faced while being separated from his loved ones, but pride beams through the gloom when he discusses leaving Myanmar.
“I’m truly proud of what I have accomplished and what I am doing right now. I have a very big goal in the future to get my college degree, and I really want to bring my family here. I’m also really proud of (being) the first person in my village, in my community, in my family who had a high school diploma and soon who will have the college degree,” said Imran.
LIFE ON THE ISLAND
As a newly-minted United States citizen, who passed the rigorous test on the first go, Imran reckons he’s found the ideal place to continue his life’s path. He might have been born in Asia, but feels his heart is American, he added.
“The positive impact that my community has had on my life cannot be overstated, and I am filled with deep gratitude and appreciation for them,” he said of the Island community.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees placed Mercer Island on Imran’s radar as one of the cities near Seattle with a foster family available in housing an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum.
Imran had a hunch that the Island would be a good match for him and leaned in that direction. He was spot-on with his decision and said he landed right where he belongs.
Taking flight on a plane — first from Malaysia to Hong Kong to Los Angeles and finally to SeaTac — for the first time was a scary experience for the teen, who found it difficult learning a new language, culture and environment upon his arrival. Teachers and residents provided mental and emotional support, advice, guidance and more to make him feel at home and thrive in the classroom.
“That’s why I couldn’t be more grateful for them. I was never able to express my gratitude for them, what they have done for me,” said Imran, who won a math department award at MIHS that motivated him to elevate his diligence, confidence, perseverance and dedication at Bellevue College and beyond. It’s been a priceless, fantastic experience, he said.
It was significant for the second-year Bellevue College student to share his life story with legislators and others during the award presentation in Olympia for the six statewide recipients. Imran lists Gary Locke, Bellevue College interim president and former Washington state governor, as one of the people providing inspiration during the student’s crucial years on campus.
At Bellevue College, “Building the community is, for me, way more important than a college degree,” said Imran, who plans to use the $500 from the award to help refugees in Bangladesh.
“Mohamad’s journey to higher education — and his work on behalf of his family and the Muslim Rohingya people — serves as an inspiration to us all,” said Merisa Heu-Weller, chair of the Bellevue College Board of Trustees, in a press release. “He’s overcome inconceivable obstacles to transform his life, but in the process, he’s transformed our lives as well. No one who hears his story will ever forget it.”
Imran’s book, “The Rohingya Struggle,” written with Dawn Schiller, is available at: a.co/d/7rLmoaA.