He stood five-foot-two from the top of his forehead with his chin held high—short enough to lean against the side of the boat without any of his wiry hairs sticking over the edge. Twenty people crowded in a space that would have made ten sardines uncomfortable. A man’s elbow wedged into the side of his neck. A woman holding a crying infant straddled across half his lap on the opposite side. He shifted his legs in constant motion to ward off fatigue from the two others who had come to rest on his bony legs by no will of their own. The boat rocked on the waves, causing many episodes of voluminous vomiting from the souls trapped under the harsh moon of midnight. He wished for pitch blackness, so he couldn’t see their expressions. But the moonlight played its cruel tricks and exposed the true emotions of the weary travelers.
He moved his neck away from the elbow of a man as the woman on his other side couldn’t hold it any longer and threw up across his face. He lifted his arm out of the human traps surrounding him and shimmied it high enough to wipe the vomit from around his mouth. But it didn’t prevent the taste from seeping into his lips. He did all he could to stop himself from joining the grotesque scene. He closed his eyes and waited. What he waited for wasn’t important. What could be worse?
Seven hours. His body cramped in several locations. He had fallen asleep for a time, which coincided with the infant’s lungs finally exhausting themselves to such a degree that the child itself fell asleep. So did the mother. So did he.
A loud voice stirred him from his restless slumber. He glimpsed over the edge of the boat at a few flickering lights in the distance. They had neared the shore. But the two men at the helm argued. Violent words. Panic amongst the cowered passengers ensued. He pulsed upward for a second look, and that’s when he heard the engine approaching.
“You’re in violation of our sovereign waters.”
Lights flashed. An alarm sounded. Additional claims of rights and ownership echoed from the approaching boat, which prompted a first person to jump into the water. Someone screamed. A large shot trailed across the sky. The entire boat shifted back with the men at the helm yelling for everyone to stay down. But no one listened. A rising sensation. A quick shift. Bodies tumbled on top of each other. The side of the boat lifted into the air, expelling body upon body into the dark waters until it was complete. The boat capsized and trapped many under its turned-over belly. Darkness encompassed him as he sank. He looked once at the faint glimpses of skin and bones falling below him. He gasped and hit his head on the edge of the boat, ripping open the side of his cheek. It would have been easier not to fight it anymore—to glide slowly into the deep.
But the light had not yet faded, not at the young age of twenty-two, so he dove under the edge and around three bodies next to him, reaching upward towards the light and the chaos above. He broke through the surface into the air and flailed his arms and pumped his chest for breath once more.
“Help,” he cried in his native Batak language. No one heard him over the roar of the engine and the panicked voices of the few remaining on the surface. The loudspeaker continued to announce its presence.
“Help,” he called again.
He had never swum in his life, so he clung his fingers to the edge of the turned-over boat and waited.
They grabbed him and plopped him over the side of the railing and onto the deck as he panted for air and laid flat on his back. Blood dripped down his left cheek, and a drenched shredded rag clung to his body like the initial layer of mummified cloth. No one spoke to him or even looked at him. He rested in the open space on the deck of the ship and noticed three others on his right as weary as himself. The rest had vanished into the place that no one imagines. Gone. He looked straight into the sky. A flag with a crescent moon, a sun, and red and white stripes fluttered above him. He mumbled a few words and closed his eyes.
They brought them ashore and placed them in a vacant room with cement walls and a fluorescent light illuminating a wooden door. They didn’t bother searching him for identification. He had no possessions on him other than the ragged clothing—thin cut-offs for pants with nothing underneath—a ripped shirt that showed a large burn scar across his chest. He wasn’t only short, but also thin, gaunt. His ribs revealed themselves on each side. The blood had ceased to drip from his dark-skinned cheek. He asked for water, but no one paid attention to him or the three others. The room had no windows. The stale air hung thick and humid like a second layer of wet clothes. Nothing dried, so he sat in the dampness and waited.
Hours passed. They put all four of them in the back of a truck—open air yet caged in with wire-netting on all sides of the frame. His clothes had dried, but he hadn’t been given anything to eat or drink for hours. His pasty mouth clicked when he moved it. Nobody talked. The seventeen missing souls did the talking for them.
Dawn broke through the dark-grey shroud of night as they cruised along a modern divided highway. After an hour, they exited and weaved through the early morning traffic until they stopped in front of a detention center. They separated him from the others and placed him in a blank room, stripped him of his rags, and gave him a light blue cotton pullover shirt with matching pants. They spoke, but not to him. The words swirled around him like a strong wind that turned his head in every direction and left him nothing but confused. One man grabbed his arm and placed his right fingers one at a time on an ink pad and blotted his prints on a square cardboard stock. They spoke again, but he gazed in silence into the wall. One took him by the shoulders and pushed him into a molded plastic chair and left him alone. Again. And he waited.
Thirty minutes passed when a man in a blue decorated uniform, with a badge hanging off his left side, entered with a woman, also wearing a suit. She wore a hijab over her head. She spoke words he could understand, and he glanced at her and provided the answer to her question.
“Musa. I am Musa Marbun.”
A month in the detention center had become routine. Mostly waiting-on-nothing ended up consuming the bulk of his free time. He ate rice with soup and occasionally some curried meat dishes. Refugee and asylum were the two words
he spoke most often to the officials, but Malaysia wanted nothing to do with him. So, he waited.
By the second month, they ushered him into a large room with mats on the floor and a chalkboard on the wall. There were two white people—the palest skin he had ever seen—and they talked to him and the other twenty like him. Many of the other detainees were new to him. It took him a while to understand what they expected of him. Language. That was all. They were teaching him to speak words. “Hello.” “My name is …” “How are you?” “Today the weather is nice.” He picked up many phrases. “Musa is hungry.” “Musa is happy.” He still had no idea how to say “asylum” in this strange language named English.
They gave him papers with letters, and he copied them on the floor of his detention cell. “Dick and Jane play baseball.” He had excellent penmanship even though meaning eluded him. The next time he saw the white man—Duncan was his name—he smiled at him and said proudly, “Dick and Jane play baseball.”
Duncan’s face lit up. “You know how to play baseball?”
“Dick and Jane,” he replied.
“Yes, but what about Musa? Does Musa play baseball?”
“Dick and Jane play baseball.”
That was the closest he came that day to asking about his refugee status in English. He learned useful habits in the detention center. By volunteering to clean up the dishes, he learned that many opportunities presented themselves behind the fenced-in confines. On days that the office near the washroom was empty, he learned he could sneak in and remove a cigarette or two from the pack sitting on the desk
without anyone noticing. Once when an official confronted him as he stood in the office, he fell to the floor as if picking up garbage and fooled the man into thinking he was just
doing his chores. He left in a hurry with three cigarettes in his pocket. He either smoked them himself or pawned them off for other items like trading one for an extra plate of nasi kandar at dinner from another fellow refugee.
After five months in detention, he discovered a broken part of the fence in the back of the open courtyard where he could shimmy himself out of the detention facility completely. For the next two months, he used the detention facility as his place of residence, but he spent much of his time on the outside, walking the streets and discovering ways to make his way in the world. He started on a path towards entrepreneurship after a shopkeeper left the place vacant for a moment one day. He grabbed two cartons of cigarettes and scooted away faster than a refugee fleeing a sinking boat. By the end of the afternoon, he had sold all the packs for a small stack of ringgits, the Malaysian currency. He couldn’t believe his luck nor his wealth. He walked home that night with enough money to start a daily business of buying cigarettes by the carton and selling them per pack or stick. Within weeks, he added to his merchandise, selling Wrigley’s gum, packs of shampoo, combs, lighters, and various sundries.
He always made it back for his meals and his English lessons. The glamorous life of a self-made man ended in a hurry one day when a guard caught him sneaking into the compound carrying his wares. He took all of Musa’s merchandise, hit him twice across the face, and had the workers repair the opening in the fence.
One day, after nearly seven months in the detention center, teacher Duncan seemed to be in a particularly good mood. He gathered Musa and a group of twenty other refugees and explained what was happening.
“You’re all leaving this place. Our church has set up a house where everyone can stay. You will be there until the Malaysian government decides what to do with you. You’ll be able to continue learning English. You will be able to do work and earn money. We will be here to help you.”
Everyone was happy. Including Musa Marbun.
“Thank you, Duncan.”
“What work do you think you would like to do, Musa?”
“I am good at selling,” he replied in his broken English.
“Selling? What do you sell?”
“I sell everything.”
“I would buy from you?”
“Do you want a lighter? Very cheap.”