Chicago is home to one of largest Rohingya refugee communities in the United States. Nearly two thousand Rohingya people are trying to build a sense of community on the North Side of the city. Here we are safe, and, for the first time in our lives, we can say who we are. We walk down the street without the fear of being chased by police, and we know we won’t be put in detention or camps again because they have legal papers. But there is a lot of suffering, trauma, and uncertainty behind our faces. The effects of persecution, statelessness, and genocide continue to live with Rohingya people in the United States.
The actions of Myanmar’s military constantly shock the Rohingya people. Since February 2nd, the people of Myanmar have resisted the attempts to carry out a military coup with protests in the streets.
The Rohingya people are from Arakan State in the western part of Myanmar (known as Burma until 1989) bordering Bangladesh. Myanmar became independent from British colonial rule in 1948, but the country has been ruled by a military junta for decades. There have been many twists and turns in the political history of Myanmar. The first constitution was established in 1947. In 2008 it was reformed for a third time and remains as the current constitution. The military juntas governed until 2011, which covers most of its political history.
Rohingya people have suffered significantly from decades of systemic torture by the Myanmar military. There has been no peace for Rohingya. Our citizenship rights were taken away by the 1982 Citizenship Law. We were considered illegal immigrants in our own motherland, and we were made stateless. We have been subjected to murder, land confiscation, rape, torture, and large-scale forced labor. We are denied freedom of movement, access to social services, and education. We are victims of unprovoked violence spread by fear, ignorance, and hate.
The entire Rohingya population has been attacked again and again. Not only did Myanmar’s military dictatorship discriminate against Rohingya, but it also paralyzed the entire Rohingya population. The military’s recent attack on Rohingya in 2017 displaced nearly a million Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh.
Even though members of the Rohingya community in Chicago have a safe roof over their heads, there is no sense of peace in their homes because everyone has left someone behind in Myanmar, in camps in Bangladesh, or in other parts of the world. We try to recover from our past traumas, but we can never fully move forward with our lives because of the Myanmar military’s constant attacks on our family members.
Our daily conversations revolve around the suffering of our people, and when we see each other on the street, we ask about all those left behind. Every conversation is filled with pain. There is no escape from it because our loved ones remain stateless. It is like half of our bodies are functioning and the other half paralyzed.
Myanmar’s military dictatorship resurfaced on February 2nd this year when the military deposed the democratic elections and installed General Min Aung Hlaing as the leader of the country. Most of the leaders of the National League for Democracy—the party that won 396 out of 476 seats in the November 2020 parliamentary election—were detained. Thousands of people have started protesting for democracy across Myanmar against the military coup; hundreds of innocent adults and children have been killed by the military.
When we heard the news in February, it shattered our world. There was a tiny hope in our hearts that we would see justice one day, but the entire country is in mourning now. Our phones started ringing constantly, and voice messages flooded on WhatsApp and Messenger from Myanmar and the Cox’s Bazar camp in Bangladesh. Our Rohingya language is not written, thus our communication depends on voice messaging. The pictures of death were coming one after another, all day and night long.
Abdul Jabbar, a Rohingya who works at Rohingya Cultural Center as a caseworker, says, “Many Rohingya and other communities from Myanmar come here every day for assistance, and they show me photos of death and violent videos. I come to work with a heavy heart assuming that someone has lost one of their family members. I leave work with a broken heart every day; I feel so hopeless knowing that I can’t do anything to change the situation.”
Nasir Zakaria, who is the director of the Rohingya Culture Center tells me, “I opened this home to protect my community; I put my whole heart in serving and assisting my vulnerable community. I feel powerless because I am not able to save my people from the constant pain and trauma they encounter every day.” He also mentions, “Our young children are also affected because their homes are filled with painful conversations; they watch the horrible videos of killings and torture.”
The Rohingya Cultural Center is the heart of the Rohingya community in Chicago. It is everyone’s home and holds the whole community together. It provides a variety of social services ranging from childcare support, after-school programs, Quran, ESL, and citizenship classes to hundreds of Rohingya. Also, it is working with the younger generation so that they can take the community one step forward in the future. The center is playing a vital role in serving the Rohingya and other refugee communities, but it needs public support to carry on the work that it has been doing for five years.
Many of us have families in Myanmar who rely on us to send money because the government prohibits the Rohingya from holding jobs. We have a system here, but our families can’t set up a bank account, so we have no legal way to support them. Our money changes many hands, and in the end, they receive very little.
The majority of people in our community are illiterate. Of the few who can speak English most cannot communicate about all the different struggles they have endured. Many don’t get the chance to recover from the psychological effects of persecution, statelessness, and the genocide being committed.
The Chicago Rohingya community wants to say that our hearts are broken to see the suffering every day, but the spirit and fight for democracy is admirable. We are one, and democracy has to prevail.
The real dilemma Rohingya face is where we stand in the political system of Myanmar now. In the 2020 election, Rohingya politicians were denied participation. Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of NLD remained silent when the military slaughtered, raped, and burned villages of tens of thousands of Rohingya in 2017. A great deal of criticism arose when Aung San Suu Kyi came to defend the military against allegations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in 2019. It is very hard for us to see any national recognition of our existence from the NLD party.
The current crisis of the military coup has shifted the whole conversation around the world. We Rohingya people support our fellow siblings of Myanmar from all ethnicities in the struggle for democracy. We see some forms of acknowledgment of our existence from the people of Myanmar from different communities as many Rohingya living in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, are actively engaged in the protests. Also, many of us living abroad are showing our solidarity through demonstrations and international virtual protests. There is a sense of unity among the people of Myanmar that gives us some hope but at the same time makes us worry because we remain excluded and fragile without the systemic changes and constitutional recognition of our existence as the Indigenous people of Arakan, Myanmar.
There is public support for the Rohingya. But without the political will for real change from NLD leaders, if it gets its power back, the future of nearly a million Rohingya living in Cox’s Bazar camp, Bangladesh, remains uncertain.
As a fellow Rohingya, I urge the international community to stand in solidarity with the struggle to bring democracy to Myanmar and hold the military accountable for the genocidal crimes committed against the Rohingya.
The young protesters are demonstrating clearly by their actions that they yearn for the democracy successfully voted for in the last election. They are the hope for the future. We Rohingya stand shoulder to shoulder with all the people of Myanmar in their fight against the current military coup to end the military dictatorship once for all.