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The Rohingya Refugee Crisis—and How You Can Help

“Now is not the time to close our doors on those seeking shelter from persecution”: @RefugeeOne provides personal insight into the Rohingya refugee crisis and how each of us can help Tweet This

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“He felt very sorry when he saw me, because he knew I would be killed.”

Jani Alam fled his native Burma alone, on foot, after escaping from a detention camp at age 19. A member of the Rohingya ethnic minority, Alam had been jailed under laws that reflect decades of escalating persecution.

Officially stripped of their citizenship in 1982, the Rohingya have been prohibited from working, owning businesses, traveling, attending school or seeking medical care. For breaking a 6:00 p.m. curfew, or gathering in groups of 3 or more, Rohingya are subject to arrest and detention in forced labor camps.

In recent months, as security forces and local militia have been reported burning Rohingya villages and shooting civilians en masse, the United Nations human rights chief declared it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

 

Seen from behind, a crowd of people seated in chairs faces a speaker at a podium and a projection screen
What is the Rohingya crisis, and what can Chicagoans do to help? RefugeeOne, which was among the first organizations to serve Rohingya refugees, hosted a panel session with first-person accounts of the unfolding genocide in Burma and the effects of changing American refugee policy. As executive director Melineh Kano told the crowd, “Now is not the time to close our doors on those seeking shelter from persecution.”

 

Alam shared his story at an event organized by RefugeeOne, exploring the Rohingya refugee crisis—and what each of us can do to help.

Executive director Melineh Kano opened the event by providing context on the situation in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma, the name used by Alam and other speakers) and the policy response from the United States. RefugeeOne was among the first organizations to serve Rohingya refugees, beginning in 2010. Today Chicago is home to one of the country’s largest Rohingya communities, with more than 350 families.

Kano explained how, before being permitted into the country, political refugees go through “an extensive vetting process—the most extensive of any immigrant group.”

Last year, RefugeeOne supported more than 1,600 refugees arriving in the Chicago region, nearly half of whom are children. With the help of their financial and social support services, 95% of the organization’s clients become fully self-reliant within twelve months of arrival.

A longtime grant recipient of The Chicago Community Trust, RefugeeOne has recently received funding from the Illinois Immigration Funders Collaborative, housed at the Trust, as well as from the Trust’s Unity Fund, directing donor dollars efficiently towards critical needs among vulnerable families in Chicago.

Chicago is home to one of the country’s largest Rohingya communities, with more than 350 families.

But last fall, the Trump administration announced that it was lowering the annual entry cap on refugees from 110,000 to 45,000. In reality, given the backlog of applications and the current pace of operations, the United States is on track to welcome less than half that number in 2018.

Against this backdrop, the humanitarian crisis in Burma blazes. The country is home to more than 135 distinct ethnic groups, speaking more than 108 languages. The predominantly Muslim Rohingya numbered 1.1 million, before increasing repression and violence erupted into acts of ethnic cleansing last year.

Within the past eight months, nearly 70% of the Rohingya have fled—most to refugee camps in Bangladesh, or to live undocumented in Malaysia.

“Now is not the time to close our doors on those seeking shelter from persecution,” Kano said.

 

A man stands behind a podium speaking into a microphone
Jani Alam was one of thousands arrested and detained in Burma’s prisons or forced labor camps under increasingly restrictive laws against the Rohingya minority. Escaping on foot, he crossed several countries and spent years in Malaysia before being granted entry to the United States in 2011. Fluent in nine languages, Alam now works as an interpreter and outreach worker for RefugeeOne—and earned his citizenship last year.

 

After Jani Alam’s arrest at age 18, he recognized one of his prison guards as a former school classmate’s father. “He felt very sorry when he saw me, because he knew I would be killed,” Alam said.

The guard agreed to help Alam escape, on the condition that he left the country and never returned. Without saying goodbye to his brothers and sisters, Alam set out on foot across the border, through Bangladesh and India, then to Thailand and finally to join relatives living in Malaysia.

Alam stayed for 13 years: falling in love, getting married, starting a family. But as undocumented residents, his children had no access to school or the benefits of citizenship. With the help of United Nations refugee outreach workers, the family applied for resettlement in the U.S.

They arrived at O’Hare on December 1, 2011—the fifth Rohingya family in Chicago. RefugeeOne was waiting at the airport to welcome them.

Within three months, Alam had a job at a factory. He completed an English class at RefugeeOne, then enrolled at Truman College—working from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., taking classes from 5 to 9:30 at night, traveling entirely by bicycle.

As Kano said, “His story is one of strength, determination and persistence.”

Within three months, Alam had a job at a factory. He completed an English class, then enrolled at Truman College—working from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., taking classes from 5 to 9:30 at night, traveling entirely by bicycle.

Today, Jani Alam’s two daughters are in fourth and fifth grade; his son starts school in the fall. Fluent in nine languages, he works as an interpreter and outreach worker for RefugeeOne. Last year, Alam and his wife became United States citizens.

“It is important to me to help my community, and refugees from all over the world,” Alam said. “I feel like it is one way I can pay back the help and support people have given me over the years.”

 

A woman stands behind a podium, speaking and gesturing with her right hand
Elyse Brendlen described her experience banding together with friends to sponsor a Rohingya refugee family arriving in Chicago. Working around the language barrier—with resourcefulness, patience and the help of Google Translate—their team provided a familiar and supportive presence to help the family navigate their new hometown. 95% of RefugeeOne’s clients become fully self-reliant within twelve months of arrival.

 

“When I decided I wanted to be a co-sponsor, I had never heard the word Rohingya before,” said Elyse Brendlen.

In late 2016, she and her friends were galvanized into action by the increase of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Brendlen had already served as a volunteer mentor with RefugeeOne; now she helped organize a sponsor team. Together, they would provide a support system for a newly arriving refugee family: greeting them at the airport, helping them settle into their new home and acclimate to a new culture.

With the civil war dominating the headlines, the friends expected to be matched with a displaced Syrian family. Instead, in mid-February, they received word that they’d be sponsoring a Rohingya couple and their child—arriving in just two days’ time.

The friends sprang into action: gathering household supplies and starting a crash course in Rohingya culture. As they learned about the years of persecution that had escalated to genocide, Brendlen said, “We were shocked that his had been going on. We felt embarrassed that we had no idea.”

The arriving family spoke no English—like most, they spoke only Rohingya and Malay. Rohingya is entirely a spoken language, with no writing system. Moreover, Rohingya refugees arriving in the U.S. have been living without documentation in Malaysia for years; barred from attending school there, many speak and understand Malay but lack reading or writing skills.

With all these layered barriers, “it was frustrating not to be able to communicate,” said Brendlen. “But we could laugh together, and that was a relief.”

They received word that they’d be sponsoring a Rohingya couple and their child—arriving in just two days’ time. “I had never heard the word Rohingya before… We were shocked that his had been going on. We felt embarrassed that we had no idea.”

The sponsor group (with the help of Google Translate) made sure that the family was connecting with the services and resources they needed. They arranged regular walkthroughs of the family’s apartment in the early days to help troubleshoot: Did they understand which foods needed to be stored in the refrigerator? Had they been able to navigate the local laundromat?

Asked about their greatest challenge, Brendlen identified a need that Jani Alam would later echo: tutoring support for children. Many parents in refugee families struggle to help their children with schoolwork in English, and Rohingya parents without school experience of their own face additional challenge. The sponsor team found themselves wishing for more tutoring experience, to help fill the gap for their partner family.

But as their relationship grew, the sponsors were able to fill in other important gaps—from making service appointments, to tracking down a favorite brand of cereal, to providing a consistent ally in an unfamiliar place. “We were strangers to these people, and we would show up twice a week to their apartment, and they would be so welcoming,” Brendlen recalled.

“We would bond over what felt like really human moments.”

 

A man wearing glasses stands behind a podium speaking into a microphone
Critical care specialist Dr. Zaher Sahloul created MedGlobal to respond to humanitarian crises like that unfolding in his native Syria. After a recent trip to the Rohingya refugee camps of Bangladesh, Sahloul observed, “The picture is the same. The tent is the same. The suffering is the same.”

Twenty years ago Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a critical care specialist and pulmonologist, learned about the Rohingya from a second-generation refugee living in Saudi Arabia. Sahloul didn’t think much more about the encounter in the years that followed.

Sahloul is the president and co-founder of MedGlobal, dedicated to addressing the health needs of the most vulnerable across the world. In 2016, he was named one of Chicago magazine’s Chicagoans of the Year for his emergency relief work in Aleppo.

Born and raised in Syria, Sahloul was deeply absorbed in recently years by the civil war unfolding there. “I started to hear about the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2011,” Sahloul remembered. “But I was not paying attention.”

Last fall, Sahloul traveled with Senator Dick Durbin and Rep. Jan Schakowsky on a mission to Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. Senator Durbin has described the campaign against the Rohingya as “a horrifying humanitarian crisis.” He was among 14 senators who introduced the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2018 (S. 2060), calling for sanctions against the Burmese government and military and the appropriation of funds for humanitarian aid.

Sahloul and MedGlobal’s diverse team brought medical supplies and volunteered in the camps’ clinics, which treat the ailments of 200 to 250 patients each day: severe malnutrition; chronic disease left untended for years due to Burma’s prohibition against Rohingya receiving medical care; profound trauma from the horrors they fled.

He described the camps, each housing 200,000 to 300,000 refugees, as eerily familiar from his work in Syrian refugee camps. Sharing a photo from his visit, Sahloul said, “The picture is the same. The tent is the same. The suffering is the same.”

Sahloul urged Americans to apply political pressure on the President to raise admission caps in the face of our current global crises. “Use your voice, use your vote, to make sure that the U.S. is open to refugees,” Sahloul encouraged.

“This is part of our values as a people. This is part of our myth as a country. And we need to preserve that.”

 


What You Can Do:
Tell Congress to protect the Rohingya & welcome refugees

“Being an advocate doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming,” says Jims Porter, policy and communications coordinator for RefugeeOne. Porter shared three simple actions that every one of us can take to make a difference in this crisis.

1. Call your elected leaders.
Dial (202) 224.3121 three times to be connected with your Representative, and each of your Senators.

2. Ask your Representative to:

  • Pass the Burma Act of 2017 (HR 4223).
  • Tell the Administration to resettle 45,000 refugees this year, and set the 2019 refugee admissions ceiling at 75,000.

Ask your Senators to:

3. Spread the word to your friends.
Visit the RefugeeOne website for more information and stories about the refugee experience. Share on social media, and talk with your friends, family & neighbors to recruit them as advocates for refugees building new lives in the United States.

As Melineh Kano, RefugeeOne’s executive director says, “It is only through raising our collective voice that we really can implement change in our policies.”

 


A fact sheet reads Tell Congress to Protect the Rohingya and Welcome Refugees
To help spread the word, you can save and share this image from RefugeeOne listing three simple steps for action on the Rohingya genocide.