How does the trauma of persecution continue to affect the mental health of the Rohingya population in the United States? Imran Mohammad Fazal Hoque explores the journey of the Rohingya diaspora in the U.S., investigating the emotional complexity of new lives.
The Rohingya are newcomers to western society, and many have settled in Chicago, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Texas. The Rohingya people have suffered significantly from decades of systemic persecution by their country’s military. They are the Indigenous people of Arakan State in Myanmar, formerly called Burma, a country that has been ruled by a military junta since its independence.
A dozen primary school-aged children sit around desks taking instruction from their tutors, local college students who volunteer as English language teachers at the Rohingya Culture Center in Chicago. The center’s founder, Nasir Bin Zakaria, 40, watches from a distance, nodding in delight whenever a child gets an answer right.
Zakaria, who works full-time as the director of the center, fought tirelessly to create this space for refugees. Opened in April on the busy and popular South Asian corridor along Devon Avenue near Rogers Park, the single-story, open space, with rooms in the back for more private gatherings, is a sanctuary where these new Chicago residents come to feel at home after escaping hardship in Myanmar. A huge map of Myanmar adorns one wall, and an elevated podium serves as a stage for notable events. White boards hang on one side of the wall, which is where children and adults alike come for lessons.
When Nasir Bin Zakaria arrived in Chicago in 2013, there were just around 300 Rohingya families in the city from his native Myanmar, also known as Burma. He said the word Rohingya drew blank stares from Americans he encountered.
“If you asked anyone in the United States: ‘Do you know who the Rohingya are?’ No one did,” Zakaria told NBC News. “People would ask ‘No, what does it mean?’”
The Rohingya people are desperately escaping Myanmar, the country where they have faced persecution for generations. The situation now borders on genocide and more than 500,000 have fled just in the past few months. Though the refugees are mostly in camps in neighboring Bangladesh, they have also been trickling into the United States in recent years. About 400 families have settled in Rogers Park on Chicago’s North Side, one of the country’s largest concentrations of Rohingya.
WEST RIDGE — Rashid Ahmed started working with computers when he was just 7 and his dad brought home a used, $20 device.
The computer barely worked, but Ahmed tinkered with the pieces and eventually managed to completely fix it on his own. He hasn’t stopped tinkering with computers since — and his interest has only deepened since he moved to Chicago as a Rohingya refugee. Despite the hardships his family have faced, he’s found success and plans to build a career in computers.
The 22-year-old graduated with honors from Harold Washington College with an associate’s degree in science in June 2020, then received a certificate in computer information systems from Wilbur Wright College in December.