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By Omar M. Mozaffar
Devon Avenue in Rogers Park is a just few miles long, but it stretches across the world.
Decades ago, it was home to businesses owned mostly by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Ukraine. Today, the scents of Indian, Pakistani and Bengali spices fill the air as residents stroll in saris, hijabs and shalwar kameez. We find Afghans, Palestinians, Syrians and Iraqis also in the mix.
It’s a shame our nation has moved toward immigration restrictions and Muslim bans, slicing into our rich diversity and dimming the aspirations and efforts of many of our new neighbors who, despite their horrific struggles, remain selfless.
Just a few months back, when Halil Demir, executive director of the Zakat Foundation of America — a global relief organization — sought volunteers to help him take supplies to those affected by the Hurricane Harvey in Houston, several people from Devon Avenue’s Rohingya Culture Center stepped up.
The Rohingya Muslims, as anyone who has kept up with international headlines knows, are no strangers to heartache and hardship.
The stateless people from Myanmar have been suffering from ethnic cleansing traceable back to 1962, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the nation, has hardly been sympathetic. She has accused the Rohingya of being terrorists and has prevented entry by human rights investigators. The military, meanwhile, confiscates supplies provided by humanitarian agencies.
In the past seven months alone, as many as 600,000 Rohingya have fled persecution, killing, torture and rape. Some have ended up here. Demir estimates that the RCC — a refugee resettlement program for the Zakat Foundation — hosts 400 Rohingya families.
Demir, who’s from Turkey, says that when he drove South in August with volunteers from RCC, an octogenarian dressed in a business suit — whom I’ll call Ishak — stood out.
During a break from passing out supplies to hurricane victims, the group was guided to the local mosque by a customer at a shop run by a Buddhist from Myanmar. Demir and his friends were greeted there by a man around Ishak’s age. For awhile, the two older men stared at each other. Then, they hugged — a tight embrace that contained more emotion than a mere greeting and pleasantries.
Turns out, they were long lost friends who grew up in the same village in Myanmar.
Military forces drove them out, and they made their way into a refugee camp, where they were eventually kicked out. They traveled by boat and found a temporary home in Malaysia. There, they were separated. They hadn’t seen each other in 40 years — until that chance encounter in Texas.
“That is the story of the Rohingyas,” Demir told me.
It is a story of hope in spite of atrocities. It is a story of kinship with old and new friends. It is not a story of crime, jobs and terrorists, as those favoring immigration restrictions want fellow Americans to believe.
The reality is that we do not have an open-door policy — the path to attaining a green card and citizenship is long and complicated. Yes, problems exist. But homegrown terrorism is a larger problem than anything imported. And many immigrants and refugees do not want to break the law because they do not want to risk deportation. More often, they are victims of crime, rather than perpetrators.
When we shut off immigration, we shut off a lifeline. The Rohingya are here seeking safety and relief from an environment where their loved ones have been butchered. They aren’t the first. We recently made space to help integrate Syrians escaping annihilation in their homelands. Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, president of the local Syrian Community Network, estimates that Chicago hosts 850 Syrian refugees.
It used to be that the Irish immigrants across the country were told not to apply for jobs, yet our city produced a few Irish mayors, and our nation elected quite a few presidents of Irish ancestry.
We have a strain of nativism in our history that seems to be allergic to immigrants. Yet the welcoming of immigrants seems to provide healing.
You don’t need to look any farther than Devon Avenue — or, really, any other busy street in the Chicago area — to witness this spirit. Let’s hope that, instead of sealing our hearts, we open them along with the bridges that welcome those from all corners of the globe.