Pictured above: ZF Executive Director Halil Demir with staff and members of the Rohingya community at the opening ceremony for the Rohingya Community Center.
Omar has spent almost 29 years of his life in search of a real home that he could call his own. As a Rohingya Muslim from western Myanmar, he had to leave his home country, where he was neither recognized as a citizen nor given basic civil rights. After three difficult, precarious decades in several countries he arrived in Chicago, where he was finally able to settle down in safety. Here, he joins the steadily growing number of fellow Rohingya refugees and hopes to enjoy, at last, the comforts of a safe and welcoming community.
Omar’s story is one example of the trials faced by the Rohingya Muslims. Since the formation of the modern nation of Myanmar out of the great wave of decolonization following the Second World War, the situation of the Rohingya has been precarious. For a half-century, Myanmar was torn by civil war and internal unrest, fueled by ethnic and religious tensions within the population. Having always been a vulnerable minority group during this period, the Rohingya were stripped of their rights of citizenship in the early 1980s, and, ever since, they have been without a home to call their own. Persecuted, stateless, and deprived of basic human rights, even forming something as harmless as a community center is very difficult, if not impossible, for the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
The Rohingya are now considered by the United Nations and several human rights organizations to be the most persecuted refugee group in the world. Since 2012, around 300 Rohingya refugee families have made their way to Chicago, where they hope to create better lives for themselves and their children.
This is why the establishment of the Rohingya Culture Center (RCC) in Chicago is a historic event. For the first time, the Rohingya have a place to call their own that can serve as the heart of their community. At the RCC, Zakat Foundation of America (ZF) is utilizing a grassroots model where Rohingya refugees are empowered to lead the culture center by providing culturally sensitive, linguistically appropriate services to the broader Rohingya community, including but not limited to: training in English as a second language (ESL), employment and career workshops, after-school tutoring for refugee students, and programming for cultural, physical, and mental health needs. This unique partnership presents an opportunity for one of Chicago’s growing refugee groups to participate in community-building projects as they begin to establish their lives and become part of the American fabric.
Such an opportunity is not being taken lightly. Another member of the Chicago Rohingya community, who is 53 years old, recently told ZF staff that he had spent nearly 40 years in search of a stable, permanent home before arriving in the U.S. with his family. The Community Center will be a symbol of hope for all people who are deprived of citizenship and forced to flee from oppression.
However, ZF does not forget about those beyond the borders of the U.S. ZF continues to serve Rohingya communities abroad, whether in Myanmar or other countries where the minority group has sought refuge. Earlier this year in Hyderabad, India, for example, ZF distributed rickshaws to the refugees, providing an essential source of income and allowing them to become economically independent. In recent years, ZF has also distributed emergency food aid and seasonal gifts during Ramadan and Udhiya (Qurbani) to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. In refugee communities such as these, social services are basically non-existent, leaving the people vulnerable and impoverished. ZF ensures that they are not forgotten during their time of need and during the most blessed times of the year.
In keeping with its mission to serve those who have been forgotten, oppressed, or ignored, ZF will not cease to honor and uplift the Rohingya community through its programs, whether inside the U.S. or abroad.