The Rohingya in Chicago: A persecuted Muslim minority with a mission

At the Rohingya Culture Center of Chicago, recent immigrants learn life skills.


By Bob Chiarito

As a Muslim minority Rohingya in Myanmar (also known as Burma), 30-year-old Abdul Jabbar Amanullah was never a citizen of a country until he came to America in 2012. That’s because several years before he was born — in 1982 —the government of Myanmar stripped the Rohingya of citizenship, beginning another chapter in a long history of discrimination and persecution against the 800,000 person minority in a country of 50 million.

Discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar goes back generations, but in 2013 the Burmese army stepped it up, beginning a campaign of violence against their minority inhabitants, prompting the United Nations in 2016 to list the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar among the most persecuted people in the world.

Amanullah escaped Myanmar at 13, fleeing to neighboring Thailand and then Malaysia with an uncle, but over the next 15 years he was arrested 10 times in Malaysia for being an illegal alien, imprisoned and sent back to Thailand, where each time he knew he had to get back to Malaysia because Rohingya in Thailand are almost treated as harshly in Myanmar, where he knew he could never return for fear of being killed. Eventually, with the help of the U.N., Amanullah made his way to the United States in 2012, coming to Chicago, where 1,000 Rohingya refugees have resettled, nearly one-fifth of the Rohingya refugees resettled across the United States.

In Chicago, Amanullah works at the recently opened Rohingya Cultural Center in Albany Park, opened and funded by the Zakat Foundation of American, a Muslim charity ,where his job is the same as the center: to help refugees like himself assimilate to a new culture; to help facilitate more immigration; and to spread the word about the atrocities they are facing in Myanmar, as foreign media is banned from their homeland.


(For a slide show of recent victims, scroll to the bottom of this article)

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in a country of 54 million people, 90 percent being Buddhists. Most live in Myanmar’s border state of Rakhine. For generations, Rohingya Muslims have been discriminated against by the government and majority of the population of Myanmar but conditions grew worse in 1962, when there was a regime change in the country, according to Vikram Nehru, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In 1982, life for the Rohingya got tougher when they were stripped of their citizenship and denied basic rights to things like education and health care. Then in 2013, religious tensions heightened and many Rohingya villages were burned down, forcing nearly 200,000 into designated camps. For the Rohingya in the camps, life is especially hard.

“Their movement is restricted in the country so many can’t find jobs and for those in the camps, their movement is completely restricted. Life in the camps is so difficult that many have decided to put their lives in jeopardy by leaving in small boats in order to escape that situation,” Nehru said.

Many have died fleeing to neighboring Thailand, and for those who do make it, life is not much better than in Myanmar.

“There are no estimates on how many have been killed leaving but those who fled by sea and ended up in Thailand have been abused there,” Nehru said. “There have been many graves discovered there.”

Nehru said it’s important for outsiders to realize that the Rohingya have been scapegoated for Myanmar’s problems for generations and because the majority of people in Myanmar are not sympathetic to their cause, things are not likely to change anytime soon.

“There is a unity of opinion among the non-Rohingya in Burma, whether they are in the elite or poor, that the Rohingya do not belong in the country. So, the government has two handicaps. One is public opinion. Anything they do as far as giving the Rohingya rights to citizenship will immediately make them unpopular with the majority. Secondly, security is supplied by the army and they are independent of the political leadership. The army has a long history of antagonism toward the Rohingya and will continue to do whatever they want without any influence from politicians,” Nehru said.

The government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has continually denied any abuses have taken place.

In October 2016, the violence in Myanmar escalated again after the Rohingya, in an unprecedented move, attacked the Burmese army. Nehru said the action of the Rohingya was a first and that the reaction of Myanmar has been disproportionate.

“I don’t think there are any examples of Rohingya militancy. They aren’t organized and have always been in a defensive posture,” Nehru said. “For the last few years I’ve been on the lookout for any signs of militancy that may be creeping over the [neighboring] Bangladesh border because the eastern part of Bangladesh is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. There have been reports that Islamic extremist groups that have been active in Bangladesh have been crossing the border, but those are unverified and difficult to say, but in my mind it was only a matter of time.”

Nehru said if the Rohingya try to fight violence with violence, it will likely backfire on them, both in the court of world opinion and in the cost of lives.

“If that happens, there will be very tough repercussions for the Rohingya community by the army and the majority population. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that won’t happen because I think the consequences would be terrible and it would turn off people who view their cause as a righteous cause,” Nehru said.

He stressed that the attacks on the army by the Rohingya were relatively small and that the response has been disproportionate.

“There has been a huge and disproportionate response by the Burmese army. Human Rights Watch has satellite pictures of entire villages being burned out. Eyewitnesses say many have been killed but none of this can be verified because no outsiders have been allowed in. No media or humanitarian agencies have ben allowed there. The U.N. was granted access but only in a limited area,” Nehru said.

The U.N. issued a 50-page report last week on the government crackdown since October, saying that the army and police have slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children, gang-raped women and girls, and forced as many as 90,000 Rohingya Muslims from their homes.

“The gravity and scale of these allegations begs the robust reaction of the international community,” said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, whose office released the report.

Two months before the U.N. report, Human Right’s Watch issued a statement saying that “The Burmese military has conducted a campaign of arson, killings and rape against ethnic Rohingya that has threatened the lives of thousands more.”

The government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has continually denied any abuses have taken place.

Before the recent violence in Myanmar, on September 14, 2016, President Obama ended nearly 20 years of economic and financial sanctions on Burma. Asked whether the Trump administration would re-evaluate its position, a State Department spokesman said, “Last year’s executive order terminating the sanctions remains in place. We do not comment on potential future sanctions actions.”

Asked about Rohingya individuals being raped and killed by the Burmese army, the spokesperson said “As we have consistently said, we are deeply concerned by allegations of violence, forced displacement, and human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine State. We continue to engage the Burmese government at the highest levels to encourage security forces and civilian authorities to respect human rights, hold accountable those responsible for crimes and abuses, and allow full and unimpeded humanitarian access to affected areas in northern Rakhine.  We look forward to the forthcoming report of the Burmese government’s Rakhine Investigative Commission.  We urge that it conduct its investigation in an independent, impartial, and transparent manner and ensure full accountability for any abuses.”

In Chicago at the Rohingya Cultural Center of Abdul Jabbar Amanullah said he wishes the United States would do something to help his people.

“The United States is the most powerful nation in the world. Please help our people,” Amanullah said.

What type of help the U.S. can and will provide is debatable. Myanmar and Burma are not among the 7 countries in listed in President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from so groups like the Rohingya Center of Chicago hope that refugees are continued to be allowed to immigrate here.

In December, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called for foreign intervention in Myanmar to stop what he called “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslims. But help in the form of military intervention by the U.S. or U.N. is highly unlikely, according to Nehru.

“There are many groups that are suffering this type of persecution. If you have intervention in one country, it raises the justification for intervention in other countries. Frankly, it’s not going to happen,” Nehru said.



Abdul Jabbar Amanullah

Abdul Jabbar Amanullah

For Abdul Jabbar Amanullah, his journey is much like many other Rohingya who now call Chicago home.

He escaped Myanmar at the age of 13 with an uncle, hiking through dense jungle to sneak into neighboring Bangladesh. There, they stayed at a hotel for a month until they could get a fake passport to get into Thailand. Because Thailand isn’t friendly to Rohingya immigrants, they did not plan to stay long and after a month there crossed the border into Malaysia illegally. Amanuallah and his uncle were caught however, and detained in a Malaysian jail for 28 days before being deported back to Thailand. It was the first time he was arrested but over the next 15 years he would be arrested in Malaysia 10 times for being there illegally. Amanuallah explained that he would usually be detained for between a few days and several months before being sent back to Thailand and forced to wear only underwear and being fed minimally. Despite that, he said he would continue to sneak back into Malaysia, usually buying his way in through corrupt “agents” who supplied documents and a path to cross the border — sometimes via underground tunnels — because life in Thailand wasn’t pleasant for Rohingya immigrants and going back to Myanmar was not an option.

“I cannot go back, they will kill me.” Amanullah said. Eventually Amanuallah applied for political asylum with the U.N. and after 18 months of interviews, he made it to Chicago, where he now works at the Rohingya Cultural Center helping immigrants like himself.

Nasir Bin Zakaria

Nasir Bin Zakaria

Nasir Bin Zakaria shares a similar story as Amanullah, without being deported several times. Zakaria escaped Burma by himself at the age of 14, which was the last time he saw his parents and ten siblings. He said he escaped in a small boat, paddling three hours to get to Bangladesh.

“It was not safe for me in Bangladesh. I stayed there a month working to pay a bribe to get to Thailand,” Zakaria said. “I didn’t have any money so I worked construction and skipped means. Once I got to Thailand I did it all over again and got to Malaysia about two months later,” he said.

Zakaria walked for two days and nights through the jungle to cross the Malaysian border. Once there, he eventually got a job working construction for a Chinese company where he remained for 18 years. He eventually also met his wife in Malaysia and together they had their first child there. In 2013, Zakaria, his wife and daughter appealed to the U.N. to help them get his uncle to the United States for medical treatment. After almost two years of interviews, Zakaria was approved, along with his wife, daughter and uncle.

Zakaria, now 40, works as the general director of the center and has two additional daughters with his wife. The center was his idea — he pitched it to the Zakat Foundation and took a month off from his job as a dishwasher at Rivers Casino in suburban Des Plaines to help open it. He said that he is very grateful for his job at the center, even if he puts in long hours.

“I don’t have a lot of time for my kids but it’s very important for their future and for my people,” he said.

Both Zakaria and Amanullah are green card holders.



For the Rohingya in Chicago, their mission is to keep helping the members of their community who have made it to America while continuing spreading the word about their plight.

Located at 2741 W. Devon Avenue, The Rohingya Cultural Center looks like many other store fronts in Chicago’s Albany Park, but the work being done there is more important than any convenient or mobile phone store, many of which line the street in the neighborhood that many Middle Eastern nationalities call home. The center serves as a education center, offering English classes to adults and kids; an after-school oasis for children; a jobs assistance center; a prayer center for those looking to pray, a communications center where the latest news from relatives in Myanmar is spread; and an overall support center for the Rohingya in Chicago.



Rohingya immigrants learn skills needed to get by in their new country at the Rohingya Cultural Center of Chicago.


Because they have been denied education in their homeland for years, many are ill-equipped to jump right into society upon arrival.

Laura Toffenetti, a retired elementary school teacher who lives near the center has been teaching English as a Second Languages classes at the center five nights a week. She said the Rohingya in Chicago face many challenges.

“They are in a unique situation because they really have only been coming to the U.S. for the last five years,” Toffenetti said. “They don’t have long standing support group and there is a lack of translators in the U.S. Plus, they lost the right of education in their homeland in 1982 so they don’t read. That’s a huge hurdle. Many when they first get here bring me their mail because they can’t distinguish important mail from junk mail.”

She added because many Rohingya cannot read and do not know the language, they are forced into low paying jobs and must also rely on government assistance.

“When you come here as a refugee you are considered a refugee by our government for the first year that you’re here. After that, you’re looked at as just a poor person,” Toffenetti said.

“Try to find a job where you don’t speak the language and can’t read, your options are limited. I’ve also had to translate how organizations in Chicago work, like how to apply for SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps] and healthcare and mutual aid grants,” Toffenetti said.

She added that the Rohingya immigrants in Chicago “the nicest people you’ll ever want to meet and never complain.”



Rohingya children use work on homework and take language classes at the center.


The center has been visited by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, (D-IL), and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, (D-IL), since its opening and is planning a large one-year anniversary celebration in April.

As time goes on, the Rohingya hope to be like the many other ethnic groups in Chicago — keeping their identity while also being considered “American” at the same time.

One sign of assimilation is participating in the American practice of protesting, something several Rohingya immigrants did recently in support of immigrant rights.

“They’ve embraced protesting, which is pretty cool to see considering they have lived their whole lives being told not to open their mouths or they might be killed,” Toffenetti said.

Another right the Chicago Rohingya are beginning to celebrate is freedom of press. The Zakat Foundation has been sending press releases out about the center and the people there have been happy to share their stories. Though they do not publish any formal newspapers or have any media outlet in the U.S. yet, they use social media to get information from friends and relatives back home to shine the light on the atrocities. They have a couple websites and have also been distributing Rohingya Vision magazine, which is published in Malaysia and highlights injustices against the Rohingya people.

“Our story must be told. It’s so important for us and for the thousands who are still suffering overseas,” Zakaria said.


WARNING: Images below are graphic and may be upsetting. After internal conversations, the staff of The Chicago Ambassador decided to run them to show evidence of the atrocities alleged by the Rohingya in Myanmar. Click on any image to begin a slideshow.



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