Building a Community for Rohingya Refugees in Chicago

Building a Community for Rohingya Refugees in Chicago
American Red Cross: Nasir Bin Zakaria
Nasir Bin Zakaria

“We can do so many things when we are organized,” says Nasir Bin Zakaria, reflecting on what he has achieved in Chicago by creating a community space for Rohingya refugees for learning, healing, and advocating.

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar. As a young Rohingya child growing up in Myanmar, Bin Zakaria and his family were in physical danger. He faced discrimination when he was finally able to attend school and the one constant in life was a sense of unpredictability. Over half a million Rohingya refugees have fled violence in Myanmar according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

At the age of 14, Bin Zakaria was captured by the military, driven to the middle of the jungle, and narrowly escaped. “I had never been in the jungle before, but I escaped the group and found the energy to run so fast for so long,” says Bin Zakaria. “I knew I couldn’t go back because the soldiers would kill me.” After a long journey through Bangladesh and Thailand and more than 15 years living in Malaysia, Bin Zakaria connected with the UNHCR to request refugee status. The application process required background checks and five interviews, but after seven years, his refugee status was approved. He arrived in Chicago in August 2013.

As a newly arrived refugee, getting a foothold on life in the United States was difficult. “I felt nervous because I wouldn’t be able to keep up if I wasn’t educated,” says Bin Zakaria, who had attended only a few years of school. He was losing sleep over the losses he had experienced and the challenges of integrating into a new place — and he knew he wasn’t alone in these feelings. Rogers Park on Chicago’s north side is home to about 400 Rohingya families, the largest Rohingya population in the country.

“If I could build one place, it would be easy to help everyone at once. Like a village. Our village,” says Bin Zakaria. In 2016, with the support of the Zakat Foundation, he opened the Rohingya Culture Center where individuals can go to speak their own language with those who understand them and receive vital support during their difficult journey. “It is amazing. Everyone is coming to us to process their trauma — to cry together, to pray together — because we have a place,” says Bin Zakaria.

Bin Zakaria established more than a meeting place. He created a platform for teaching others about the struggle of refugees and the Rohingya people. At a 2017 press conference at the Rohingya Culture Center organized by Bin Zakaria, Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky met with him and members of the cultural center, spoke about a recent fact-finding trip they took to Myanmar and learned more about the atrocities that Bin Zakaria and others like him experienced.

Bin Zakaria is amazed at what is possible when people come together like they have at the Rohingya Culture Center. “With everyone’s support, we can do anything,” says Bin Zakaria.

The Global Citizenship Award is presented by the American Red Cross at the Heroes Breakfast to an individual(s) who volunteered or worked to meet the needs of the world’s potentially vulnerable populations by building safer, more resilient communities and providing needed relief.

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